On graduating, George Monbiot spent six years in the tropics, with the Yanomami in the Amazon and the Maasai on the grasslands in Kenya. The sense of freedom has ever since eluded him.
In Feral, he cites early settlers in the New World. Indians who came to live with settlers, would always wish to return. Settlers who went to live with the Indians did not wish to return.
Two conversations in Dark Mountain 4:
In conversation with Dougald Hine, Gustavo Esteva tells of working with poor peasants, contrary to perceived wisdom, he found them to be happy.
John Zerzan, in conversation with Steve Wheeler, contends that that Man was better off as a hunter-gatherer, had a better diet. He cites anthropologists who find the people who they study to be happy.
Everything I thought was true has changed — I’m not getting paid for work or clocking into a time sheet, but I’m fulfilled and happy and doing work that is meaningful. My body is fit, healthy, toned, and I am not spending hours in a gym or stressing about food.
Progress may have led to an accumulation of material possessions, but it has been inversely proportional to the quality of life.
Top predators, in what is known as trophic cascade, can have an effect all the way down the food chain.
Reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone National Park, affected the landscape.
With no predators, the deer populations soared, destroying the vegetation and trees, denuding the landscape.
Though wolves were small in number, did not kill many deer, they changed the pattern of behaviour of the deer, the deer avoid the places most likely to be ambushed by wolves. In those areas, the trees recover, birds return, bears return. Beavers return, beavers damn the rivers, providing more habitats for mores species. The river changes. The trees stop soil erosion, the landscape changes.
The wolves may kill a few deer, but they also create life, they create the conditions for life to exist in more varied variety than existed before their introduction.
The Japanese would argue killing of whales, in fact the Japanese will find any excuse to kill whales, more krill, more fish.
Killing whales leads to fewer krill.
Whales stir up the waters, bring nutrients to the surface. Phytoplankton feed on the nutrients, zoo plankton feed on the phytoplankton, fish feed on the plankton.
Phytoplankton capture carbon which is then carried down to the ocean sediments. Millions of tonnes of carbon capture.
The presence of whales, leads to more life, not less.
Top predators are not only affecting life all the way along the food chain, they are impacting on geophysical processes.
There used to be elephants in London, larger than the Indian elephant. They lived in London during the recent interglacial, as did rhinos, as did hippos.
We know this from skeletons found during the excavation to build Trafalgar Square.
We know this from trees and bushes. Snap off a tree. It will regrow from the broken trunk, what a woodsman calls coppicing. The bushes beneath the trees are much tougher than needed to survive the wind. The trees and bushes are elephant proof.
Top predators compete with Man. These are the first species to be driven into extinction, with catastrophic effects on ecosystems and geophysical processes.
It is no exaggeration, to say we are destroying the control mechanisms of Gaia.
Where are the aurochs?
Many years ago, I visited oaks growing on Dartmoor. If you did not know they were there, you would not know they were there. The oaks were old and gnarled and stunted. They were in a narrow, boulder strewn valley, growing up between the boulders. The oaks grew to a certain height, no more. Above that height, they were savaged by the winds that blow across Dartmoor. With me was a man. He had a book. In that book was photos taken over a hundred years ago, of oaks in this little valley. We were able to identify the oaks from the photos, oaks that had little changed in a century.
It is a myth oaks no longer self-seed in England, that is why we see no young oaks, oak saplings, something to do with a change in the climate.
Part of the valley had been fenced off, a deer-proof, rabbit-proof fence, probably sheep-proof too. Young oaks were growing in the fenced-off area.
I know the myth to be untrue because oaks have grown in my garden. The acorns are planted by squirrels. I used to cut the oak seedling when cutting the grass, in an area managed as a hay meadow. Then I left the oak seedlings to grow. They are now tall oak trees.
Traditionally, it was thought ecosystems developed from the bottom up: the soil determines the vegetation, the vegetation the herbivores, the herbivores the carnivores. We now know this not to be true, it is the top predators, the keystone species, those whose influence extends far beyond their numbers, that determine an ecosystem.
