on 23 September 2013
This review first appeared on [...]
George Monbiot is a well-known environmentalist. He has a regular column in the Guardian newspaper, writes occasionally for a number of other publications (all his articles can be viewed on the clutter free website [...] and a number of books already under his name. As a child, I sometimes dreamed of 'saving the rainforest' and probably for this reason Monbiot became a natural role model as I grew up, even though he quickly destroyed my overly simplistic views of 'good' conservationists vs the 'bad' deforesters. His writing is broad, encapsulating the links between many different elements of what is, invariably, a more complex problem than what first impressions indicate. In the mid 2000s, George Monbiot took-on the 'greatest environmental threat' - climate change - almost head-on in his acclaimed book Heat: How We Can Stop the Planet Burning. This provided motivation for me to seek solutions, not only on some abstract policy level, but in my everyday life.
Fast-forward five years. Instead of fretting over our collective failure to overcome society's enduring addiction to fossil fuels, it is refreshing to see that Monbiot has moved on. Environmental problems are big and, due partly to the long timespans over which they develop, can seem intractible. Instead of discussing the problem, in this case lack of wild or 'self-willed' ecosystems, from an abstract perspective, Monbiot dives into some vivid descriptions of experiences in the wilderness. Contrast this with the monotony of everyday life and it becomes apparent that many people are suffering from ecological boredom. We have got to the point in which opening a poorly designed bag of nuts constitutes the most exciting manual task of the day! The escapism of video games and the many other distractions of the modern world is provided as anecdotal evidence for this, alongside a wealth of peer-reviewed literature on nature deficit disorder provides an undeniable argument: we need to re-engage with nature.
As Monbiot has himself said elsewhere, the underlying concept of this book is a simple one. It is eloquently written, yet succinct and without excessive diversions. The personal story that provides the backdrop to the ideas presented is not self-indulgent, but clear, concise and at times brutal.
Regarding the actual policies that he is proposing, George Monbiot seems to have moved further towards the 'pragmatist' camp of environmentalism since the The Age of Consent, in which global issues are tackled head-on and the real-politik of potential solutions are apparently hammered-out (disclaimer: I've not read the book). Older and perhaps wiser, the solutions in Feral are less complex and eminently more feasible. These include (in the order that they are presented in the book) the return of trees and 'keystone species' such as the moose and otter to low-intensity farmland; a reduction in overgrazing in 'Sheepwrecked' uplands, and the enforcement of 'no fish zones'. All of these could easily have economic benefits that dwarf their costs over time, even for the farmers and fishing industries that currently resist any whiff of environmentally beneficial regulation. The description of whales as a keystone species with the potential to fertilise the seas and sequester large volumes of carbon dioxide in the process in "Rewilding the Sea" was particularly interesting, and supported with ample peer-reviewed literature to persuade even the most hard-nosed 'factivist'.
Ultimately this book is not about facts, though, but about our inbuilt need to interact with nature, the wider benefits this could bring, and practical steps towards making it happen. I heartily recommend this book to anyone: young and old; deep environmentalist or environmental skeptic;high-powered businessman or local forager. The ideas will change the way you think about nature and, at the very least, encourage you get out there more often.
on 8 August 2013
I read Monbiot's book Heat, in which he sets out a plan of how the UK could and should repond to human-made climate change by cutting carbon emissions by 90%, in 2010. I was convinced, but not optimistic; the changes we need to make are radical; the restructuring in transport for example, would be deep, and despite the strength of the argument against doing so even I have failed to stop flying (I have restricted myself somewhat, but totally failed to persuade anyone else), which has become so integral to working life and family together-time as we spread ourselves across the globe.
So when I took up Feral I wasn't expecting to find so much hope. There is no single narrative here, Monbiot alternates and weaves together anecdotes of his fishing expeditions, intense, dramatic and dense with description and encounters with wildlife and rural places, with discussions of progressive biodiversity loss and habitat destruction caused throughout our history by gratuitous hunting, agricultural practices and often bizarre regulation. He describes how ecosystems are kept healthy by large predators, and explores the potential for reintroducing animals such as lynx and even wolves to the UK, as well as less controvertial animals like the beaver, a herbivore whose dam-building habits create opportunities for a variety of fish and all sorts of other fauna and flora to thrive. Some readers might wish Monbiot would cut to the chase but it's obviously important to him to share the sense of 'enchantment' and revitalisation that has informed his conception of 'rewilding'.
This rewilding is not a monolithic concept; it is being constructed differently by varied groups of advocates. Monbiot freely admits that, while he can make an impressive economic case, his real motivation is the yearning for reconnection and encounters with exciting ecosystems. He points out how barren sheepfarming has left this country, which without our intervention, would surprisingly be covered in rainforest, as diverse as the Brazilian Mata Atlantica of which it was once a part! He argues against the 'conservation prison'; the preservation of ecosystems created by historic farming practices and industrial processes that are actually severely depleted. Instead, he wants to see areas of 'self-willed' land.
