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Taming the Idea of Rewilding

Contentious Politics
Environmental Policy
Green Politics
Political Theory
Climate Change
Normative Theory
Marcel Wissenburg
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Marcel Wissenburg
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen

Biological arguments for rewilding are logically insufficient, i.e., inconclusive, to support rewilding of ecosystems rather than conservation, exploitation, eradication or any other alternative. Any ecosystem can, with or without rewilding, find a new balance or express a new form of resilience, even an ecosystem turned into desert or dead water. Likewise, rewilding may contribute to social in addition to ecological sustainability – but so can countless other modes of nature management, many far more effectively and efficiently, up to and including the creation of a global Manhattan. From any ethical point of view other than naturalism, that is no surprise: the is-ought gap explains it all.Whatever justifies the fundamentally political choice for rewilding must be something more than the intrinsic value of ‘the wild’ or the practice of rewilding; there must be something more that makes this particular rewilded ecosystem better than that otherwise managed ecosystem.

Any rewilding project and any definition or ‘narrative’ of rewilding presumes a necessarily anthropogenic, frequently anthropocentric conception of a/the desired ecosystem. These conceptions are often self-contradictory, mutually exclusive, incompatible with alternative perspectives on ‘nature management’ and/or existing local practices, beliefs and interests, resulting in conflicts and in failure, adaptation and dilution, or a Pyrrhic victory over the old order. Implementing any type of rewilding is therefore never morally (nor by implication politically) neutral, jumping the is-ought gap never merely an intellectual challenge: there are winners, losers, victors and victims – parties made worse or better off than they could otherwise have been [cf. John Roemer]. Although rewilding isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game, the fact that rewilding affects and changes old ways of life, and that any rewilding project is by definition realized for the benefit of some humans, not nature itself, risks rewilders being branded as ‘caring more for animals than humans’.

To identify the ‘something more’ that supports rewilding schemes, I will distinguish five ideal-types, distinguished among others by whether they are open-ended or goal-oriented (Drenthen 2018:407; cf. procedural approaches/‘the right’, vs. end-state approaches/‘the good’), and whose interests count in rewilding. I’ve given these five names that Tolkien aficionados will recognize: (1) the Shire, rewilding as creating a pleasure and theme park for humans; (2) Mirkwood, rewilding as ‘maximizing nature in so far as compatible with maximizing artifice for humans’; (3) Lothlórien: rewilding as ironic/quasi-authentic ‘original purity’; (4) Valinor: perfect and complete restoration in the original state; (5) Rhûn: rewilding as total abandonment and separation from the human world.

For each of these five, I will investigate how they may be justified, if at all, rather than ask (as most of the literature does, cf. Drenthen special issue but also Tanasescu, Latour) what discourses or narratives support them – which would leave the is-ought gap still wide open. What are the values that must support the effort? Authenticity? Guilt and redemption? Pleasure? Aesthetics? And are they sufficient for a consistent justification of rewilding? Ultimately, I argue, only Mirkwood and Rhûn make sense.
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