In 1995, only two packs of wolves were introduced into Yellowstone National Park. In less than ten years, they had changed the park beyond all recognition. Deer avoided the river banks. Trees grew on the river banks. The trees attracted birds, the berries on the trees attracted bears, as did the carcasses left by the wolves. The carcasses left by the wolves also attracted carrion birds. The bears helped keep down the deer by taking young deer. The deer became healthier, always on the move to avoid the wolves. By moving around, running, to avoid the wolves, the deer disturb the soil, creating opportunities for seeds to germinate. The trees provide shade for fish. Beavers damn the rivers, create new habits in the ponds that form. The trees stabilise the river banks, stop soil erosion. The water becomes clearer, cleaner. The wolves kill coyotes and compete with the coyote. Fewer rodents and small mammals killed by the coyote. The rodents and small mammals attract hawks and eagles. The changing grazing patterns of the deer changes the soil type.
In Feral, George Monbiot argues for rewilding on several levels:
- reintroduction of top level predators
- leaving ecosystems to develop naturally
- rewilding of the human psyche
We should always respect minorities, but we should never let minorities dictate to the majority, be they Muslim fundamentalists or farmers or wealthy landowners.
In what Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci called cultural hegemony, we let the 1% dictate to the 99%, aided and abetted by a compliant media, what is good for them, which then become the cultural norm. A monoculture of the fields becomes a monoculture of the mind.
The power of cultural hegemony lies in its invisibility. Unlike a soldier with a gun or a political system backed up by a written constitution, culture resides within us.
There is no reason why wolves and beavers and wild boar cannot be re-introduced to the countryside, other than the obstruction by farmers and wealthy tax-dodging landowners.
Subsidies to farmers should end. Subsidies go to production, for example sugar beet, crops are overproduced, then are dumped, or in the case of sugar beet, decreases imports from the Caribbean where the farmers then move into more lucrative coca production. Subsidies reinforce bad ecological practice, for example overgrazing by sheep. Subsides also go directly to enforce bad environmental practices, keeping fields clear of invasive species. Farmers are paid to grub up and burn trees!
At a time when benefits are being cut, when public services are being cut, when we have austerity being used as an excuse for Shock Doctrine, slash and burn policies, there can be no excuse to maintain the public subsidies going to farmers and wealthy landowners.
We have created a ludicrous system, where farmers and landowners farm and manage the land for the subsidies, not what is best suited to the land.
Subsidies should only be paid, where there is a contribution to the global commons, for example, hedgerows, dry stone walls, planting trees.
Our uplands, can be seen as wilderness areas, or wastelands where little grows.
We fought long and hard, for the right to roam. We must now fight as hard to rewild these uplands, to introduce top level predators, to let Nature takes its course.
The uplands are owned by absentee landlords, tax-dodgers, the land for the Rich to go grouse shooting and deer stalking. The income generated, the employment minimal, often negative. Sheep farmers only survive through public subsidies.
In Scotland, only 1,000 people own 60% of the land.
Were the uplands to be rewilded, gamekeepers, deer stalkers, sheep farmers could use their knowledge of the land, to engage with tourists, derelict houses rebuilt and brought back into use, eco-tourism, agro-tourism, the remote areas would generate more income, more employment.
Landowners will peddle nonsense to maintain their entrenched positions, as we saw with the Right to Roam.
Landowners claim beavers will decimate salmon population. Beavers, by improving rivers, lead to an increase in salmon populations. Beavers do not take salmon, beavers are vegetarian.
We have seen similar nonsense peddled to justify fox hunting, the mass slaughter of badgers.
We always have an end result in mind. If we let nature take its course, we do not know the end result. The end result is the process, the rewiring of complex ecological links, a network approach.
If Man eliminates top predators, then Man has to replicate their Gaian control function. Man is a poor substitute.
When I dig my garden, I am nearly always accompanied by a robin. Indeed, I have to be careful not to injure the robin. The robin cannot dig, and expose lunch, tasty earthworms. I am acting in the role of wild boar that root in the soil.
