Visions of a wild future

William Brown
Mar 31 · 12 min read

8 approaches to future-making that call forth a rewilded world.

Glen Affric: a site of old-growth Caledonia Pinewood and Trees For Life rewilding projects. Image attribution: Weesam2010

It feels like there are a lot of exciting conversations about the future going on in the rewilding space right now. This is of particular interest to me due to having my foot firmly planted in both the world of futures with Andthen and the world of rewilding with my rewilding burial startup, Return To Nature. Both of these satisfy a deep urge within me to imagine an alternative to the business-as-usual view of tomorrow and create a better future. With Andthen, we empower our clients to apply this perspective to research, products, services and businesses; and with Return To Nature, I am attempting to establish a business anchored around a centuries-long view of a regenerated landscape.

This article is a moment to celebrate the various exciting ways that the future of rewilding is being communicated. Rewilding itself is an act of futuring as it challenges traditional norms of conservation and how we use land. It is a movement very focused on the implementation, yet faces barriers that are less technical in nature — more social and political. Hopefully this article opens the conversation of how we can learn from each other to find the right way to communicate the future of rewilding.

We are seeing a huge shift in perspective in how we use land due to the urgency of the climate crisis. Rewilding is becoming an exciting new movement that offers some direction and hope for land use that is more sustainable. It aims to regenerate land by taking inspiration from past ecosystems to uncover interventions that tip the balance of the ecosystem into a state where nature can heal itself. As opposed to conservation, rewilding aims to be more of a hands-off and non-prescriptive way of increasing biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. In the context of Scotland, this means seeking to restore the amount of forest cover and blanket bog health through interventions such as deer exclosures, reintroducing apex predators and filling in peatland drainage ditches.

Land use however, is a slow-moving space where it is challenging to make large scale changes. This is due to the following characteristics that together weave themselves into a Gordian knot:

  1. Conflicting views from various interest groups who each have a stake in land use: from farmers to ecologists, and from communities to landowners.
  2. Disconnection of the general public from land due to urbanisation.
  3. Land use is influenced by culture and worldviews that can be abstract to engage with.
  4. Land use is deeply connected to identity, belonging and livelihoods — which lead to highly heated debates.

Rewilding as a sustainable response to challenge the current paradigm of land use can particularly benefit from using visions to achieve its goals. Visions can help make decisions and overcome the challenges of changing land use through:

  1. Facilitating a shared conversation between disparate interest groups to achieve collective agreement and cooperation.
  2. Telling an engaging and emotional story to increase support from the public to motivate policy change.
  3. Making the abstract tangible, therefore making it relatable and approachable.
  4. Removing risk and uncertainty for those particularly impacted by change.

Luckily, there are a variety of passionate and creative individuals and organisations who are exploring many different expressions of rewilding as a response to the systemic problem of land use. Below are 8 different uses of visioning applied to rewilding and conservation that I hope will expand your mind to the possible ways to bring about a rewilding future.

It’s good to start with the most obvious, as this will hopefully be the type of engaging with rewilding futures most readers are familiar with.

Right now in the rewilding space, there is a flurry of fantastic books that are bringing rewilding to life and painting exciting visions of what a rewilded future could look like. Books like Isabella Tree’s Wilding explores the personal journey of rewilding a south English estate, whilst Jepson & Blythe take a more analytical approach to exploring the various expressions of rewilding all over the world, culminating in 10 predictions for rewilding in the future.

Of course, you can achieve a lot with a book that essentially represents a multi-hour monologue with your individual readers and fully explores a topic. The emotional connections and vivid imagination they can strike have been fundamental for me to connect deeper with this topic as a rewilder myself.

However, this does point to the limits of literature like this as a vehicle: deep engagement with a select audience like myself and my rewilding peers. Despite much peer pressure, I have not successfully persuaded that many of my friends and family outside of the rewilding space to read these books. Perhaps that is okay, as these books serve as a thrilling launchpad into rewilding for those inclined. I feel it will be more up to the following examples to play the role of achieving broader awareness outside of the in-crowd of rewilding fanatics like myself.