The effects of stepping back and letting nature recover are inspiring. Simply fencing out sheep for twenty years produces a startlingly rich and varied patch of woodland where previously nothing lived but grass. In the ocean, where the biodiversity disaster has been even more dramatic than on land due to destructive fishing practices and the misguided removal of predators, it is even easier to restore biodiversity and ecosystem health; simply by creating marine reserves. This is one example among many in the book of the need for nothing but political will to bring about a hugely beneficial (to the fishing industry and seafood-lovers as much as to wildlife) change at no or minimal cost and with no investment in technology or R & D. In the case of agricultural practice, one solution Mobiot advocates is the removal of a rule that forces farmers to work or graze land they would otherwise leave fallow. One of the more difficult problems is the vice-like grip of extremely wealthy landowners, often living overseas, who seem to wield very disproportionate influence in government.
Monbiot is not naïve about the problems with rewilding areas of land. This is NOT a call for a return to ANY earlier stage of civilisation, to stop cultivation or reduce human populations. He balances his argument with chapters about his discussions with sheep farmers, and a cautionary discussion of the harrowing history of 'Nazi rewilding projects' that Simon Schama wrote about in Landscape and Memory. Monbiot also describes indefensible colonial 'conservation' projects, such as in Kenya, where imperial rulers have appropriated land from local people such as the Maasai, leaving them without homes or property, to create reserves
On the other side of the argument is another example of colonial thinking; asking people in African and Asian countries to conserve dangerous animals such as big cats and rhinos sits ill with our unwillingness to tolerate predators on our own shores. The reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone in the USA is an incredible success story, and its slow reappearance in continental Europe is having similar effects, with very little harm and many benefits to people.
Rewilding, Monbiot stresses, must be a democratic process, fully negotiated with all the stakeholders involved, but it has huge potential to enrich our land, seas and lives. I'm not just convinced this time, I'm full of hope.
on 30 July 2013
While arguing his point from an unashamedly selfish position, Monbiot's assertions around the need to understand the impact of shifting baselines on our approach to the conservation of our environment are convincing. I'm not sure to what extent his apparent admiration for some of the conservationists is shared by those who work the land (his focus tends to be on contrasting the priorities and actions of rewilders with those of landowners) but at a high level his narrative feels rational. Most of all, Monbiot's profound affection for the wild is writ large across this text. A rewarding and engaging book that I'm glad to have read.
on 31 May 2013
It is not a coincidence that the finest writers on wilderness - Henry Thoreau, Sigurd Olson, John Muir and Aldo Leopold - all had a sound scientific knowledge as well as the capacity to wonder. Both are necessary to make sense of the interconnections and entanglements in nature. This is a book in that fine tradition.
All is not well with the ecosystem in our wild country. Some of our most destructive uses of the land - upland sheep farming, windfarms and blanket sitka forests - do not even make economic sense. The first two are utterly dependent on subsidies, and the latter are only there because the cost of extraction often exceeds the timber value. Deer numbers are at an all time high due to the absence of large predators and the policies of some sporting estates, and natural forest regeneration is prevented by deer browsing. Some of our wild land, in biodiversity terms, is almost sterile.
This book presents a hopeful vision of returning some of our wild areas to a self-willed state. I know many will dismiss the author as a fantasist but the ideas presented are reasoned and grounded in science. He is fully prepared to reject ideas which clearly would not work (re-introducing the most dangerous megafauna, re-wilding productive farmland, or return to a Mesolithic hunter gatherer lifestyle). He recognizes the significant barriers to feasible re-introductions.
This work is long overdue. The work of Trees for Life in re-establishing the Caledonian forest, the Knapdale beaver re-introductions, the phenomenal public interest in Springwatch, the boom in wildlife tourism all make the need for a serious discussion on where we are going, and why, essential.
Monbiot alludes to the strange feeling of familiarity when, for the first time, he put a deer carcass over his shoulders. I think he is describing what Sigurd Olson called `racial memory' and this is a deep concept. Our brains must retain some hunter-gatherer hard wiring. The human fondness for open fires, the way people who have never drawn a bow before do so quite naturally, the desire to see forests and foreshore - all these things hint at something which is still buried somewhere in our heads.
Had we almost, but not quite, eradicated the wolf three centuries ago, the remaining wolves would be massively protected and their habitat conserved. But because they are gone, people shrug and accept it. The concerns of many Britons about wolves are not shared by the Scandinavians and other Europeans who still happily co-exist with what must be the finest symbol of wildness. This book has the most detailed and comprehensive review of re-introduction benefits and risks I have ever seen.
