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.