The news that the residents of a small town in subarctic Canada are teaching the polar bears they encounter to fear humans has strong resonances with wider debates about the future of conservation and environmentalism in the face of global environmental change. Seasonal migration patterns of animals like polar bears have been affected by reduced sea ice in the Arctic alongside other climatic and environmental changes, in this case bringing them more closely in contact with humans for a longer period of the year. These increasingly stressed and hungry polar bears have resorted to attacks on humans, putting a strain on human-polar bear relations in Churchill, Canada.
This story forms part of world-wide picture of community responses to global environmental change and other human induced impacts on their surrounding environments. What is new about recent developments, in comparison to more conventional forms of conservation which have long been a human response to changing environments, is that communities and conservation groups are not intervening to conserve – to try to keep things as they are or stabilise declines in certain populations or environmental quality – rather they are intervening with the explicit motive of altering these environments. The aim of this new wave of projects is to enrich environments and ecosystems in line with understandings of the palaeoecology of the areas – i.e. what the environments would have been like before human influence, shifting the baseline of conservation efforts further back into history – sometimes involving the re-introduction of species which had long left the region and explicit attempts to de-domesticate flora and fauna (as the residents of Churchill have been doing with their polar bears). These initiatives have been labelled ‘Rewilding’.
The mission of the Rewilding Europe project is to ‘rewild’ 1 million hectares of European land by 2020. Some of the projects they support include: increasing Iberian Lynx populations in Western Iberia; the reintroduction of beavers and bison in the Romanian mountains; and improving the habitats of bears, wolves and other wild animals in the Eastern Carpathians of Slovakia and Poland (for more information see here). The commentator George Monbiot has recently argued for similar approaches to be tried in Britain, accusing British conservation groups as having a lack of ambition in failing to push for the reintroduction of carnivores such as wolves into the landscape.
Advocates like Monbiot are particularly concerned with the ‘wildness’ of environments; promoting the creation of wildness through planned and in some cases far reaching interventions and evoking a sense of delight and wonder in the face of the wild. The idea of wildness too has been of interest to geographers who have explored how wildness is constructed and used as a device in debates about land use. With regards to the supposed pristine wildness of the landscape of the Scottish Highlands, geographer Fraser MacDonald has argued that such romantic views mask the human labour which goes into to maintaining such environments, detracting from the lived human experience of these lands and drawing attention only to the visual characteristics of such landscapes.
In a recent paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Jamie Lorimer and Clemens Driessen examine a rewilding initiative in the Oostvaaredersplassen, a public polder near Amsterdam. The polder is on land reclaimed from the sea in the 1960s for an industrial development which was never followed through. Instead the polder was colonised by greylag geese whose intensive grazing of the area eventually made it an ideal habitat for other migratory birds. And in the 1970s the authorities decided to diversify and de-domesticate the land further by introducing red deer. In their account of this initiative Lorimer and Driessen emphasise the accidental or even experimental nature of these developments, in contrast to the close planning and management which have characterised other forms of conservation.
The experiment at Oostvaaredersplassen has proved controversial and grabbed popular attention precisely because of the challenges it raises for conventional understandings of conservation. The experimental environment is not a completely wild one, it was not ‘found’ as we imagine most field science projects to be, but neither does it operate in carefully controlled laboratory conditions. The ecologists working on the area reject theories which would predict the orderly and linear succession of flora on the land , thus adopting a much more speculative approach to their management which is open to surprise and unexpected developments.
It is important for geographers to respond critically to romantic justifications of conservation efforts which conjure up pictures of pristine wildness, or even wilderness, or seem to exclude marginalised human voices from having a say in conservation and landuse decisions. On the other hand, the paradigm of rewilding offers opportunities for geographers to conceive of and intervene in conservation initiatives differently; to become involved in more open-ended experiments including both human and non-human actors, which both acknowledge the labour and intentions of humans and also the potential for environments to develop in unexpected directions.
Jamie Lorimer & Clemens Driessen 2013 Wild experiments at the Oostvaaredersplassen: rethinking environmentalism in the Anthropocene Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Online first
Fraser MacDonald Unwilding Scotland Bella Calledonia, 2 November 2013
How a Canadian town is teaching polar bears to fear humans in order to save them – video Guardian, 25 November 2013
Making Europe a wilder place – interactive Guardian, 15 October 2013
Why are Britain’s conservation groups so lacking in ambition? Guardian, 18 October 2013