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The Key to Rewilding

CRISIS - Mass Extinction by Simon Walker Global Commons May 11th 202310 mins
The Key to Rewilding

Rewilding is gaining traction around the world, but there is a key ingredient missing. While we look to solve the climate crisis from the outside, we must also find a love and respect for nature within ourselves. 

According to the United Nations, in 2007, the number of people living in cities was bigger than that of people living in rural areas for the first time in history. In other words: Humankind no longer lived in nature, but visited it. 

Getting to this point took thousands of years. While the beginning of urbanisation dates back to about 10,000 years ago as people began abandoning nomadic lifestyles in favour of crop-farming settlements, it is only in the last few centuries and especially since the Industrial Revolution that a significant number of people started settling into cities looking for new opportunities.

The idea of home has dissociated from the natural world and allows only the ideals of the wild we can control, such as pets and gardens. 

Wildlife nowadays is seen as both a curse and a blessing; on the one side, a nuisance in the way of fertile land for economic gain, and on the other, an antidote to the hustle and bustle city life we have created. We build parks to boost our mental and physical health and raze the countryside for real estate; we frequent zoos to see our favourite animals and cordon off their natural habitats for crops. We have manipulated nature to suit our every indulgence and abandoned all sensitivity. The Human Conquest has reached such an extent that we are now faced with an ultimatum: respect the world as it deserves, or face the harsh realities of climate change and ecological collapse. 

There is still time to make amends but what must come first is a shift in what we deem as home, reversing centuries or even millennia of familiarity, and holding regard for the world beyond our bedroom walls.   

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History of Deforestation

It is hard to imagine the sea of cropped fields that kiss the horizon to have once been a densely forested wild haven. Indeed, trees and shrubs were populated in such a way that even seeing a horizon, the sun rising or setting, would have been a luxurious rarity. 

According to Our World In Data, about 10,000 years ago, what today is considered habitable land on our planet (which accounts for 71% of the total land on Earth) used to be mostly filled with forests and wild grasslands. Today, however, 48% of this land has been replaced by a surprising 1% of urban development and a whopping 46% of it is now agricultural land, with a large majority used for grazing animals. 

With an already exhausted world bracing for a human population of ten billion in just thirty years’ time, and a predicted increase of global meat production by over 100 million tonnes to match this growth, human-inflicted land is likely to dominate very soon.  

Sustainability is a term that has walked into the social conscience with a stride over the last decade, whether it be from a road-blocking protester, a politician securing votes, or a polluting company building a leafy green facade. One might believe sustainability is a fairly new concern while in fact, it is just another knot in the string of lessons ignored by those before us. 

While England was historically densely populated by oak, hazel, and birch, as far back as 1086, woodland was decimated to the point of covering just 15% of the English countryside. Energy and building materials shortages were a common problem – during Elizabeth I’s reign, 30 bills were introduced to address fuel shortages. Arthur Standish, an English writer from the 16th century, called his period a “destroying age” due to the ongoing mass deforestation, where many considered the “profit present’” and “few or none at all regard the posterity or future times.” Such fears of wood scarcity propelled much of early modern Europe to engage in further colonial expansion. 

On the other side of the world, researchers studying the Yellow River Basin, known as the cradle of Chinese civilisation and an area prone to flooding, have recently found that “excessive cultural deforestation” was the “dominant factor that led to an unprecedented flood-rich period” in the 10th century. Centuries later, this is still a huge issue as vegetation remains well below pre-deforestation levels.

A watershed moment came with the rise of capitalism and the unregulated lands of European colonies that encouraged further exploitation. 

The 1800s saw the rise of mass manufacturing and the hunt for resources became a commercial competition. One particular type of wood, Swietenia mahogani, found only in Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, was and still is considered the finest and most luxurious wood for the use of furniture. Unfortunately, the tree fell victim to the boastful misuse of European furniture-makers who looked only to line their pockets. Fifty years after the discovery of its newfound purpose, the tree was commercially extinct. Thanks to those odd few trees deemed unfit for purpose it still exists, but is now classified as critically endangered and is under legal protection. To adorn your home with the most sumptuous mahogany, antique furniture is your only hope. Brazilian Rosewood, a wood heralded for its elegance and scent of roses, met a similar fate in the second half of the 20th century. 

Deforestation is a catalyst for species endangerment, extreme weather events, and social injustice. As the climate continues to warm, outcomes have proven to be fatal. This is only half the story of an interconnected relationship we still know very little about. 

Effects of Deforestation

Deforestation and intensive farming are leading causes of increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Recent reports found that agriculture alone will still push global temperatures past 1.5C in 30 to 40 years. Due to climate change, poor farming practices, and extreme weather events, one-third of the world’s arable soils are degraded. Take the nutrient-dense soil of the US state of Iowa. For 160 years, the state was one of the largest producers of corn, soybeans, and oats. Throughout the 20th century, however, topsoil (the soil needed for crops to grow) depth here decreased from 16 inches to around 7 inches. The consequence of this degradation is greater difficulty in producing the same quantity of crops and lower levels of essential nutrients. 

degraded soil; soil degradation

One-third of the world’s arable soils are degraded.

As we consume foods with a lower nutritional value, we may not be equipping our bodies with the best protection to fight against chronic diseases or even the spillover of zoonotic viruses – something of which land-use change is also a leading cause. As more natural habitats are destroyed, animals must migrate to new areas, increasing the chances of human-animal contact and thus the spread of zoonotic diseases. 

Instances of the Hendra virus in Australians have been linked to the clearing and habitat loss of black flying foxes and a consequent retreat towards more human-dwelling spaces. Horses could become infected by the Hendra virus when in close proximity to bat droppings or half-eaten fruit, followed by a breach in a human host who may frequent the stable. Such instances are rare, but the last few years are an important lesson in understanding the potential consequences of a spillover event.

