Rewilding is an ecological idea that is gradually gaining traction within environmental circles, and it bears significant comparison with some of permaculture’s guiding principles. Permaculture emphasizes the preservation of natural ecosystems and making efforts to repair ecosystems that have been damaged by human activity. Rewilding also proposes people taking a proactive approach to assisting natural ecosystems retain their former diversity and abundance – which have been curtailed by human encroachment on the land.
Whereas much wilderness management as it is currently practiced seeks to somehow contain or suppress natural processes, or managing the environment for the benefit of a single species, rewilding proposes letting nature re-find its own balance – in many ways letting the land turn feral, so that nature itself can work out what is best for it. Rewilding is about making a whole wilderness ecosystem truly wild – self-sustaining, abundant and diverse (which just happen to coincide with the aims of permaculture design). It is about creating a future in which humans and nature are equal parts of a global ecosystem, rather than separate and often antagonistic elements.
Given the damage that man has done to many natural environments, and the atomization of landscapes that would have once been joined by human activity, we must take active steps to help the rewilding process. There are several methods for doing this. The one that tends to get the most media attention in discussions about rewilding is the reintroduction of megafauna, typically apex predators, into environments from where they have been absent. The idea is that by, say reintroducing wolves into an area where there are a lot of deer, the wolves will naturally keep the deer population in check so that they do not decimate the native plant life, which in turn will create a more diverse ecosystem as more animals will be supported by the available plant life. Other methods of rewilding include creating corridors that link areas of wilderness that were once part of the same landscape but which have become separated by human construction (this allows different populations of animals to interact and thus breeding between family groups, which creates for a more biodiverse species) and regrowing native plants where invasive species have become dominant. This in turn should lead to the reinvigoration of native insect species and, in turn, the food chain that develops from them.
Then, once such steps have been taken and the ecosystem is able to function independently (the toxins we have introduced into the soil through agricultural practices have disappeared, for instance, or the invasive species have been eliminated), human interference is actively withheld; nature takes over. And given what we know about nature as permaculturists we can be certain that once that situation is reached nature will find the correct balance for that ecosystem, and will eventually reach abundance. There are several reasons why rewilding is an appealing prospect.
Human activity has been incredibly destructive in terms of the biodiversity of the plant. A 2014 report by the World Wildlife Fund detailed how in the last 40 years alone, humans have caused the disappearance of half the number of animals on the planet. This is through hunting, destroying habitats and pollution. Rewilding gives nature a chance to reestablish it natural state of abundance and biodiversity.
As we know from permaculture design, when ecosystems are allowed to blossom in their biodiversity, they naturally create a system that is self-sustaining. The elements of the system will eventually find a natural balance that allows all the elements to thrive. This means a system that does not require human intervention to support it. In permaculture, we seek to minimize the energy and time input we give to our site; by doing the same with natural ecosystems we allow them to form the balance that is their natural state.
Protect from Extinction
Reintroducing species to an area where they were once native is a way of protecting species from extinction. The large mega fauna in many areas, from the wolves and lynx in highland areas, to the bison on the American plains were reduced to near extinction by human activity (either deliberately through hunting or indirectly through destruction of habitat). By essentially giving them back land, and land that is their native environment and where they are best adapted to survive and thrive, we protect them from extinction again. This is also true of plant species and smaller organisms, from butterflies to beetles. All are potentially threatened by human activity (particularly in the case of insects and microorganisms by the impact of chemical use in agriculture). By allowing environments to return to natural states we protect the natural heritage of our countries.
Many critics of rewilding claim that it would harm the commercial interests of people that depend upon the land. They claim that by returning highland areas, say, over to wild animals you destroy the livelihood of the sheep farmers that currently use them. However, rewilding does have commercial potential that could help finance its implementation. The best correlative is whales. Many former whaling communities now realize that there is more commercial viability in whale watching than in hunting whales. Safaris are another example where natural ecosystems can provide financial gains – which should then be used at least in part to finance the continued protection of the rewilded area.
The popularity of safaris and trips to view wildlife suggests that having encounters with the natural world is important to many of us. As such, rewilding is not only beneficial to the land and the animals that live on it; it is also good for humans. Rewilding is a way of siting ourselves as just one part of a larger, complex natural ecosystem, rather than as the domineering, destructive species we too often become. By deliberately creating truly wild areas we get in touch with a more elemental part of ourselves. It gives us a chance to interact with nature on its terms, and escape the sanitized, unnatural environments that we have overwhelmingly built for ourselves.