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By George Monbiot

Our ancestral landscapes

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” the pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote. “An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

I remembered that when I read the news that the world has lost 52% of its vertebrate wildlife over the past 40 years. It’s a figure from which I’m still reeling. To love the natural world is to suffer a series of griefs, each compounding the last. It is to be overtaken by disbelief that we could treat it in this fashion. And, in the darkest moments, it is to succumb to helplessness, to the conviction that we will keep eroding our world of wonders until almost nothing of it remains. There is hope – real hope – as I will explain, but at times like this it seems remote.

These wounds are inflicted not only on the world’s wildlife but also on ourselves. Civilisation is but a flimsy dust sheet that we have thrown over a psyche rich in emotion and instinct, shaped by the living planet. The hominims from whom we evolved inhabited a fascinating, terrifying world, in which survival depended on constant observation and interpretation. They contended not only with lions and leopards, but with sabretooths and false sabretooths, giant hyaenas and bear dogs (monstrous creatures with a huge bite radius).

As the work of Professor Blaire van Valkenburgh at UCLA suggests, predators in the pre-human past lived at much greater densities than they do today. The wear and breakage of their teeth show that competition was so intense that they were forced to consume the entire carcasses of the animals they killed, bones and all, rather than just the prime cuts, as top carnivores tend to do today. In other words, the animals with which we evolved were not just bigger than today’s predators; they were also hungrier.

Navigating this world required astonishing skills. Our ancestors, in the boom-and-bust savannahs, had to travel great distances to find food, through a landscape shimmering with surprise and hazard. Their survival depended upon reacting to the barest signals: the flicker of a tail in the grass, the scent of honey, a change in humidity, tracks in the dust. We still possess these capacities. We carry with us a ghost psyche, adapted to a world we no longer inhabit, which contains – though it remains locked down for much of the time – a boundless capacity for fear and wonder, curiosity and enchantment. We are pre-tuned to the natural world; wired to respond to nature.

The world lives within us

In computer games and fantasy novels, we still grapple the monsters of the mind. In the film of Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers, the orcs rode on giant hyaenas. In the first Hunger Games film, bear dogs were released into the forest to prey on the contestants. I don’t believe these re-creations were accidental: the directors appear to have known enough of our evolutionary history to revive the ancestral terror these animals provoke. The heroic tales that have survived – tales of Ulysses, Sinbad, Sigurd, Beowulf, Cú Chulainn, St George, Arjuna, Lạc Long Quân and Glooskap – are those that resonate with the genetic memories lodged in our minds. I suspect that their essential form has remained unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years; that the encounters with monsters recorded in writing were a consolidation of stories we have been telling since we acquired the capacity to use the past tense.

You can see how such tales might have originated in a remarkable sequence in the BBC’s Human Planet series. Three men in southern Kenya, described by the programme as Dorobo people (though this is not a designation many ethnographers accept) stalk to within about 50 metres of a lion kill. Fifteen lions, blood dripping from their jaws, are eating the carcass of a wildebeest. The men suddenly stand and walk towards the pride. Rattled by their astonishing confidence, the lions flee. They watch from the bushes, puzzled and indecisive, as the three men walk up to the carcass, hack off one of the hind legs, then saunter away. That night, the adventurers roast the meat in their cave. “We really robbed those lions”, one of them boasts. “How many do you think there were?”, another asks. “Fifteen, but there might have been more.”

This, surely, is how sagas begin. Those men, led by a veteran of such ruses, are heroes of the old stamp. They outwitted a party of monsters, using guile and audacity, much as Ulysses did. A few hours later, they tell the first version of a story that might echo down the generations, every time with new flourishes and embellishments. Now imagine that, thousand of years hence, lions are long extinct, and the descendants of the Dorobo have only the haziest notion of what they were. They have become monsters even bigger and more dangerous than they were in life, and the feat becomes even more outrageous and unlikely. The saga remains true to its core, but the details have changed. We are those people, still telling the old stories, of encounters with the beasts that shaped us.

The world lives within us, we live within the world. By damaging the living planet we have diminished our existence.

Arrested development

We have been able to do this partly as a result of our ability to compartmentalise. This is another remarkable capacity we have developed, which perhaps reflects the demands of survival in the ever more complex human world we have created. By carving up the world in our minds we have learnt to shut ourselves out of it.

One of the tasks that parents set themselves is to train their children in linearity. Very young children don’t do linearity. Their inner life is discursive, contingent, impulsive. They don’t want to walk in a straight line down the pavement, but to wander off in the direction of whatever attracts their attention. They don’t begin a task with a view to its conclusion. They throw themselves into it, engage for as long as it’s exciting, then suddenly divert to something else.

This is how all animals, except adult humans, behave. Optimal foraging, the term biologists use to describe the way animals lock onto the best food supply, involves pursuing a task only for as long as it remains rewarding. Our own hunting and gathering would have followed a similar pattern, though it was complicated by our ability to plan and coordinate and to speculate about imagined outcomes. Broadly speaking, ours was a rambling and responsive existence, in which, by comparison to the way we live today, we had little capacity or inclination to impose our will on the world, to lay out a course of action and to follow it without deviation or distraction.