According to a 2016 study, agriculture was the leading peril in 62% of species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed as threatened or near-threatened. Logging is also contributing to the decline of 4,000 forest-dependent species. As we further encroach on the dwellings of other creatures in such destructive ways, their forced refuge among human populations could lead to more serious health risks.

The Benefits of Rewilding

With deforestation having an effect on our warming climate, rewilding is a pinnacle factor in developing an ecosystem into a carbon source while providing a safe haven for biodiversity to thrive. Fortunately, with the cooperation of people across the world, rewilding is also a very plausible and effective solution to halting climate change. 

A recent study led by Yale University School of the Environment Professor Oswald Schmitz and co-authored by scientists across the world found that protecting and restoring the populations of nine species could help develop the carbon sink of ecosystems and potentially capture an additional 6.41 billion tonnes of carbon a year. This equates to 95% of carbon emissions that would need to be captured to meet the Paris Climate Agreement of below 1.5C. The nine species of interest – sharks, whales, marine fish, grey wolves, wildebeest, sea otters, musk oxen, African forest elephants, and American bison – contribute to a variety of environments in terrestrial, marine, and freshwater ecosystems.

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The reasons for their importance in ecosystems are complex and varied, and usually, in what sounds like a hindrance, involve their destructive behaviours. Schmitz noted that while herbivores are prone to destroying and trampling vegetation, such as the African forest elephants, “they also eat fruits and disperse the seeds of the tall trees that form the canopy of the forest” and store the most carbon while disrupting the understory competition. Another example is the musk ox, which, by eating the vegetation that sits above a layer of snow below actually, increases the albedo effect – the ability of a surface to reflect sunlight – slowing down permafrost melting which would instead melt more rapidly if it were insulated by the warm vegetation above, releasing a huge amount of methane, a gas “28 times more powerful than CO2”. Therefore, musk oxen eat vegetation “in a way that maintains the permafrost.”

Predators control the herbivore populations and thus play an important role in the maintenance of natural environments. Schmitz notes that while vegetation is the main driver in capturing and storing carbon, animals are essential to “enhance the ability of the plants” in what is a naturally interconnected relationship in the development of ecosystems. Logging, agriculture, and urban development have skewed the natural order, but with an internationally-recognised need to fund degraded areas and regulate destructive practices, this could be reversed. Fortunately, with the reintegration of plants and animals into once-deforested areas, nature has the quintessential ability to bounce back like a weed through concrete. As Schmitz puts it: “Once those laws and protections are in place, […] these animals can rebound quickly”. 

The Future of Rewilding

As the concept of sustainability has caught on tremendously in the last decade, perhaps rewilding could be the next big trend – one that signals not just our will to counterbalance resource consumption, but to give back to nature in surplus. Schmitz notes that “even if we transition to green technology tomorrow, the planet would still warm” from the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere since “the start of the Industrial Revolution”. 

While billions of dollars are being spent around the world for the implementation of carbon capture technologies, Schmitz rightly points out that “we already have the ability in place” to capture carbon, and “that technology is nature”. 

Pledges are being made to protect the land from deforestation. In the last couple of weeks, the EU passed a game-changing law requiring companies to demonstrate their products aren’t sourced from deforested land, or risk heavy fines. At COP15 in 2022, world leaders agreed on a historical deal known as the ‘30 by 30’: “30% of the world’s land and sea protected, and 30% of degraded ecosystems restored, by 2030”. It is a step in the right direction, but some experts have doubts over whether this is enough to mitigate climate change and instead call for the protection and restoration of at least 50% of the world’s land and seas.

While rewilding is in the conversation, it is certainly not reaching its potential due to one vital factor: we still see nature as a separate entity from ourselves; the long-forgotten mother that raised us but we grew too boisterous for it. In an era where the world’s richest are looking to the stars to fulfil their want of thrills or even ‘save’ humanity with colonial expansion, a complete detachment from nature couldn’t be more obvious. We watch an abundance of alien invasion movies on an egotistical and destructive race thwarted by humanity in complete obliviousness to its reflection of our almost alien presence on Earth. Rewilding isn’t just about revitalising nature around us, but also within ourselves. 

Indigenous groups around the world have long been pillars of strength and companionship towards the natural world. It should be marked as a progressive step that the outcomes of COP15 recognised the rights of indigenous lands and practices, but is overshadowed by the fear that such lands may be taken from those communities. According to National Geographic, indigenous people make up 5% of the world population, yet protect 80% of global biodiversity. The United Nations reported that in the protection of Latin American forests, indigenous communities make the best guardians, and experts call for a more community-based approach to conservation than the model at COP15. Giving indigenous communities a voice in the debate could help a now urban species rekindle our lost connections.

Is Rewilding the Solution We Need?

As more people live in towns and cities, the prospect of rewilding can seem like a complication far from our dwelling, when in fact, it can happen in our own neighbourhoods, our own gardens, our own lifestyles, and our own mind. Ditch minimalist garden aesthetics for more pollen-rich flowers and messy shrubs; reduce meat consumption and the demand agriculture has on forested lands; protest to local councils for more vibrant greener spaces and engage with like-minded charities. A deeper understanding of our inherent ties to the natural world will, for want of a better phrase, pave the way toward a greener future.

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About the Author

Simon Walker

Simon Walker has a bachelor’s degree in History from Cardiff University, UK. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia, and is working alongside fellow environmentalists on a community radio station encouraging climate action. Research interests include biodiversity and conservation, animal welfare, and plastic pollution.

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