Sunday, 13 January 2013

What is Wild?


It seems to be an increasingly common question. A slew of books have been published in the last few years about wild places, wild living, wild food, the end of the wild, redefining the wild, rediscovering the wild ... As the industrial economy eats further and further into the world beyond the human bubble, something within us seems to respond; some alarm bell seems to ring. As we lose more and more wilderness, we grow more and more fascinated with what we are losing.
I could regale you here with a list of facts and statistics about that loss, which is real and ongoing and awful. I could tell you about the loss of forest cover, species, corals, large mammals, ice caps ... but what would be the point? You have probably been presented with all of these facts before, and you have probably already made up your mind about them. Either you will agree with me that their loss is real and tragic, or you will claim that the facts in question are somehow bogus, because you don't share my worldview. Either way, there is probably nothing new I can tell you.
This, in itself, is telling. The mass destruction of the natural world at the hands of one species - ours - has no precedent in the history of this planet, as far as we know. Many scientists believe we are currently undergoing a mass extinction event the like of which has not been seen for 65 million years. The last one killed off the dinosaurs, and much else. This one is our fault. You would think this would be a cause for unity: for all humans of all colours and stripes to come together, put aside their differences, and work to ensure that we do not destroy the rest of life on Earth as we go about our business.
And yet the opposite has happened. The constant battle between climate change campaigners and so-called climate deniers is only one example of this. More widely, the environmental movement itself is riven with arguments about how best to protect nature. Where I live, in Britain, many of these arguments are focused around windfarms and other large-scale renewable technologies which, when employed on any scale, often destroy the very wild and open landscapes which inspired many environmentalists in the first place.
What we today call the environmental, or 'green', movement grew in the 1960s and 70s from an earlier, less politicised but arguably more grounded, conservation movement. The conservation movement was less interested in energy technologies and 'climate justice' than in a more old-fashioned and ostensibly simple goal: saving wildlife and preserving natural and wild places from human development.
Today, though, something curious has happened: the language of the environmental movement barely mentions wildness in this older sense at all. Despite the popularity of those books, despite our sense that wildness is being lost, and despite what I think is a widespread human intuition that something is very wrong, that something is missing, this is not reflected in the language of mainstream environmentalism.
That language, instead, is increasingly technocratic, cold and data-obsessed. The talk is of parts per million of carbon, peer reviewed papers, sustainable technologies, renewable supergrids, green growth and the fifteenth conference of the parties. There are campaigns about 'the planet' and 'the Earth', but there is no specificity: no sign of any real, felt attachment to any small part of that Earth.
What has happened? The answer is that a number of forces have converged. One has been the near-total takeover of environmentalism by the political left - a topic that I'll talk more about in a future article here.
But there is something else too: something more basic but also sadder. Put simply, each new human generation has less and less contact with nonhuman life than the one before. Each generation brought up in a so-called 'developed' country spends less and less time outdoors. Children spend more time in front of screens than playing in the fields. They are driven to school rather than walking. They live in towns or cities rather than the countryside. They have less and less knowledge of where food comes from, how farming works, what grows even in their back garden or in the fields near their house. We are being sucked more rapidly every year into an isolated techno-industrial bubble. Our machines get better all the time, but they can't compensate us for the loss of the green wildness we used to take for granted just outside the door.
In the circumstances, is it any wonder that our environmentalists are part of this bubble too? An environmental movement whose footsoldiers spent much of their time in offices in cities writing reports or press statements is easy to lead astray. Why not industrialise a mountain for electricity? If you've never even been there, what can it mean to you anyway?
I don't blame environmentalists for this: we are all in the same boat. But the boat is sinking. It's time we jumped out, and started to swim for it.