The trouble with rewilding…

By Irma Allen*

A rewilding movement that bases itself on arguments around overpopulation, without interrogating the power structures that are enabling it, is in danger of failing to generate the kinds of solidarities, social justice outcomes and progressive visions of wildness that we so desperately need.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rewilding is big news in environmental conservation. At the Future of Wild Europe conference at the University of Leeds in September, where top conservation practitioners and academics met to share perspectives on all things wild, it was undoubtedly the key story. Rewilding has hit UK newspaper headlines and filtered through into global NGO strategies, spawning its own generation of institutional backing via new initiatives and organisations. Great news, you might think – and one would hope so.

But, just as environmental historian William Cronon in his now (in)famous essay The Trouble With Wilderness was perturbed by unexamined ideals of wild nature as untouched and inhuman within the environmental movement in the 1990s, I was troubled by things I was hearing at the conference in Leeds over twenty years later. In particular, I was troubled by echoes of a lingering and pernicious legacy of colonial, neo-Malthusianism that, for me, tainted the celebratory, go-getting tone.

It made me anxiously wonder – are we at risk of once again practicing conservation by dispossession, to borrow David Harvey’s well-known phrase? Have we dealt with the uncomfortable past of imperial ecology sufficiently to confidently move towards a more progressive vision of the wild as Cronon implored us to do? I worry the answer is yes to the first question, no to the second.

Before I carry on, I wish to raise the flag of unease with which I proceed and state upfront that I am a passionate supporter of wildlife conservation. The concept of rewilding intuitively appeals to me deeply. But I share William Cronon’s personal tension between “celebrat[ing] the protection of wild nature” and acting on this on the one hand (Cronon was himself a conservationist) and attending to the “task of self-criticism” and “deep reflection” on the other.

It is a tension I think we must uphold. Yet, like those who received William Cronon’s seemingly devastating critique with a sense of genuine anxiety as to which hands such an open questioning of the wilderness ideal and of environmentalism itself might fall into, I, too, proceed with trepidation. So here I attempt an affirmative critique – one that seeks to support not derail, but perhaps in other directions.

Pleistocene rewilding? Source: Pinterest

To return to the trouble (and staying with it): there are three main interlinked issues that I wish to raise about rewilding. The first deals with the problem of racialized neo-Malthusian preoccupations with carrying capacity that seem to have ongoing traction. When Toby Aykroyd, businessman and Founder of Rewilding Europe, spoke at the Leeds conference careers session to us budding ‘Early Career Scholars’, he described his post-business school personal journey into nature conservation as starting with getting involved in family planning in East Africa.

I have to say I was already quite surprised at this easy connecting of, in my mind, very historically uncomfortable terrains. I wanted to know more, to check my small alarm bell that started to ring. I discovered that Aykroyd is the co-founder of the Population and Sustainability Network in 2003, which exists to “increase the prominence of population dynamics in international development policy” promoting reproductive health and family planning services in the interests of a broader sustainable development agenda.

Provision of free family planning is a fantastic achievement in and of itself, yet when motivated by concern over natural resources and carrying capacities, and linked to power-laden development agendas, this shades into murkier territories and rationales that I find deeply uncomfortable.

Back at the conference, a panelist from Spain involved in a senior role in a Spanish conservation organization reportedly proposed (in no joking manner, were it possible to joke about such things) that one of two possible solutions to the “population problem” was either to “sterilize women” – or to educate them. I was not present at the time, but apparently he was neither challenged nor confronted on this by the audience.

Perhaps the silence was just out of unease or lack of attention. But the absence of further discussion on these threads, and a lack of desire to pull on them to see what unravels, I believe reveals a possible precarity on which some alliances are being built.

For the troubling link between nature conservation and colonial attempts to control populations has been well researched. Such ideologies have led to violent dispossession, racialized forms of controlled access and, yes, even forced sterilization. I am not saying that an involvement in family planning is similar to or the same as this in any way – but I am pointing to unnerving and deeply toxic trajectories of where such thinking can point or to what other kinds of thinking it can join up with.

Digging deeper into the genealogy of rewilding we confront further problematic ties. According to rewilding academics Jamie Lorimer et al and Dolly Jorgenson, the term was first coined in the US through a collaboration between the deep ecologist Dave Foreman and conservation biologist Michel Soule in the 1980s in the formation of the Wildlands Project.

Dave Foreman is the Founder of the controversial activist group Earth First!, author of Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World, and is current president of the US Rewilding Institute. However, Foreman has been quoted on his own organization’s website as saying

“The Aids epidemic, rather than being a scourge, is a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population… If [it] didn’t exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent [it].”

During the Ethiopian famine, eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin also quoted him as saying:

“The worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is to give aid [to the starving children] — the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let people there just starve.”

That was a long time ago, but can rewilding make a leopard change its spots?

Judging by echoes of this sort of logic creeping around and seeping through the sides of sincere and progressive discussion back at the academic-practitioner conference in Leeds, not so fast. As the Weeden Foundation (a previous grant-donor for The Rewilding Institute – TRI) writes on its website: “Dave Foreman… is an outspoken advocate of stabilizing population, and TRI works to integrate population and immigration issues into its environmental analysis and message.”

I am not sure I need to spell out the implications of such a stance in the US context at a time when Donald Trump has just become the next President.