There have been disastrous attempts at rewilding and restoration, and there is a good review of what happens when you give the planet second rate first aid.
The book is a mix of scientific treatise and Monbiot's own experience of the need for wilderness. There is also a chapter on `big cat' sightings which to me does not fit well with the rest of the book. It is nevertheless interesting and typically grounded in science and rationality.
I'm a doctor, and the concept of intervening just enough to allow natural healing processes to take over is familiar to me. Monbiot proposes to do this with our ecosystem and perhaps this book will be the trigger.
In the past few years, I feel I have been observing a welcome note of commonsense and even optimism creeping into the arguments of some of our leading environmentalists. In this book Monbiot, while proposing ambitious and doubtless controversial ideas, confirms that impression.
Feral is his story of why and how he has come to believe that the future for nature conservancy is to stop conserving - to sit back, release the brakes and go on a wild ride with nature in the driving seat. He calls this process 'rewilding'.
'Rewilding recognises that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment. It understands that to keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development, to preserve it as if it were a jar of pickles, is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world.'
He scared me in the first couple of chapters. It seemed as if he had turned into a mini-Welsh version of Crocodile Dundee (Grass-snake Aberystwyth?) as he regaled us with tales of tracking and killing his prey with his bare hands and then eating it raw - it was a mackerel! When he set out to harpoon flounders with a trident, I genuinely thought he'd lost it; and when he became mushily sentimental over initiation rites for an African tribesman that involved tormenting and killing a lion, I nearly gave up on him.
However, the point that he then went on to make eloquently and convincingly is that humanity has lost something precious by its disconnect with the wild world and that we in the UK have taken that disconnect to further extremes than most. He isn't arguing for a return to the world of hunter/gatherer (although the first couple of chapters made it seem as if he was about to). But he is arguing for the return of at least parts of the country to true, unmanaged wilderness status and for the reintroduction of some of the top predators - wolves, for example - arguing that trophic cascades show that such predators can have often unexpected effects on biodiversity and environment and thus are an important part of any rewilding project. However he maintains a sense of realism and commonsense, making it clear that his suggestions should only be implemented with the informed consent of the people, and wryly admits that his attitude towards the introduction of top predators may not be universally shared.
'The clamour for the lion's reintroduction to Britain has, so far, been muted.'
Along the way, Monbiot gives us a history of why our landscape is as it now is. He blames sheep-farming for the bareness of our hills and points out that the sheep is a non-native species to the UK. He talks about the vested interests of farmers and landlords and how these seem to be given excessive weight, considering the comparatively small numbers of people employed in farming and the huge subsidies required to make it economical. He points to the somewhat symbiotic relationship between farming organisations and government and suggests this leads to suppression of real debate around the subject of land use. And his anger shows through as he discusses how the subsidy schemes of the EU continue to distort and warp the productivity of the land.
There is so much packed into this book that I can only give a pale impression of its scope in this review. Monbiot discusses the damage that an uncontrolled red deer population is doing to the landscape in the Highlands of Scotland; the adverse effect on childhood health (not to mention imagination) of the more indoors, sedentary lifestyle of today's child; the reasons for the growth of the myth of big cat sightings around the country; the Nazis' adoption and corruption of the concept of rewilding. He explains the effects that Shifting Baseline Syndrome has had on the debate over the years - that because 'the people of every generation perceive the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal' then attempts are made to conserve back to a state of nature that was already seriously degraded.
Towards the end of the book he extends his arguments for rewilding to include the seas, building on the arguments put forward so impressively by Callum Roberts (whose Ocean of Life I heartily recommend) that areas set aside as protected zones actually lead to greater fishing productivity rather than reducing it. And as he set off in his kayak in the final chapter to hunt the newly returned albacore, I no longer felt that he'd 'lost it' but that, perhaps, if we listen to what people like Monbiot and Roberts are saying, there's still hope that the rest of us may 'find it'.
'Environmentalism in the twentieth century foresaw a silent spring, in which the further degradation of the biosphere seemed inevitable. Rewilding offers the hope of a raucous summer, in which, in some parts of the world at least, destructive processes are thrown into reverse.'
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.
on 2 October 2013
I had never previously read any of Monbiot's books but read several of his articles so bought 'Feral' on a whim. I took it away with me along with a supply of murder mysteries, ready for the inevitable moment when I got bored and moved on. I didn't understand how utterly absorbing 'Feral' would be. It's a fantastic book and even a month later, I find myself dwelling on Monbiot's arguments. It has transformed the way I look at the environment and ecology.