Featured on Rewilding Britain’s webpage, The World We Want To See

For intents and purposes, George Monbiot should have been mentioned in the previous section for this absolutely fantastic book, Feral (which, along with his journalism, was my own and many others’ gateway into rewilding). However, there is a more specific reason to celebrate Monbiot’s contribution.

For enacting wide-scale change, the things we read in books are only as effective as our ability as readers to communicate what we have read to others. Being a journalist, Monbiot is clearly very skilled at this, which is apparent in his masterful use of metaphor in describing the results of rewilding as a ‘Raucous Summer’.

In just two words, ‘Raucous Summer’ conjures a vivid picture of the multitude of life thriving in a rich and wild landscape. It feels like a future worth being a part of. This metaphor is a flip of a previously powerful metaphor that shook the 60s: Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ that painted a bleak picture of the hazardous insecticide DDT that was successfully banned as a result.

Metaphors like this easily encapsulate ideas and travel as memes throughout society to change an underlying feeling towards a particular idea. What other metaphors relating to land use and conservation are there for rewilders to overturn?

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky to join the virtual launch of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance. With a mission to make Scotland the “world’s first Rewilding Nation”, it is integral that they can foster broad appeal to achieve such an ambitious goal. With this in mind, I was excited to see this launch marked with a beautifully animated video of what a rewilded Scotland could look like, narrated by BBC Life filmmaker, Gordon Buchanan.

The Scottish Rewilding Alliance invites us to share this lovely video, and here I think they understand something very important. Such a wholesale shift in thinking that rewilding represents needs to be a mass movement. Therefore creating beautiful content that is worth sharing by its audience is a key approach to opening new minds to rewilding.

Peter Cairns, who also leads Scotland: The Big Picture, is exploring other ways to bring the future fruits of rewilding to life. Recently STBP launched a wildlife photography book of the Eurasian Lynx as part of their venture, Lynx To Scotland, that advocates for the reintroduction of this graceful animal to the British Isles. I reached out to Peter who told me:

“Very few people know what a Lynx does, what it eats, where it lives. ‘The Lynx and Us’ aims to close that knowledge gap so that people can make informed decisions about whether they support their return to Britain after more than 500 years.”

If we can’t see the positive alternatives to the business-as-usual future, then how are we supposed to take the first small steps in the right direction? More beautiful future visions of rewilding please!

Sometimes, even the most beautiful visions of a better future can fail to connect and make the impact it needs. They cause a stir but are soon forgotten about. In these situations, I often think that it is because there has been insufficient exploration of the problem that the visionaries are shouting about.

Over the past several years, I can’t tell you how many tables and graphs of land use statistics I have pored over. Whilst they will always play a technical role for quantifying the problem and making informed planning decisions (their use for myself as a founder gathering essential data has been invaluable) for the semi-engaged layperson that movements like rewilding also need, they are fatally boring.

Dan Raven-Ellison achieves this in his video, ‘Space For Nature: The UK In 100 Seconds’. In this drone flyover short clip, Dan demonstrates something that is so hard to tangibly grasp: the breakdown of land use across the entire UK. This video does something that a graph doesn’t, it allows me to emotionally comprehend the UK’s land use rather than just intellectually understand it.

In a similar vein, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s ‘Resurrecting The Sublime’ is a collaboration between designers and scientists to use genetic sequencing to recreate the smell of extinct flowers. As part of an exhibition, audience members experience the solemn scent of a plant species that is lost to us forever. Rather than telling us about extinct flowers, Ginsberg gets us to feel it. An uncanny experience that I imagine not many will forget.

Despite being rational beings, we still make decisions based on emotions, which these types of data-as-stories so wonderfully elicit in us.

Let’s pretend for a moment that we have all seen the overarching vision of a rewilding future and are on board. The inevitable next question can be, “what next?” Whilst these overarching visions are effective at demonstrating the exciting breadth and scale, they can sometimes leave us wondering how it relates to our lives and what we can do about it.

This is where the method of speculative design can be so effective. Speculative design brings to life the future by creating the artefacts that may feature in a particular future scenario. This makes the future accessible and relatable — rather than some abstract entity for someone else to worry about.