Only with the development of farming did we have to discipline ourselves to think linearly: following a plan from one point to another across weeks or months. Before long we were ploughing in straight lines, making hedges and ditches and tracks in straight lines, building houses and then towns in straight lines. Now almost every aspect of our lives is lived within grids, either concrete or abstract.

The people we have always been

Thus we box ourselves out of the natural world. We become resistant to the experiences that nature has to offer; its spontaneity and serendipity, its unscripted delights, its capacity to shake us out of the frustrations and humiliations, which are an inevitable product of the controlled and ordered world we have sought to create. We bully the living world into the grids we impose on ourselves. Even the areas we claim to have set aside for nature are often subjected to rigid management plans, in which the type and the height of the vegetation is precisely ordained and, through grazing or cutting or burning, nature is kept in a state of arrested development to favour an arbitrary assemblage of life over other possible outcomes. Nothing is allowed to change, to enter or leave. We preserve these places as if they were jars of pickles.

The language we use to describe natural areas is also rigid and compartmentalised. In the UK we protect “sites of special scientific interest”, as if the wildlife they contain is of interest only to scientists. The very small areas of seabed from which industrial trawling is excluded are described as “reference areas”, as if their only value is as a baseline with which to compare destruction elsewhere. Even ‘the environment’ is an austere and technical term that creates no pictures in the mind.

It’s not that we have banished our vestigial psychological equipment from our minds, or lost our instinct for engagement with wildlife. The tremendous popularity of nature programmes testifies to its persistence. I remember sitting in a café listening to a group of bus drivers talking – with great excitement and knowledge – about the spiders they had seen on television the night before, and thinking that, for all our technological sophistication, for all the clever means by which we shield ourselves from our emotions, we remain the people we have always been.

But we have suppressed these traits, and see the world through our fingers, shutting out anything that might spoil the view. We eat meat without even remembering that it has come from an animal, let alone picturing the conditions of its rearing and slaughter. We make no connection in our compartmentalised minds between the beef on our plates and the destruction of rainforests to grow the soya that fed the cattle; between the miles we drive and the oil wells drilled in rare and precious places, and the spills that then pollute them.

In our minds we have sanitised the world.

A drought of sensation

Civilisation is boring. It has many virtues, but it leaves large parts of our minds unstimulated. It uses just a fraction of our mental and physical capacities. To know what comes next has been perhaps the dominant aim of materially-complex societies. Yet, having achieved it, or almost achieved it, we have been rewarded with a new collection of unmet needs. Many of us, I believe, need something that our planned and ordered lives don’t offer.

I found that something once in Cardigan Bay, on the west coast of Wales. I had stupidly launched my kayak into a three-metre swell to fish a couple of miles from the shore. As I returned to land, I saw that the tide had risen, and ugly, jumbled breakers were smashing on the seawall. From where I sat, 200 metres from the shore, I could see that the waves were stained brown by the shingle they flung up. I could hear them cracking and soughing against the wall. It was terrifying.

Behind me I heard a monstrous hiss: a freak wave was about to break over my head. I ducked and braced the paddle against the water. But nothing happened. Then a hooked grey fin, scarred and pitted, rose and skimmed just under the shaft of my paddle. I knew what it was, but the shock of it enhanced my rising fear. I glanced around, almost believing that I was under attack.

Then, from the stern, I heard a different sound: a crash and a rush of water. A gigantic bull dolphin soared into the air and almost over my head. As he flew past, he fixed his eye on mine. I stared at the sea into which he had disappeared, willing him to emerge again, filled with a wild exaltation, and a yearning of the kind that used to afflict me when I woke from that perennial pre-adolescent dream of floating down the stairs, my feet a few inches above the carpet. I realised at that moment that I had been suffering from a drought of sensation that I had come to accept as a condition of middle age, like the loss of the upper reaches of hearing.

Benchmarks of life

I found that missing element again in the Białowieża Forest in eastern Poland. I was walking down a sandy path between oak and lime trees that rose for perhaps one hundred feet without branching. Around them the forest floor frothed with ramsons, celandines, spring peas and may lilies. I had seen boar with their piglets, red squirrels, hazel grouse, a huge bird that might have been an eagle owl, a black woodpecker. As I walked, every nerve seemed stretched, tuned like a string to the forest I was exploring. I rounded a curve in the path and found myself face to face with an animal that looked more like a Christian depiction of the Devil than any other creature I have seen.

I was close enough to see the mucus in her tear ducts. She had small, hooked black horns, heavy brows and eyes so dark that I could not distinguish the irises from the pupils. She wore a neat brown beard and an oddly human fringe between her horns. Her back rose to a crest then tapered away to a narrow rump, from which a black tail, slim as a whip, now twitched. She flared her nostrils and raised her chin. I fancied I could smell her sweet, beery breath. We watched each other for several minutes. I stayed so still that I could feel the blood pounding in my neck. Eventually the bison tossed her head, danced a couple of steps then turned, trotted back down the path then cantered away through the trees.

