Wednesday, 29 January 2014


By George Monbiot
Allen Lane, 2013

What's the craziest thing you've ever done?
The most visceral, alive you have felt? I've done the world's highest bungee jump, from a bridge above a gorge in South Africa. I've kayaked at sea amongst dolphins, dived with sharks, camped in the Sahara, ridden camels, ostriches. Maybe you've been held up at gunpoint, or maybe fast cars are what does it for you, or climbing mountains, or cave diving, or dancing on tables, or taking drugs.

For Monbiot it seems to be spear fishing, bare knuckle fighting and yes, sea kayaking. He opens with a vivid account of time spent in an exotic rainforest location, confronted with violent, dirty living, mingling with natives in shamanic rituals and eating insect larvae.  The premise of Feral is that civilization has made us all go a bit boring. It's tamed us, made us live dull, constrained humdrum lives, and we badly need to put some excitement back - by getting back in touch with our primitive instincts, reacquainting ourselves with the wonders of the natural world and, most of all, by reintroducing lost fauna to our used-to-be-jewelled isle. 'The absence of monsters forces us to sublimate and transliterate, to invent quests and challenges, to seek an escape from ecological boredom.' (P.139)

I really couldn’t make my mind up about this book. Everything about it appealed to me, but then once I got started it rankled. Then it won me over, but then something felt wrong again. In the end I love it all the more for having failed to be the unchallenging read I was expecting, for having confronted all sorts of feelings I took for granted and left me feeling less sure than I’d thought I was about it all.  I definitely want to just say that I love it, but that would be far too simple. I love its courage and its complexity, and I love the way it got me thinking. But me and this book are unlikely to ever settle our differences.

For one thing, I think its a bit of a boys book.  Monbiot portrays himself as a kind of Will Smith in I am Legend, paddling through storms at sea with his spear, shrugging off the elements in desolate, post-apocalyptic  landscapes. But the trouble is all of the activities mentioned are a bit gap year, a bit Shipwrecked, even a bit, dare I say it, male midlife crisis. None of them come close, in the craziness stakes, to the fucked-up, mentalness of pushing a human out of your body.  George has never pushed a human out of his body, so he can't know this. But on a slightly more serious note, did life really get boring? Is it a representative perception that what we really need these days is for life to be a little bit harder, a little bit more challenging, a little dirtier and more chaotic? Or is that merely the rather parochial and, perhaps, even offensive view of a middle-aged middle-class white man? Personally speaking I could happily do with my life being a bit more predictable and sanitised sometimes.

On a more substantive note, I struggled to go along with Monbiot’s conception of the good wildlife. I happen to wholeheartedly agree with him that forests are exciting and megafauna would be fun to have around, and that there is something depressing about the extent to which mankind are obsessed with sanitising nature, controlling their gardens and homogenising everything. However, in a book advocating policies which would undoubtedly have an impact upon such non small matters as the planet’s capacity to produce food, its not enough that Monbiot and I happen to share a taste for the disorderly. Indeed, the justification upon which rewilding rests is intended to go far beyond aesthetics. Indeed, at times Monbiot talks as if  wildness is intrinsically good for us, is something necessary to our shared universal nature, if you will. I’m not going to dip into the pit of nature/nurture here (although as far as I recall Stephen Pinker’s evolutionary aesthetics claim that we ‘naturally’ prefer safe-looking landscapes like green pastures over forests), but its the consistency of the vision advocated by rewilders which ultimately meant me and this book were never going in for the long haul.

What is wildness – what is it that rewilders want nature to do? Monbiot rightly and eloquently slams the romantic notion of keeping nature in stasis, like a museum exhibit. The natural state of the living world is change – evolutionary change, climactic change, a permanent show of adaptation, niche creation and migration, with all the death, extinction and redundancy that go with those. Where is rewilding, between these two extremes?

It cannot be just about letting nature do its thing. He admits that a certain amount of stewardship is desirable to prevent, for example, alien species of plants from ravaging native landscapes. And anyway, I think the notion rests on the false premise that humans have successfully halted natural biotic processes. Look to the foxes, the rats, the seagulls. To the mosquitos, the cockroaches, the bacteria – all successfully doing what nature does best – adjusting, evolving, adapting to life alongside and inside human beings and their cities. These modern wildnesses never get a mention in Feral, and this is my biggest problem. Its implicit that these ecological success stories are not what Monbiot has in mind – they aren’t pretty enough. So his argument is aesthetic after all.

I wonder if the appeal of a film like I am Legend isn’t conditional on the creatures Will Smith meets being very familiar, the sorts of animals from children’s books. If instead Smith’s character emerges from millennia in stasis to find the flora and fauna very much evolved, alien and unfamiliar, then wouldn’t some of our deep rooted hunger for it disappear?

The ideas Monbiot presents here have been receiving some media recently, in the wake of all our flooding.  A few commentators have taken up his idea that reforesting Britain's uplands might help reduce the threat of annual deluge in the lowlands. I'm certainly in favour of scrapping subsidies to farmers who keep sheep in places like the moors. Who ever decided that sheep and 'chocolate box' went together has obviously never looked at a sheep up close. Filthy, stupid, slitty eyed creatures they are, and I say this as a girl who grew up in North Yorkshire, surrounded by the things. Its true that there is a certain desolate beauty when the heather is in bloom across the moors. Yet imagination probably does little justice to the beauty that might exist there if the native deciduous forests which one carpeted our island were permitted to return there.

In the end, I want to support Monbiot’s call for us to reforest our country, to overhaul our ridiculous system of farm subsidy. But I don’t think Monbiot has succeeded in framing a suitable justification. I happen to largely share Monbiot’s aesthetic preferences, but I hope that more pragmatic arguments, about flood risk reduction, or genetic storehouses, will win the day.

No comments: