Feral by George Monbiot – a review

shoreline jpeg

The Feral Shore

I have promised myself, and some of you, that I would write a review of Feral by George Monbiot.

I enjoyed the book, at least in parts. Although I will try and refrain from Ad hominem criticism (which Monbiot is clearly sensitive to given his wounded reaction to Aggie Rothon’s review on Mark Avery’s blog), I do feel that comment on the style of the book, as well as its content, is justified. Especially when Monbiot uses “celebrity” quotes from people who have no idea of the validity of his arguments, to sell his book.

Monbiots early book “Poisoned Arrows” had a profound influence on me, as I read it at the time when I had chosen to make conservation my life.  On first reading I enjoyed Monbiot’s  Feral forays into his colourful past (dangerous mining camps in Brazil,  living with the Masai in Kenya), coupled with his breathless descriptions of battling the elements (and grey mullet) in Cardigan Bay. But on reflection, it struck me that these were the writings of someone perhaps going through a bit of a mid life crisis, wanting to rekindle his youthful adventures. I concluded that George was “raging against the dying of the light” and projecting his own awareness of the inevitabilty of age and mortality, onto the ultimately fateful  (and fatal) relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. In a way I wish he had explored these feelings in a more philosophical way, rather than channelling his anger and frustration against sheep. Poor sheep  – as any sheep farmer will know, they need no encouragement to kill themselves in imaginative ways. I hope they don’t read George’s book.

Although I understand Monbiot’s intention in interspersing his tales of derring do, with the meatier content of his argument, I think they are a distraction. They also seem a bit macho to me, and I was thinking about skimming through the book again to see how many women he had spoken to or quoted from conversations with, in the book. I don’t think there are any. And this reflects the nature of his argument. Monbiot is clearly a hunter at heart, though he rightly decries the mass conversion of uplands into hunting domains for grouse or deer. I think it’s clear from his prose that he loves the thrill of the hunt and the kill – and I am certainly not criticising him for that. His realisation of “ecological boredom” supports this view that he needs stimulus, of an extreme kind – an adrenaline junkie perhaps. This comes through in his style, but I don’t think it strengthens his arguments. Of course there is nothing wrong with using emotion when making an argument, but only when your philosophical basis is robust.

And this is where I have a big problem, because there is a great contradiction at the heart of Feral.  On the one hand the overwhelming philosophical basis for Monbiots srgument is that nature should be left to itself – the notion of self willed land (which he has developed into a “self-willed land lite” on the back of a great deal of thinking by Mark Fisher) implies at the very least that the land  – however that concept may be constructed (for of course it is itself a construct of the human mind, as far as we can tell) chooses its own path, and anything we do is causing it to stray from its own path. That places humans in the position of observer, which is demonstrably untrue – especially given our impact on the world, over the past 50,000 years.

On the other hand though Monbiot takes up the opposite position, in that he advocates the introduction of extinct species in order to make the land more natural, but by doing so he breaks his own tenet, and denies the self-willed nature of the land. It”s not as though he is talking about reintroducing species that have only become extinct in recent centuries – such as the lynx or wolf. No – he is suggesting, I think in all seriousness, that Elephants should be “re” introduced.

Elephants, if you discount the Mammoth, last occurred in Britain over 100,000 years ago in the last interglacial. Not only this, but the species that occurred here, The Straight Tusked Elephant, is globally long gone (about 40,000 years ago) and there isn’t really anything equivalent around now. This species of elephant was enormous, bigger than the African Savannah Elephant, yet it is thought to have been a forest dweller, though this is more speculation than anything else. Whatever, Monbiot isn’t at the moment suggesting we should reinvent the Straight Tusker, but instead is opting for introducing a proxy, the Asian elephant. This tortuous and ultimately academic argument has taken Monbiot from the position of advocating no human intervention for nature at all, through to introducing a species of mega fauna that has never been native here, because it’s the closest equivalent to a species that was native but has been not been here for over 100,000 years.

Why has he got himself into such a knot? Because he believes that megafauna are the panacea to the future of nature in the UK. He has adopted this position in part because of the theory of Trophic Cascades. Trophic Cascade theory tries to show how by removing apex species, usually predators, causes populations of others species lower in the food chain to grow, to the overall detriment of the whole ecosystem. This theory appears to have some similarity to reality in marine systems. In terrestrial systems, the cause celebre is the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. The Wolves, through creating a climate of fear, have caused deer populations to alter their behaviour, leading to regeneration of forest. All well and good. However, Trophic Cascade theory has never been applied to European ecosystems, let alone those modified by millennia of human activity. Furthermore, the Yellowstone example is only partially complete, because there was another hunter present in Yellowstone for at least 15000 years,  namely humans. Has there  been any work investigating the impact on the ecosystem of removing human hunting activity from Yellowstone? If there has, Monbiot has ignored it.

I think there is a cognitive bias operating here. On the one hand wolves, bears and elephants are somehow given a talismanic status – that by bringing them back, some lost magic will be returned to ecosystems. But human activity, even activity precisely on a level with that of megafauna (ie hunting) is denied legitimacy as part of these ecosystems. And farming – well that is portrayed as The Fall from an Arcadian paradise, if you’ll excuse me mixing up ancient mythological tropes.

This megafaunaphilia is common amongst conservationists. Look at how much support charities working on conservation of megafauna receive, compared to the little things. WWF bring in millions every year with heart rending stories about Tigers and Pandas. `Consider how much support organisations working on algae or fungi, or detritivorous invertebrates receive – these are the true ecosystem builders. Even plants are generally ignored unless they are trees – totemised by the cult of the megafloraphiles.

Monbiot has turned this on its head, arguing that Trophic Cascade theory shows us that we can restore our damaged ecosystems by inserting the right megafauna, or their proxies. Unfortunately the truth is more complicated, complicated by the 6 millennia of agricultural land-use, and several millennia of previous landscape management for hunting. It wouldnt matter how many wolves or elephants were brought back, if the soils and water that all terrestrial ecosystems depend on are loaded with nitrogen and phosphorus, artifically drained or poisoned with persistent biocides. These chemicals fundamentally alter soil properties, preventing fungi from interpolating between soil chemicals and plants. The Wolves would have no influence over such relationships.

Equally, in the uplands, millennia of peat formation following Neolithic (or even Mesolithic) forest clearance, mean trees with large roots cannot get established. The Forestry Commission discovered this when they set about converting the uplands into tree factories. They had to invent special ploughs to plough through the peat, and create ridges where mineral soil was dry enough to plant trees. And then added fertiliser. Natural regeneration on peat soils, leads to deep bracken litter, then shallow rooted trees like birch. This is as close to the Wildwood, as Disney’s Snow White is to Macbeth. More likely is that introduced species that can cope with the conditions would prevail, such as Rhododendron and Gaultheria. But if the land is self-willed, surely it has chosen these species and who are we to remove them? Once again the contradiction at the heart of the thesis pops up.

I actually agree with Monbiot that the uplands are generally denuded and we should reduce the grazing pressure considerably. However, I would argue that this should be done in order to improve the quality of High Nature Value upland farmland, which always was dynamic and depended on a mosaic of open habitats, scrub and upland woodland. We should also not forget the significant impact that industry had on the uplands in past centuries – Dartmoor is a classic post industrial landscape, covered by the remnants of Tin workings, not a wilderness. The Lake District and Peak District are both pock marked with mineral workings for lead, arsenic and other toxic metals. These workings have given rise to extraordinary wildlife communities, surely worthy of conservation, as testament to the history of people working the land, and natures resilience to their impacts. When I read about how Wind Turbines are despoiling pristine upland landscapes, I find it depressing that so-called intellectuals can have so little understanding of the dynamic nature nd history of our landscapes.

I also sympathise with Monbiot’s railing against conservation orthodoxy/dogma. We have got ourselves into a pickle with SSSI conservation objectives, features of interest and condition assessments. And yet it is also true that the legislation that has spawned this bureacracy has been at least partially successful in preventing even greater losses of wildlife that would otherwise have occurred. Similarly the bureaucracy that has mushroomed around the Biodiversity process has strangled what ambitious vision there might have been 20 years ago, and we do all need to look again very deeply at what we are trying to achieeve.