Italian designers, Raoul Bretzel and Anna Citelli, created Capsula Mundi as a piece of speculative design exploring death in harmony with nature. Despite being a simple idea of being buried under a tree, it symbolically represents something much bigger: rejoining the cycle of life. Featured in multiple exhibitions, it has captured the public imagination and as a result they have turned it into a real product to purchase.

Many people I have spoken to through my work with Return To Nature have talked with zeal about tree pods. To me, this reflects the power of turning an abstract future into something tangible that we can picture being part of our everyday lives. Rewilding isn’t something happening far away to something else, it is happening to us. As Trees For Life founder, Alan Watson Featherstone told me once; to rewild the world we must rewild ourselves. So what does it look like when we bring rewilding into our everyday lives?

I am a believer in talking optimistically about the future and so the examples here largely reflect that. However, sometimes there can be value in futures that challenge us.

Liam Young’s fictional Planet City proposes that the entirety of humanity retreats into a hyper-dense single city of 10 billion people that leaves the rest of the world to nature. It’s provocation elicited a harsh response from many people who were appalled by what to them appeared to be a dystopian vision (see the comments under this Dezeen article…). The rejection that this vision provokes is exactly the value of Planet City. It is just as valuable to know what we don’t want as to what we do.

Planet City takes the idea of removing humanity from nature to its extreme zenith. It is not an actual proposal, rather an exploration of whether increasing urban density to make room for nature is achievable. Paradoxically, I see this separation-from-nature idea in both techno-utopians and a sub-strain of rewilding thought. Techno-utopians think we don’t need nature, whilst some people in the rewilding movement think that we cannot be trusted to be a part of nature and thus should envision rewilding without humanity in it. We notice something we took for granted when it’s taken away from us. Similarly, a dystopian vision — even if that wasn’t its intention — that separates us from nature demonstrates how inseparable it is to our lives, and that of course we should be part of a rewilding future.

The general theme running through many of these examples is using visions to forge emotional links between the future and its audience in the present. The focus is placed on the strength of the storytelling to share the rewilding perspective from the speaker to the listener. What if this was a dialogue or an interaction?

You know that rewilding is breaking into the mainstream when a behemoth consultancy like Arup is supporting the views of rewilding. They partnered with Phoria to create an immersive AR exhibition that empowers their audience to make choices that impact a virtual earth.

This is a non-linear kind of storytelling where the audience explores different future scenarios linked to their actions. By trying things out for ourselves, we can deepen our understanding of a topic. This is what this approach to visioning seeks to create. Most major planning decisions, like regulatory change, feel like they happen to us, rather than with us. By using engaging methods like this — or other participatory futures methods — to involve more people in the consequences of decision making we can have a more accessible conversation about the future.

This final example demonstrates the power of facilitating a mindset shift through a designed object or tool.

Dan Raven-Ellison is getting a second mention here because I love his ambition of proposing (and then succeeding in) the creation of a National Park City of London. By using the National Park City status to highlight the existing natural wealth of London, he does an important job of prioritising it for the future and shifting the way Londoners see their own city.

As part of the campaign, Dan worked with Urban Good to produce a greenspace map of London that had no buildings on it — instead showing all of London’s trees, woods, forests and parks. This map embodies the vision of London as a National Park City, being a tangible presence in its residents’ lives. With this, the title is no longer an abstraction but something that people can feel, use and point to in their neighbourhood.

Rather than waiting for London to protect and engage with its green spaces, Dan simply started creating this tool as if the future had already happened.

There is too much wrong with the business-as-usual world as it is today. A lack of imagination is not going to fix it. We can only bring about the kind of positive future we would like to see if we create compelling visions of what to strive for.

All of these examples demonstrate the immense variety of expressing the future to be found in the single topic of rewilding. Yet how can we push it even further to overcome the barriers to rewilding? Or how can we apply some of the thinking here to other areas of society? This creativity is integral to engaging the emotional and human sides of us that can hopefully find common ground and seek consensus to create a rewilding future that works for everyone.

Credit to Solène Wolff for suggesting some of the examples shown, and Santini Basra for editing.

Andthen

We’re designers researching the future — what it could be, and what people want it to be.

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