World Rewilding Day

What is the place of animals in rewilding?


by William S. Lynn, PhD

A special note to readers. We are interested in your viewpoints. Please share them in the comments, and we will be sure to respond.

Today is World Rewilding Day!

Sponsored by the Global Alliance for Rewilding, World Rewilding Day is a moment of atonement, remembrance and celebration for wilderness, wildness and wild lives. Yet as much as I wish to celebrate rewilding, I wonder about the place of animals in rewilding’s discourse and priorities. Do we care enough about the animals whose lives are impacted by rewilding? Is rewilding simply about nature and the people who depend on it’s ecological services and material or spiritual resources, or is it equally about the wild lives that inhabit wild spaces?

I live in northeastern North America, an area comprised of Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces of Canada, and New York state and the states of New England in the US. It comes as a surprise to some that this heavily settled area of North America also has some of the largest areas of protected space on the continent. This includes national and provincial/state parks (e.g., Algonquin Provincial Park, Adirondack State Park), a wealth of sanctuaries and monuments (e.g., Mass Audubon’s Wachusettes Meadow, Katahdin Woods and Waters), and defacto wilderness in the form of watershed reservoirs, wetlands and river systems. Combined with extensive agricultural and forested land, as well as a burgeoning population of wildlife, it is a mixed landscape of extraordinary cultural and biological diversity.

Photo by Evi T. on Unsplash

The region is also a hotbed of rewilding. One of the organizations promoting this is the Northeast Wilderness Trust. The Trust seeks to conserve “forever-wild landscapes” protecting over 75,000 acres of habitat from development.

The Trust’s reasoning for doing so is both a matter of ethics and practicality. Nature has intrinsic value in and of itself, while also being an instrumental necessity for people. Hence its tag-line “conserving forever-wild landscapes for nature and people.” The Trust’s new film, “Forever Wild,” encapsulates this mission.

Additionally, the Alliance and the Trust are guided in their norms and vision by the “Global Charter for Rewilding the Earth” (2020). Published in the journal, The Ecological Citizen, the Rewilding Charter was the product of the Rewilding Charter Working Group led by Vance Martin, President of the WILD Foundation.

An aspirational document seeking to “advance nature-based solutions to the extinction and climate crises,” the Rewilding Charter loosely mirrors the Earth Charter drafted 30 years prior. The Earth Charter focused on an ethic of sustainability and mostly sidestepped contentious issues about animals and wilderness. In contrast, the Rewilding Charter takes up the mantle of wildness directly, advancing a set of principles by which to think about and act on rewilding. While the document is extensive, the principles include the following.

The ecosphere is based on relationships

Making hopeful stories come to life

Embracing natural solutions and thinking creatively

Protecting the best, rewilding the rest

Letting nature lead

Working at nature’s scale

Taking the long view

Building local economies

Recalling ecological history and acting in context

Evidence-based adaptive management

Public/private collaboration

Working together for the good of ourselves and nature

These principles recall and extend the emphasis in the Earth Charter on respecting and caring for the community of life while protecting nature’s integrity, even while it lacks the Earth Charter’s corresponding emphasis on social justice or peace. I say this not as a criticism, but as a matter of comparison.

I greatly admire the work of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, the Wild Foundation, and The Ecological Citizen journal. Wilderness as a place and wildness as a value are indispensable if we are to do right by the nonhuman world. Animals are not “social constructs” and wild places are not Karl Marx’s “extended body of mankind [sic].” Still, there is something missing that would deepen our understanding and commitment to rewilding — care for the wellbeing of animals.

The absence of this care as an overt expression of what rewilding means has its roots in our understanding of the term wilderness and wildness. The Northeast Wilderness Trust takes David Foreman’s understanding of wilderness to heart when it says:

The defining characteristic of wilderness is freedom for the land to evolve in its own way.

