By George Monbiot

Despite a drumbeat of bad news in recent years — and the threat of much worse to come as we go sailing past any limit on atmospheric carbon considered safe — the environment continues to remain a low political priority.

The lack of action shouldn’t come as a surprise, and is not just the result of there being no easy answers. The switch to a truly sustainable economy would not only involve a radical transformation of our current mass-production, mass-consumption way of life, it would almost certainly result in a significant reduction in our standard of living, making a green shift totally unacceptable to most of us.

As a distinguished ex-U.S. president put it, the American way of life is “non-negotiable.”

Nevertheless, the British journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot believes that “an ounce of hope is a more powerful stimulant than a ton of despair” and has some “positive environmentalism” to offer. In Feral he shies away from revolutionary calls to action and presents what is more of a general, guiding philosophy for change, a “vision of a better place” that goes under the name of “rewilding.”

The inspiration for rewilding is what Monbiot describes as our current state of “ecological boredom”: a spiritual longing to reconnect with the natural world. This need to experience — or at least still believe in — an untamed, perhaps at times dangerous side of nature lies behind such cultural pheoneoma as survivalist-themed television shows, and even finds a hallucinatory expression in the peculiar British folk legend of big cats prowling the countryside, a bit of modern mythology that hints at “an unexpressed wish for lives wilder and fiercer than those we now lead.”

Monbiot’s chapter on big-cat sightings is a fun bit of investigative journalism, but it helps drive home his point. He wants us to get out of our cars, cubicles, and classrooms and into our kayaks. We also need to consider re-introducing species into habitats where they might still be able to occupy a functional niche. Perhaps then “big cats will no longer need to be imagined” in England.

The important thing to keep in mind about rewilding is that it is not about returning the environment to some original, primordial condition, or even about conserving what pristine “natural” environments we still have left (which may be bastard states of nature anyway). Instead, Monbiot advocates a hands-off, laissez-faire environmentalism: “Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the need to control nature and allowing it to find its own way.”

The result of this will be to restore dynamic interactions and trophic diversity within different ecologies, protect endangered species and their habitats, and promote spiritual renewal. This last point is key: Monbiot’s rewilding is, finally, all about us. “If rewilding took place it would happen in order to meet human needs, not the needs of the ecosystem.” We will do it not to save the whales or the wolves but because we value a biologically rich environment.

It is an interesting point of view, and Monbiot, who is a gifted nature writer, brings it to life in a globe-trotting series of essays that examine rewilding’s various applications.

Important questions, however, remain. Chief among these is just how attractive an environment would be to most people. The concept of ecological boredom will ring true for some (especially those of us, a dwindling few, not born and raised in cities and conditioned to urban living), but it also makes the rewilding philosophy sound a bit like an advanced version of adventure tourism or Xtreme sport, with the neo-wild located in special environmental reserves.

Put another way, a rewilded world may be a nice place to visit, but few of us would want to live there. At least not without the Internet and air conditioning.

That said, there are no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions to the environmental problems we face. Monbiot does suggest solutions that can work in specific situations, and provides a way of thinking about these matters that has potential. And in his Introduction he notes that nowhere is new thinking needed more than in Canada: a “liberal, cultured, decent country” which has been “transformed into a thuggish petro-state.”

Even if you don’t agree with that harsh analysis, the fact remains that we can, and should, be doing better.

Review first published in the Toronto Star June 8, 2013.

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