Ideas that add up #119

Rewilding, unlike conservation, has no fixed objective: it is driven not by human management but by natural processes. There is no point at which it can be said to have arrived.

I was struck by a thought which now seems obvious. The process is the outcome. The main aim of rewilding is to restore to the greatest extent possible ecology’s dynamic interactions. In other words, the scientific principle behind rewilding is restoring what ecologists call trophic diversity. Trophic means relating to food and feeding. Restoring trophic diversity means enhancing the number of opportunities for animals, plants and other creatures to feed on each other; to rebuild the broken strands in the web of life. It means expanding the web both vertically and horizontally, increasing the number of trophic levels (top predators, middle predators, plant eaters, plants, carrion and detritus feeders) and creating opportunities for the number and complexity of relationships at every level to rise.

One of the most fascinating discoveries in modern ecology is an abundance of trophic cascades. A trophic cascade occurs when the animals at the top of the food chain – the top predators – change the numbers not just of their prey, but also of species with which they have no direct connection. Their impacts cascade down the food chain, in some cases radically changing the ecosystem, the landscape and even the chemical composition of the soil and the atmosphere.

George Monbiot in Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding

There’s tons to savour in this book. The extract is a reminder of the core concept, trophic cascades, famously documented in the dramatic changes that followed the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. It was long assumed that natural systems were controlled only from the bottom up, from plants at the base of the pyramid to top predators at the apex, and that lower layers suffered no consequences from the removal of upper layers.

I especially appreciate Monbiot’s “the process is the outcome” formulation. As for rewilding, so for healing, personal and planetary.

We’ll never get there, of course, wherever “there” might be. We’ll not reverse the damage done, or fix or fully overwrite the flaws in the world that we have made and the people that our world has made us into. But healing starts with recognition, with little steps back towards a not-so-crazy worldview, and back towards our wilder, freer, truer selves.

By setting out on that journey of healing, we heal. By beginning that process of rewilding, we rewild.

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