Hope, rewilding and our shifting baseline syndrome

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CAG Project Manager Peter Lefort shares his thoughts on the Friction Talks evening with George Monbiot and ReAngles-010wilding Scotland


On Wednesday 11 November, George Monbiot appeared at East Oxford’s independent cinema the Ultimate Picture Palace to deliver a talk about Rewilding. His engaging lecture was preceded by a short film about the recent history of Rewild
ing in Scotland, providing a welcome visual reminder of the species we are so accustomed to no longer seeing, from wild boar and beavers to the more controversial wolves and bears.

Rewilding is a process of restoring natural processes to the wilderness, as opposed to strict conservationism which protects static environments, the most eye-catching element of which is the re-introduction of predatory species. Monbiot’s talk began with the UK’s notable lack of forests, especially in uplands where mainland Europe keeps most of its trees, and the journey of discovery this set him on until he came up against the seemingly immobile force of European agricultural land subsidies. These policies, he argued, incentivise land owners to keep huge areas bare of anything remotely resembling a natural habitat. As a result, the UK has become a wasteland, a desert of nature.

It’s hard to argue against his well-delivered points, and indeed no-one in the audience did raise any contrary opinions, but it’s also hard to feel that many people will feel compelled to do anything about it. Descriptions of the mega-fauna which used to call this country home, including giant lions and huge-tusked elephants, are exciting, but the real content of Monbiot’s talk was less dramatic. Returning trees to the countryside, prioritising crop diversity, moving away from an obsession with sheep (or the white plague, as Monbiot described them), are all sensible suggestions, but are unlikely to inspire a new wave of agricultural activism.

Perhaps a lack of hope is the problem. Hope is a vital element in the fight against climate change, and so much of what we do is in an attempt to nurture and share that optimism. But climate change is a communal hope, a global hope, and one which aims for a better world for everyone. The principles behind rewilding are easy to support, a deeper respect for and return to the power of nature, but even the experts in the short film admitted that the realities of rewilding are very hard to predict. One audience member posed the question of what the layperson should be doing, Monbiot’s response was that we should be aware of the problem. This is a realistic goal, but not an inspiring one.

One idea which did grab me, however, was the concept of Shifting Baseline Syndrome. In rewilding terms, this accounts for the tendency of a generation to assume that the world it grew up in was normal, and that any conservation or restoration should be to return the world to that experienced point. Effectively, it is a collective and continual lowering of standards, imperceptibly but indefinitely.

While this syndrome seems like a reason to lose hope, rather than find it, I found it offered a surprising amount of inspiration. Only when we notice something wrong can we do anything about it, and this idea could be a hugely useful tool with which to question, challenge and change our experience and the experiences of those around us. If we are to progress the rewilding movement beyond the minority who can visualise the benefits, then we have to become more proficient in using tools like this to nurture hope for a world that many people don’t even know is possible.