Trees for Life is attempting to restore the ancient Caledonian Forest, of which only a few remnants remain following the Battle of Culloden and Clearances. The ambitious aim is to restore 1,000 square miles.
Slovenia is roughly the size of Wales, but there the comparison ends. Slovenia was depopulated through genocide, forced movement of people and abandonment. The remnants of the old forests took over. Much of Slovenia has become forested, the rivers run clear, the rivers teem with fish, in the forests, wolves, lynx, beavers, bears. The people are proud of their natural world. The forests have become a tourist attraction, the rivers are fished, the wood is carved. The income per capita is higher than Wales.
We think of the rainforests in the Amazon as unspoilt, the last refuge of hunter-gatherers. When Francisco de Orellana and Friar Gaspar de Carvajal explored the Amazon in 1542, they claimed they had seen vast walled cities, agricultural lands, paved highways 60 feet wide, canals. They were disbelieved. Carvajal’s account of his travels lay unpublished for 300 years. Recent archaeology has found evidence of these cities. When the trees took back the land, it was so rapid, it sucked down millions of tonnes of carbon, led to dramatic cooling, and may have led to the mini Ice Age when the Thames froze and fairs were held on the Thames.
When I walk in Ancient Woodland during a heavy downpour, it can be 10-30 minutes before drip, drip, the rain makes its way down to the woodland floor, once the rain stops, it can be anything up to an hour before the trees stop dripping.
The trees have slowed the rate at which the rain hits the ground, given the ground a chance to absorb the rain.
Hills grazed bare by sheep and deer, the soil, what little soil there is, compacted by the grazing animals, the rain rapidly runs off the hills, causing flash floods.
In Feral, George Monbiot reports that at least one insurance company has considered buying land in Wales, reafforesting, as it would be cheaper than paying out on flood damage.
The Pontbren Project in Wales has taken a different approach to land management to that dictated by the EU, instead of grubbing out trees, overgrazing with sheep, draining, they have been planting trees.
George Monbiot describes the postitives of The Pontbren Project:
The story begins with a group of visionary farmers at Pontbren, in the headwaters of Britain’s longest river, the Severn. In the 1990s they realised that the usual hill-farming strategy — loading the land with more and bigger sheep, grubbing up the trees and hedges, digging more drains — wasn’t working. It made no economic sense, the animals had nowhere to shelter, and the farmers were breaking their backs to wreck their own land.
So they devised something beautiful. They began planting shelter belts of trees along the contours. They stopped draining the wettest ground and built ponds to catch the water instead. They cut and chipped some of the wood they grew to make bedding for their animals, which meant that they no longer spent a fortune buying straw. Then they used the composted bedding, in a perfect closed loop, to cultivate more trees.
One day a government consultant was walking over their fields during a rainstorm. He noticed something that fascinated him. The water flashing off the land suddenly disappeared when it reached the belts of trees the farmers had planted. This prompted a major research programme, which produced the following astonishing results: water sinks into the soil under trees at 67 times the rate at which it sinks into the soil under grass. The roots of the trees provide channels down which the water flows, deep into the ground. The soil there becomes a sponge, a reservoir which sucks up water and then releases it slowly. In the pastures, by contrast, the small sharp hooves of the sheep puddle the ground, making it almost impermeable, a hard pan off which the rain gushes.
Did I say the results were astonishing? Well, not to anyone who has studied hydrology elsewhere. For decades the British government has been funding scientists working in the tropics and using their findings to advise other countries to protect the forests or to replant trees in the hills to prevent communities downstream being swept away. But we forgot to bring the lesson home.
When the tsunami struck a few years ago, the coasts of India and Sri Lanka were devastated. But as Vandana Shiva reported there were exceptions. Coastlines where they had retained their mangrove swamps escaped relatively unscathed.
A few weeks before Christmas 2013, high tides, combined with a tidal surge, strong winds and rain, caused extensive damage along the East Coast from Yorkshire to Lincolnshire when sea defences were breached.
Winter 2013-14, wave after wave of storms have hit England, leaving large parts of the South of England badly flooded, people without power for days. As with the previous winter, the ground saturated.