The roots of the word wilderness meant “will-of-the-land.” Thus wilderness is self-willed land, where natural processes direct the ebb and flow of life. Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act of 1964, consciously avoided the word “pristine” in the law’s definition of wilderness. Rather, he used the word untrammeled, which means not deprived of freedom of action or expression. Untrammeled lands are not necessarily untouched or even unpeopled, but are unyoked from human dominion.

Indeed, wilderness is not simply a special kind of place, it’s a special kind of commitment we make to a place. That commitment is protecting the land’s freedom to be wild.

This definition is rooted in Foreman’s book Rewilding North America (2004), and was articulated much earlier in various editions of Earth First! Foreman’s emphasis was on landscape-level rewilding. He valued nature as a whole (i.e., ecocentrism) and used ecology as the metaphor to understand our ethical and practical relationship to nature. You see a similar emphasis on ecocentrism and ecology in the language of the Rewilding Charter itself — “ecosphere,” “letting nature lead,” “nature’s scale,” and “good of ourselves and nature.”

A later emphasis on apex carnivores and predation positively influencing biodiversity was introduced by Michael Soule and Reed Noss in a Wild Earth article, “Rewilding and Biodiversity” (1984). This is where the Northeast Wilderness Trust and allies derive their emphasis on restoring wildlife (especially predators) to the landscape. Interestingly, while this emphasis on wildlife is broadly shared in rewilding across the world, the wildlife at play can differ markedly. While in North America apex predators like wolves are given pride of place, in Europe and elsewhere there is a greater emphasis on landscape engineers like beaver in the rewilding process. Note that in both cases, however, wildlife are instrumental vehicles of ecological processes and it is nature, not wild lives, that bears intrinsic moral value.

I don’t disagree with this definitional understanding as far as it goes, but it is incomplete. Early in the 2000s Dave Foreman and I debated the meaning of wilderness and wildness. I emphasized that the terms derive from the Old English wildēornes from wild dēor meaning wild deer. Wilderness is the place of wild lives. This isn’t contrary to Dave’s emphasis, but it does give wilderness and wildness a new cast. Instead of simply an ecological project, rewilding is also an ethological and cultural project. Instead of rewilding being only about landscape-level processes, it is also about the lives of those living in a landscape. In this view, wild creatures are not simply vehicles of ecosystem services, but intrinsically valuable beings as individuals and communities. This transcends a narrowly drawn ecocentric understanding of intrinsic value, and welcomes a more expansive geocentric view of intrinsic value.

Rewilding is one of our primary interests at PAN Works. In their research and publications, our fellows manifest extensive expertise and distinctive viewpoints on rewilding

Bill Borrie asks us to be sensitive to the wide variety of values and experiences about wildness that are actually experienced in wilderness. As part of this experience is indispensably about wild animal lives, Liv Baker offers that rewilding is not simply an ecological process but a psychological and social dynamic for the animals themselves. The wellbeing of individual animals, wild or domesticated, needs to be considered in any and all rewilding projects. Francisco Santiago-Ávila looks at wolf recovery not as a mechanism to restore trophic cascades, but as an act of multispecies justice as we try to do better by wolves themselves. Tristan Derham challenges us to consider what rewilding may mean when what we take to be wild landscapes are intimately connected to indigenous peoples.

So too, my own work has focused in part on the ethics and politics of rewilding. Humans wreak grievous harm on other animals and nature. Rewilding is the most ethical means of restorative justice for the nonhuman world, especially in contrasted to the direct and indirect harm to animals as found in wildlife management.

To be sure, my rewilding colleagues all care deeply about animals. Their good will is not what is at issue. Rather it is the dominant rhetoric of rewilding that fails to give voice to such care. When we understand that rewilding is not only about self-willed land but wild lives, a focus from people and nature alone is no longer adequate. We need a wider optic that includes people, animals and nature.

Bill Lynn is the founder of PAN Works and a fellow at the Marsh Institute of Clark University.




People•Animals•Nature (PAN) is a publication of PAN Works, an ethics think tank dedicated to the wellbeing of animals.

Recommended from Medium


See more recommendations