Having said that, the idea that we should just forget about trying to conserve the biodiversity that we have got (or have recently lost) and concentrate on creating a new/old “back to the future” facsimile of the Lost World of the Mesolithic wildwood, does not strike me as an improvement – actually its a distraction.

Thanks to the Biodiversity Convention, now over 20 years old, every country now recognises that it has a responsibility to conserve its own biodiversity, and also to reduce impacts that its activities have on other countries’ biodiversity. We just have to accept that, thanks to history (human and climate), we don;t have much biodiversity in the UK. I have written previously about a conservation cringe, that there is a sense of shame that we have so little native biodiversity.

Should we should just forget about it – that somehow it’s the “wrong” biodiversity? Well if that’s the case, who decides what is the “right” biodiversity. I guess Monbiot thinks he does. And again by placing himself in the position of a Roman Emperor, choosing by the wiggle of his thumb, which nature survives and which dies,  he denies the self-willed nature of the land he professes to advocate.

But this is a problem for conservation beyond George’s own predilections. Farmers choose which nature they want on their land – these days it seems to be mostly wildbird and pollinator mix helping RSPB find homes for cuddly nature. Conservationists choose which particular taxa they like and work furiously to conserve them, sometimes in opposition to other groups conserving things with the opposite needs. There is a desperate need for an integrated approach that all can sign up to – sadly conservation in England at least, under extreme pressure, seems to be balkanising at the moment.

Monbiot does belatedly recognise that there is value to conserving the vestiges of our wildlife-rich agricultural landscapes, though he would rather we call them cultural reserves, not nature reserves. I think he has a point, we do need to recognise that the nature we are trying to conserve is all semi-natural and we should celebrate that fact. Because the semi-natural is the creation of humanity interacting with the rest of nature – recognising this will do far more to bring people back to valuing nature, for whatever reason: creating new “self-willed land reserves” on some Welsh mountain will just further emphasise the self/other divide between people and nature, that predominates in our post modern neoliberal world. However, what is clear now is that nature cannot survive for any length of time in small isolated islands of semi-natural habitat, in a sea of intensively managed lowland landscape.

But Monbiot seems to be looking at conservation through the wrong end of the telescope, criticising mindsets that predominated 30 years ago. He decries Landscape Scale Conservation, as more of the same ( but bigger) while the re-assessment of priorities that the BAP created seems to have passed him by. This is perhaps not surprising, given his starting point is work by Clive Hambler which was written over 20 years ago. Things have moved on.

And yet there is so much nostalgia operating within conservation – nostalgia is something the British excel in, especially the English. We have to remember where we came from, without seeking to ape it. Processes that created landscapes that we now value for their wildlife – whether it be traditional agriculture, woodland management, or small scale industrial activity (including in hte 20th century) have mostly long ceased. We cannot create any new brownfield habitat because of sensible laws about preventing toxic industiral waste products from entering the environment. Where will the species that depend on brownfields go in the future? If ever there was an example of self-willed land, brownfields rich in wildlife are it. Yet now we have to prevent succession in order to keep these sites suitable for the vanishingly rare open habitat species they support. Should we just forget about them?

Ultimately nature will continue long after humanity has become extinct or evolved into something else. It is typical human hubris to think otherwise. It is us that depend on the rest of nature, not the other way round. We need to value and celebrate our relationship with nature, bring nature into our lives, without feeling the need to make homes for all nature. We need to re-engage with nature, not distance ourselves from it. Re-wilding adventures are  humans interacting with nature in another way. I like them and I think there should more of them – but not instead of conserving nature where it is now and findings ways  to create places where it can flourish in the future.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agriculture, animism, anti conservation rhetoric, anti-environmental rhetoric, biodiversity, carbon storage, climate change, Common Agricultural Policy, Cultural Cringe, Downland, ecosystem services, environmental policy, farming, forest elephant, George Monbiot, invasive species, management, Mesolithic, neoliberalism, rewilding, self-willed land, soils, straight tusked elephant and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Feral by George Monbiot – a review

  1. Mark Fisher says:

    Ah, Miles. I’ve just written a book chapter on the ecological values of European wilderness where I have applied Trophic Cascades to European ecosystems! (I’ll send you the draft)

    As you know, the heffalump story wasn’t in the original draft of George’s book. Even so, it has been interesting to think about such a structuring force in European forests, but I don’t see any compelling evidence that we have a duty to re-instate it. George would have been more sensible to have considered what agents of structuring that still exist in Europe – brown bear, lynx and wolf among the carnivores. Mapping of the permanent and occasional occupation of large carnivores across Europe shows a high likelihood of the spatial co-existence of all three carnivores, the main overlapping populations shown to be in European (western) Russia, Finland, Sweden, the Baltic states, the Balkan states, and the Carpathian and Dinaric countries.

    Another indicator of this co-existence is given by the co-designation of Natura 2000 sites in EU member states with these carnivores. These show that 154 out of a total of over 1,200 have wolf, bear and lynx, covering an area of about 37,000km2 (EEA 2013). The Carpathian Mountain countries of Romania and Slovakia have by far the majority – 121 sites and 67% of the total area – but triply designated sites are also found in Poland, Slovenia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. While Italy has by far the most Natura 2000 sites designated for carnivores (about 400) three quarters of those are for wolf alone, with a few doubly designated for wolf, bear and lynx, and the rest being single designations for bear and lynx. Estonia, Sweden and Finland have exemptions for designating Natura 2000 sites for carnivores, but there is a strong likelihood of co-location in those countries as well. In fact, there’s hardly a country in continental Europe that hasn’t got a presence of at least a wolf, including the recent dispersals into Denmark and the Netherlands. If we weren’t cut off by the English Channel, we would likely have seen a voluntary return of wolf within 20-30 years, and we would have to protect them under the EU Habitats Directive!

    I’m going to make a joke here – as someone who has a passion for wild land, it is a relief, now that George’s book is out, to no longer be a lone wolf!

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks Mark. I apoligise if I sounds patronising, and while I am also a keen proponent of imaginative speculation, having spent the last nearly 30 years trying to achieve real conservation goals, I am also acutely aware that these goals have to have some element of reality, in order for even movement towards them is going to be achieved. On this basis, I would suggest an order of priority for large charismatic fauna as follows: 1) work to stop our extant native badger from being exterminated. 2) work to prevent our recently re-introduced wild boar from being exterminated, 3) work to advocate the value of beavers being introduced or allowed to spread naturally in the UK 4) work to advocate the value of introducing the Lynx to areas where it will flourish. I think that’s probably enough to be getting on with for the next 50 years. While talking about wolves and bears is all well and good, it shouldnt distract us from long terms goals like the ones above.

      The heffalump story is a good one to use as an analogy. I’d like to see more boldness in conservation – get a smallish digger, put ultra low pressure tyres on it, paint it grey and call it a heffalump. Then get it to knock down trees ( I’m not sure how it would eat them – rear-mounted chipper and trailer?)), snap pole- tage ash etc off 4m from the ground, dig wallows, create elephant tracks etc.

  2. Mark Fisher says:

    The thing I really wanted to say – I’m not necessarily going to speak for George, but what worries me about the reaction to his book, and the perennial reaction I get, is one of disproportionality. Wilderness covers 2% of America, probaby 0.5-1% of Europe, and yet if you advocate ecological restoration in Britain, every one exaggeratedly assumes that managed nature everywhere is at threat!!! If SSSI cover 6% of the UK, whats wrong with a proportion of that being wilder? Say 0.5% out of the 6%? That still leaves 5.5% or 10 times the area. To be honest, I’d rather not go for areas of SSSI for a number of reasons, and so ecological restoration doesn’t have to be a threat to any of the managed diversity.

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks Mark. Did you get to the end of my review? I know it was long, but there was a lot to say. I think we should do re-wilding – and I am delighted that we have reached the same conclusion. That re-wilding should be complementary to protecting existing biodiversity, not as a “better” approach.

  3. Miles, thank you for this review of a book that I personally found very interesting and thought provoking.

    I agree that the book’s structure and approach smacks of macho-ism and misadventure. But I was willing to forgive it this as I appreciated the way George made me look again at the assumptions which form the basis of our approach to nature conservation.

    I agree with you that there is a theoretical flaw to *putting* in place a system of non-intervention, this is clearly not a coherent idea. But that doesn’t undermine the general thrust of the book’s argument.

    We should be more explicit in explaining that every management plan or funding stream focussed on a certain species or habitats means that other species or habitats are not allowed to exist. In economic language every habitat has an opportunity cost and this is often not made explicit – crudely we have lowland grass land therefore you don’t have mixed deciduous woodland. It also causes us to think about why we conserve certain habitat or species? Is it richness, diversity, rarity or ecosystem service provision? In the respect that we are choosing and losing habitats re-wilding is evolution not revolution.

    I also suggest that your point that we’ve trashed the environment so badly (with pollutant levels and nitrogen deposition) that some wolves or other mega-fauna won’t fix it is pretty depressing and defeatist and is exactly the sort of approach that re-wilding, as expressed by George and many others, are railing against.

    Finally I don’t think re-wilding is about disconnecting people from nature, in fact it’s about enlivening the environment. I was lucky enough to read the book whilst staying on the marine nature reserve of Chumbe Island, off the coast of Zanzibar. Snorkelling on their wonderful remnant reefs I dived down over the edge of the coral following a young eel. As I got deeper I found myself overwhelmed with the sounds of migrating humpback whales singing to each other. Floating there with my back to the reef, looking out into the deep, the thought that I was sharing the sea with these amazing animals and that at any time they might emerge from behind the blue veil gave me a real sense of excitement and caused me to realize what we are missing in the UK, and elsewhere. That temporary lifting of ‘ecological boredom’ added power to my reading of Feral and despite its imperfections and slightly grating narrative I find myself to be a cheer leader for the ideas it contains.

  4. milesking10 says:

    Thanks Jonty – is it Jonty or Jonathan? welcome to the blog.

    A couple of thoughts – I am not (yet) worn down to defeatism! Quite the opposite. My point was that re-introducing extinct megafauna on its own, will not reverse the problems of eutrophication, because wolves and bears won’t remove the nitrogen deposition caused by our modern lifestyles. I wasn’t suggesting that therefore we shouldn’t do reintroductions. It’s more a question of priorities and what needs fixing first.

    I agree with your point about whether our current conservation priorities are the right ones is a good one. But as with everything, there has to be a point at which thinking translates to action.

    In the past 20 years there have been two major re-assessments of priorities – firstly the biodiversity convention forced reevaluation of priorities, focussing on global and international responsibility, and which aspects of biodiversity were going down the pan quickest and needed urgent action. Then roughly ten years later, the ecosystem approach (somewhat corrupted into ecosystem services) looked at what nature does for us (there’s a book in there somewhere) and slanted the debate in an anthropocentric direction. I think the re-wilding debate was a healthy backlash against this neoliberal approach to the environment. And as the neoliberal project lumbers on, re-wilding is a necessary antidote to it.

    Meanwhile species continue to decline, habitats continue to disappear and actions of all kinds need to be taken or advocated to try and slow these processes. My fear is that re-wilding may become a distraction from the ongoing struggle to prevent the continuing decline.

    But it may be that it is the catalyst for a new way of thinking about conservation – for a long time “heretics” have suggested that we should “let go” of some species and habitats, on the grounds that the processes which created/sustained them have gone and we are just building extinction debt – eventually the debt will be called in. I for one would welcome that debate.

    Finally – I loved your anecdote and I am incredibly envious of your experience. I was also lucky enough once to dive on the great barrier reef and had a similar experience (though no whales!). But yesterday I was lucky enough to be in Windsor Great Park and stood under a thousand year old Oak tree. The difference is that anyone can go to Windsor and stand and wonder at the great trees, their history, culture and nature.