David Cameron has promised action, 2 January 2104, Cobra met. But what action? Are we going to let large parts of the East Coast revert to salt marsh, are we going to reafforest, are we going to stop corrupt local councillors and planning officials in bed with greedy developers from granting planning permission for housing on flood plains, are we going to take action to drastically reduce carbon emissions, to change our lifestyles from meaningless wanton consumption?
Soft defences work, hard defences do not.
We quite rightly castigate the Third World for failing to protect its rainforests, its old growth forests, it gorillas, orang-utans, lions, tigers, elephants and rhinos, but lack the moral high ground when we fail to rewild, leave vast swathes to Nature, fail to re-introduce the lynx, beaver and wolf.
Were rainforests in Amazon and Indonesia to be destroyed, the land then burnt and overgrazed to stop the rainforest from recovering, there would be international outcry, and yet that is exactly what is happening in England, Wales and Scotland, overgrazing by sheep and deer, burning to maintain a degraded ecosystem for grouse.
The early settlers to North America reported the seas teaming with fish. The seas around the UK, have 1% the fish stocks of a century ago.
Where do we draw our base line?
What were the rivers like in North America before the arrival of Native Americans? What were the seas like around the British coastline before Man started to fish? We know the medieval rivers were teaming with fish.
The practices we use at sea, or even worse than those we use on land. Paddle around rocks pools, and we know to be careful to not disturb the life we find. Trawlers are smashing the sea bed, equivalent to going into a rainforest with a fleet of JCBs and Caterpillars and bulldozing the trees, crushing lifeforms under their tracks.
We need large marine parks from which all fishing is banned, a halt to trawling, a halt to use of large drift nets.
The EU subsides industrial fishing off the coast of West Africa. The local fishing industry, small boats, inshore, was sustainable. The catch is reduced and the size of the fish caught a fraction of that before.
It would take 56 traditional fishing pirogues one year to catch as much fish as one super-trawler can capture and process in a single day.
In Somalia, the fisherman have turned to piracy.
In Feral, George Monbiot writes those most in need of rewilding are our children.
Of all the world’s creatures, perhaps those in the greatest need of rewilding are our children.
Since the 1970s the area in which children may roam free without supervision has decreased by almost 90%. In one generation the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from over half to fewer than one in ten. In the US, in just six years (1997-2003) children with particular outdoor hobbies fell by half. Eleven to 15 year-olds in Britain now spend, on average, half their waking day in front of a screen.
As a child, I could climb over the fence at the bottom of the garden, explore the field and woods and river beyond. In the winter the river would flood, almost but not quite, reaching the bottom of our garden.
And here we meet the other great loss. Most of those I know who fight for nature are people who spent their childhoods immersed in it. Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.
Woods and hillsides, are nature’s playgrounds. Young children, wandering in woods, can let their imagination run wild.
In Feral, George Monbiot cites studies cited in Last Child in the Woods, that indicate children denied contact with Nature show an increase in ADHD, conversely playing in the woods and in grass decreases ADHD. Playing outdoors improves reasoning and observation, and enhances reading, writing, science and maths.
Perhaps children would do better at school if they spent less time in the classroom.
Rewilding may overturn accepted ecological truths.
Dwarf birch was thought to favour boggy ground. Exclude the deer and it proliferates on the drier slopes. It only survived in the boggy areas, as out of bounds to grazing deer.
Aspen was thought to prefer steep slopes. Exclude the deer and it grows with more vigour on level ground. It only survived on the steeper slopes as out of bounds to grazing deer.
Accepted truth is that pine only self-seeds 50 metres around the tree. If true, Scots pine could not have followed the retreating glaciers, as it takes a tree twenty years to reach maturity.
Where Trees for Life have enclosed to keep out deer, they are finding self-seeded pine more than a mile from the nearest mature pine trees. Pine cones crack open and release their seeds in the spring. The retreating snow, thaws during the day, freezes at night. Could the strong spring gales have caused the seeds to ski across the icy surface, they are ideal shaped, to then become lodged in cracks and crevices? The self-seeded pines are growing in cracks and crevices.