This is a re-post of a kind of review I wrote elsewhere, thinking about the philosophical thinking that might stand behind George Monbiot’s Feral, a well-written, well-researched book arguing that we need to ‘rewild’ our lands, our seas and ourselves.
His contention is that our world has gradually shifted away from its wild state as we have sought to domesticate and control it. Lands have been stripped of forests and the ecosystems they supported. The seas have been stripped of its plant life. And we are more disconnected from nature and risk than ever before. We should, he says, reintroduce native species, leave the land and sea alone, live wilder lives.
It’s a polemical book that works on two levels: first person stories about a wilder life pull at the emotions whilst its thorough use of zoological research hits the brain.
There is not, though, any theoretical or philosophical reflection in Feral. Monbiot refers to, and quickly dismisses, the political movement known as ‘anarcho-primitivism’ which wants us to move beyond civilisation and regain our previous wilder lives. And he touches fleetingly on some of the societal and political implications of rewilding. But nothing more. And that’s not a problem – philosophy is not his focus and, after all, you can’t cover everything in a book.
Nevertheless, a look at the philosophy of rewilding would have provided an interesting, different and perhaps more complicating perspective
Rousseau, for example, was big on the link between humans and nature for example. For him, there was an original ‘state of nature’ in which humans were free and happy and which have been stripped away through our politics, states and organisation.
Monbiot isn’t arguing that we should return to some kind of ‘state of nature’ but that we should reintroduce elements of the wild (native species, more risk and so on), which would create something new, wilder and less predictable than our current world.
Nietzsche’s thinking is a bit more complex. Humans are very much part of the natural world, he says, and this is manifested in the repetitive, unimaginative and frankly unremarkable lives most people lead. The concept of the ‘herd mentality’ – which he uses to refer to people’s conformity to mass values – is emblematic of this.
But Nietzsche also has his beloved ‘uberman’: the person who isn’t confined by nature’s limits but lives a striving, creative and remarkable life. This person, in a way, exemplifies the kind of wild life that Monbiot wants.
The problem is, of course, that life would be very difficult if everybody lived like this. Monbiot, in fact, points out that it would not be desirable for everyone to uncontained lives not bounded by laws or moral standards. That’s not an issue for Nietzsche, who says that not everybody is capable of this kind of life anyway: it’s only for the select few, the great.
A less radical and more egalitarian view can be found in Thoreau and one of his interpreters, Jane Bennett.
Thoreau, of course, is known to have given up with civilisation for a year or two and retreated to Walden Woods where he built himself a hut and lived a ludicrously simple life. He documented his daily life so we can all enjoy the mundane existence and occasional insights into the links between human and natural life.
Bennett has a very nice concept that she finds in Thoreau’s writings: ‘the wild’. By this she means those parts of existence that can’t be contained or captured, which elide explanation.
There is always an element of ‘the wild’ which exceeds things she says: it’s those desires that can’t be kept in check, for example, those flowers that appear through cracks in the concrete. The thing is to recognise that ‘the wild’ is always there and, rather than contain it, embrace it.
Embracing ‘the wild’ also appears to be a theme in some of the most prominent critical theory today – in the work of Zizek and Badiou, for example. I can’t imagine either would have any particular interest in the environmental debate about rewilding. But I can imagine that a shift to a world where people live wilder, more risky land radically different lives would appeal to them.
Zizek’s concept of ‘the act’ and Badiou’s ‘event’ are both about people, collectively, deciding they want a change and trying to bring it about without knowing what it will result in – in other words, they are about people taking a risk.
There isn’t, as far as I’m aware, a philosophy of rewilding. It’s not hard to see, though, that the ideas of Nietzsche, Thoreau, Zizek, Badiou and I have no doubt many others (Aristotle Spinoza, Deleuze, as well as recent thinking in philosophy of mind about panpsychism…) would add an extra, though not always unequivocal, dimension to Monbiot’s call to rewild our lives.