    • Jonathan Baker says:

      Good point on the likely limits of rewilding. I agree its very unlikely to solve some of the systemic problems we face alone. In face problems of nitrogen deposition and grazing pressures means that any self willed land will have to be managed to remove certain species so succession can occur as we wish. This, as you point out, is an inconsistency in the idea but one that seems inevitable.

      I take your point about distraction and think that this approach would only be relevant in certain areas and certain habitats where scale and connectivity indicate sufficient potential. Hopefully it will not be a distraction but rather an inspiration.

      Id never hard of extinction debt and agree that making those sorts of discussions and decisions more explicit would be useful.

      On neoliberalism I’m not sure rewilding addresses the anthropometric agenda. I imagine any policy on rewilding would be full of talk about ecosystem services and why it made the environment more useful / interesting to us. I think this framing is here to stay.

      Finally, at its best rewilding should be about creating more paces which replicate, in their own way, the sense of wonder we experienced from snorkelling near whales or standing under a thousand year old oak tree.
      P.s. it’s Jonathan, jontybaba is just a twitter handle.

      • milesking10 says:

        Thanks Jonathan. The ecosystem services – re-wilding axis is definitely worth exploring further.

        Scale is all important and re-wilding needs to operate at a sufficiently large scale to be real – how big? 100,000ha?. I also think it’s a mistake to solely focus on the uplands – for all sorts of reasons. As much as anything, they are a long way from most of the UK population, creating physical barriers to those experiences we cherish and want to share.

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  9. jockmon says:

    Thanks for your review. I have yet to read Monbiot’s book, I will do so, and I am sure I’ll find it a stimulating read. I have a high regard for George. His regard for the possible re-introduction of “megafauna” is, I agree, likely an unneeded step too far, for the moment. I was lucky enough to enjoy a long walk through the UK last summer, from Canterbury to Iona – a wonderful and uplifting experience. There was no “rewilding” along this walk, but there are places in the UK where the conjunction of traditional farming practice and landscape is almost overwhelmingly beautiful, and one wonders, does this really need to change a great deal? Yet there are other areas where intensive agricultural and poorly developed urban areas were very depressing, mostly in the sense of the continuing “missed opportunity” to develop a coherent strategic sustainable humane and energy efficient local ecology, human and natural (though the two are or should be the same – see Prince Charles’s ideas) – a failure due to simple ignorance, lack of care and a lack of imagination – and that’s not rewilding.

    What has happened in Yellowstone is though totally mind-boggling, if what Monbiot claims is true. I spent another two weeks on the west coast of Scotland in one of the most glorious land and seascapes in Europe, in a pretty little place called Plockton. Monbiot has written in his blogs about the ruination of the Scottish ecology on the alter of the shooting party, where huge estates, often owned by absentee and foreign landowners, are preserved as monocultures of heather moorland for the use by other wealthy people to shoot grouse or red deer. He’s right, this must be stopped, it is not just an affront to nature, but also an affront to a decent and integrated society. There must be hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Scotland that could indeed be rewilded with beaver and wolf as the two obvious fauna that need reintroduction. This should be aided by strategic plantings of the naturally occurring flora such as Scots Pine, aspen, willow, oak, rowan etc, which will work as natural seeding sites for the remainder of the area. What was so nice about Plocton, and actually “abnormal” for this part of the world, is the beautiful woodland that surrounds this arm of Loch Carron. The family also went to Skye, my first visit, so impressive. But almost completely denuded of trees. Yet I read in some explanation board on this island, that in the post glacial times and until relatively recently, Skye was densely forested. The woods around Plocton, with some large deciduous trees, I believe sycamore are the most hardy, and the history of Skye proves that the “natural” landscape of the vast majority of the Scottish Highlands is mixed deciduous woodland in the glens and more sheltered areas, and vast swathes of Scots Pines in the higher and more difficult ground. The results will I suggest be just as wonderful as in Yellowstone, perhaps more so, as the Scottish landscape has an interface missing in Yellowstone, and that’s the ocean. The amount of CO2 sequestered by such a forest would be massive.

    We can make a start here. It should be easy. Yet the power of privilege and money is universal. Would an independent Scotland be the key to rewilding? Just a thought!!

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