Whether you agree with his arguments or not, it is a fascinating read and one that I would thoroughly recommend.
on 24 August 2015
George Monbiot's 'Feral' tells the story of his relationship with nature and rewilding, as well as offering the reader a real insight into the practicalities of the process. It is much more political than I had realised, and the contentious nature is not a simple one to puzzle through, even for Monbiot himself. I was particularly struck by the chapter 'How Not to Rewild', which talks about nature reclaiming the land after mass human genocide and other human tragedies. The role of natural preservation sites also shocked me; it is so easy to think of them as 'positive' things that the reality is a hard pill to swallow. There is no easy answer.
I have to admit that I struggled through this book. It was, for me, not an easy read. I am not a prolific reader of non-fiction, even of semi-autobiographical books such as this. I have tried in the past to read a number of Robert Mcfarlane's books but have never made it to the end of the first chapter. I was more determined with this, as it was lean to me by a wonderful cousin who is very involved with wildlife movements. Although it has taken me two months, reading on and off, I am glad that I persevered. Nature books are not for me, but it was fascinating. The final few chapters about rewilding the sea were actively enjoyable, and not difficult to read at all: maybe I had finally got used to th style? It is a really fascinating book for anyone interested in the idea of what is 'natural' or not, and the role of politics behind it.
One issue I had was the horrible damning of sheep!! I understand totally what was being said (in fact I remember learning similar things in history after enclosures came in in the medieval period) but I didn't have the same relationship with sheep as in now do. Despite the very real things he says about them, I feel a natural urge to defend them. I love my sheep, even though they destroy ecosystems. It's a difficult thing to reconcile: the truth is far from the one that I would like to believe.
Overall, a really interesting and eye opening read. Despite my struggles with it, I am glad to have read it, and would probably recommend it. Nature memoirs are not my genre, and I'm not sure I will read any more, but this one was thoroughly worthwhile. I may come back to mature memoirs in the future, who knows?
on 25 March 2014
I was excited to purchase George Monbiot's 'Feral'. Having worked in the conservation sector in the UK, I understood that this book would consider ideas such as rewilding and species reintroductions that, perhaps, do not receive the attention they deserve from this sector.
I enjoyed reading the book, but found myself skipping through multiple sections of personal narrative. I assume that these personal anecdotes were included in order to reinforce the more theoretical concepts, however, I often struggled to see their relevance. The concept of rewilding is a bold one, and I found myself hoping that Monbiot would make a more concise, powerful case for it. Instead, his arguments in favour of rewilding are almost apologetic at times, with copious 'exceptions' to rewilding, to the extent that Mobiot's case suffers from the same timidity he finds British conservationists guilty of.
I had the impression that each chapter was written entirely separately, without attention to continuity or indeed, to repetition. Several chapters contain information that has been presented previously.
Overall, the message was muddled and I was hoping for more. However, I would still recommend reading Feral for the sections of useful information it contains.
on 18 December 2013
Rewilding is the solution to many of our ecological problems today and George Monbiot makes a great case for it.
I personally cannot wait for beavers to fill the rivers of England and for wolves to roam the newly forested hills of Scotland!!
on 4 March 2014
Rarely has a book annoyed me quite as much as this one: for two very different reasons.
Firstly the argument is very powerful. That much of our landscape has been stripped of most of the natural animal and plant life, that for as long as modern humans have existed they have exterminated species on a terrifying scale, that much modern conservation is applying a sticking plaster to the stump of a crudely amputated limb and trying (and failing) to keep a landscape already reduced to far below its natural state from decaying further. and stories of how even modest attempts to redress the balance are blocked by governments total servitude to a tiny number of immensely rich owners of enormous estates.
"The British countryside" seems to be run for the benefit of three species: sheep, red deer and red grouse even when they drive out all else. There is much in this book which deserves to be more widely known, discussed,argued about and ideally changed.
This is also, unfortunately, a deeply personal book. Which is the second thing which made me angry. The very important issues raised struggle for space among endless personal anecdotes: George gets in his kayak and goes fishing, George runs across the African savannah with a Masai warrior and frightens him with a chameleon, George lives among miners in South America, George takes his kayak somewhere else and fishes some more, and these anecdotes, told in a rather over-blown, purple prose, crowd out the arguments, like the author's hated sheep overwhelming all vegetation. At times during these stories I was reminded of the classic review, "this is not a book to be tossed aside lightly; it is one to be thrown with great force."
Despite my irritation I would recommend the book: there are important issues raised which could have horrific consequences if we continue to have such a short-sighted view of mankind's relationship with the natural world and the author does have some interesting ideas - though I doubt we'll see wild elephants roaming the English countryside as he hopes. Beavers quite possibly, wolves in the Scottish Highlands I very much hope, but not elephants for quite a while, I fear. But I do wish he cut out the kayak stories.