Experiences like these are the benchmarks of my life, moments in which dormant emotions were rekindled, in which my world was re-enchanted. But such unexpected encounters have been far too rare. Most of the lands in which I walk and the seas in which I swim or paddle my kayak are devoid of almost all large wildlife. I see deer, the occasional fox or badger, seals, but little else. It does not have to be like this. We can recharge the world with wonder, reverse much of the terrible harm we have done to it.

Over the past centuries, farming has expanded onto ever less suitable land. Even places of extremely low fertility have been cultivated or grazed, and the result has been a great disproportion between damage and productivity: the production of a tiny amount of food destroys the vegetation, the wild animals, the soil and the watersheds of entire mountain ranges. In the face of global trade, farming in such areas is becoming ever less viable: it cannot compete with production in fertile parts of the world. This has caused a loss of cultural diversity, which is another source of sadness.

The unplanned world of nature

But at the same time it means that the devastated land could be restored. In Europe, according to one forecast, 30 million hectares – an area the size of Poland – will be vacated by farmers by 2030. In the United States, two thirds of those parts of the land which were once forested, then cleared, have become forested again, as farming and logging have retreated, especially from the eastern half of the country. Rewilding, the mass restoration of ecosystems, which involves pulling down the redundant fences, blocking the drainage ditches, planting trees where necessary, re-establishing missing wildlife and then leaving the land to find its own way, could reverse much of the damage done to these areas. Already, animals like lynx, wolves, bears and moose, on both continents, are moving back into their former ranges.

There are also possibilities of restoring large parts of the sea. Public disapproval of a fishing industry that has extensively damaged the seabed of the continental shelves is now generating worldwide demands for marine parks. These are places in which commercial extraction is forbidden and the wildlife of the seas can recover. Even fishing companies can be persuaded to support them, when they discover that the fish migrating out of these places greatly boost their overall catches, a phenomenon known as the spillover effect. Such underwater parks are quickly recolonised by sessile life forms. Fish and crustacea proliferate, breeding freely and growing to great sizes once more. Dolphins, sharks and whales move in.

In these places we can leave our linearity and confinement behind, surrender to the unplanned and emergent world of nature, be surprised once more by joy, as surprise encounters with great beasts (almost all of which, despite our fears, are harmless to us) become possible again. We can rediscover those buried emotions that otherwise remain unexercised. Why should we not have such places on our doorsteps, to escape into when we feel the need?

Rewilding offers something else, even rarer than lynx and wolves and dolphins and whales. Hope. It offers the possibility that our silent spring could be followed by a raucous summer. In seeking to persuade people to honour and protect the living planet, an ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair. We could, perhaps, begin to heal some of the great wounds we have inflicted on the world and on ourselves.

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Photography credits (in order of appearance)

Laurisilva forest, Laurus azorica among other trees and geraniums, Garajonay National Park, Spain (credit: Wild Wonders of Europe / Relanzó / naturepl.com).

Morning mist clears to reveal the sea of sand surrounding Mount Bromo, Java (credit: BBC / Paul Williams).

Archers, dogs and a hoofed animal, cave painting, Tassili n'Ajjer, Algeria (credit: De Agostini / C. Marchelli / Getty).

Spider's web with dew droplets, spread between grasses covered in frost (credit: Guy Edwardes / 2020VISION / naturepl.com)

Wapiti (or elk) bull in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA (credit: Daniel J Cox / Getty).

Lion on savannah (credit: BBC / Tom Hugh-Jones).

Scots pine trees (Pinus sylvestris) in evening sunlight (credit: Sandra Bartocha / naturepl.com).

Sapa, Vietnam (credit: sarawut / Getty).

Walnut (Juglans regia) in field of ripe barley before a storm, France (credit: Pascal Tordeux / Nature Picture Library / Alamy).

Vehicle tracks through a field of green barley, Germany (credit: Sandra Bartocha / naturepl.com).

Thousands of gilt-head bream (Sparus aurata) inside a sea cage used for aquaculture, Italy (credit: Franco Banfi / naturepl.com).

Waves of Baltic Sea washing over and polishing coloured pebbles, Germany (credit: Sandra Bartocha / naturepl.com).

Three bottle-nosed dolphins (credit: Yukimasa Hirota / Getty).

Bluebells in beech wood abstract, Scotland, UK (credit: Pete Cairns / naturepl.com).

Forest ‘Missed and Loved’ (credit: bob van den berg photography / Getty).

Vibrant autumn colour (credit: ooyoo / Getty).

Moonrise over misty bog, Estonia (credit: Sven Zacek / naturepl.com).

European Lynx (Lynx lynx) adult female peering out from behind tree in winter birch forest, Norway (credit: Pete Cairns / naturepl.com).

Common reeds (Phragmites australis), Fürstenseer Lake at Müritz National Park, Germany (credit: Sandra Bartocha / naturepl.com).