Why is this sort of highly problematic thinking not being discussed and dissected in rewilding circles? A rewilding movement that basis itself on the overpopulation factor is in danger of failing to generate the kinds of solidarities, social justice outcomes, and progressive visions of wildness that we so desperately need. Fletcher, Breitling and Puleo highlight the problem:

“By conjuring the age-old image of animalistic barbarian hordes breeding inexorably and therefore overflowing their Third World confines to threaten the security – and enjoyment – of wealthier nations, the overpopulation bogeyman helps to displace attention from systemic issues within the political economy of development, namely, the futility of pursuing sustainable development within the context of a neoliberal capitalism that characteristically exacerbates both economic inequality and environmental degradation.”

Many overpopulation supporters argue that they do acknowledge the twin role of overconsumption – as does the Population and Environment Network. However, overconsumption usually is, attributed distant second place in policy focus, if at all. “In the process, inequality itself is actually defended in the interest of sustainability”, political ecologist Robert Fletcher writes.

This brings me onto my second concern. While on the one hand overpopulation theories were subtly present in the impetus behind at least some key people’s involvement in rewilding, at the same time we learnt at the conference that one of the main reasons why it has been able to gain so much traction within the European context is due to ‘depopulation’, particularly in rural areas, largely as a result of de-agrarianisation.

Europe is indeed experiencing a dramatic decline in population, most notably in the countryside. Why? One major reason is that we have exported much of our production, agricultural and otherwise, overseas, thus freeing up large tracts of land.

A comprehensive report published by Humbolt University of Berlin found that over the past 20 years, the EU has evolved into the single largest importer of agricultural commodities and food worldwide. In 2007/2008, for example, almost 35 million hectares of land beyond European borders, almost equivalent to the territory of Germany, was used for the benefit of Europeans. This makes the EU a net food importer of so-called “virtual agricultural land”, placing it at risk, the report says, of accusations of land grabbing, and contributing to “negative economic externalities in the form of reductions in natural habitats such as tropical rain forests and increasing greenhouse gas emissions from converting forests and grasslands into cropland”.

How can we build a rewilding movement that simultaneously resists and challenges these negative socio-ecological impacts? For it is here, I would argue, that the crisis lies most explicitly. I was disappointed to note that an engagement with the causes behind this freeing up of land does not seem to be present in rewilding literature. There seems, instead, to be a quiet celebration of this process. Dolly Jorgenson refers to the opportunities “declining agricultural production” opens for rewilding, yet does not investigate further. The journalist George Monbiot says:

“In Europe, between 2000 and 2030 we’ll see 30 million hectares of land being vacated by farmers, which is an area the size of Poland. It’s in places like these… where arable farming is much less viable, that I think we have enormous potential for rewilding”.

I am glad Monbiot mentions Poland. For one of the main drivers behind ‘depopulation’ in rural areas here is loss of livelihoods in the face of EU-backed capitalist industrialization of the countryside. Today, Poland is facing rising organized protest from farmers unable to compete on the market, facing imposed EU standards that favour large-scale agriculture, and unable to sell domestic produce even locally due to restrictive health and safety proscriptions. Mobilizations and sit ins have been the result. In February 2015, for example, 150 tractors blockaded the main motorway leading into Warsaw – the country’s largest farmer uprising.

Poland’s largest farmer uprising, February 2015. Source: Natural Society

One of their main concerns also relates to land grabbing. As a 2015 European Parliament report found, land grabbing is a “creeping phenomenon” that is not alien to the European mainland – indeed, it is occurring increasingly, often via a new asset class of banking, pension and insurance funds, and concentrated particularly within Eastern European states. The report finds:

“Against the backdrop of dramatic levels of land concentration and the rapid exit of Europe’s small farms, farmland grabbing, through its control, privatization and/or dispossession of natural resources, has become an active factor in the further weakening of the socio-economic and environmental vitality of the rural sector. It is leading to the further erosion of Europe’s model of family farming based on a sustainable and multifunctional form of agriculture and blocking the entry into agriculture of young and aspiring farmers.”

The key point here is that there is nothing neutral about processes of rural depopulation. Rather than passively celebrate their demise, should rewilding advocates not align themselves with small-scale farmers, whose practices, at least in Europe, can often encourage far greater biodiversity, and are themselves perhaps part of the very notion of ‘wild’ we might want to cultivate – non-homogenous, diverse, non-standardised, and self-willed?

We should also pause and reflect deeply on the paradox that, while we celebrate depopulation in enabling rewilding, we do so while seemingly claiming neo-Malthusian viewpoints on over-crowding and at a time when thousands of people have risked their lives to journey to Europe in search of refuge but are literally being fenced out and forced back with rhetoric of ‘swamping’, ‘inundation’ and ‘flooding’.

Are Malthusian arguments for ‘space for nature’ feeding into a lack of a European response to refugees? How does rewilding relate to growing European nationalist discourses? We must be at least asking such questions. What does it mean to talk about rewilding without interrogating the violent structures that are perhaps involved in making it possible? I fear a loss of the very enchantment and progressive hope that rewilding seeks to preserve.

This leads me to my third and final point.

Given the context I have just discussed, it is striking that Central and Eastern Europe seems to be becoming somewhat of a home for rewilding. Rewilding expert Jamie Lorimer himself commented on this back at the Leeds conference in his keynote presentation.

For example, Rewilding Europe, mentioned earlier, has become the leading European platform for rewilding and is trialing its activities so far in nine European areas across ten countries. Eight of these areas are listed on the website at present and shown in the map below. Six out of eight of these are located within Europe’s top twenty poorest countries (Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Croatia, and Portugal). One is located in northern Sweden in Lapland, home of the indigenous Sami peoples. The last is located in Italy.


Why are the historically marginalized regions of Central and Eastern Europe seemingly becoming centre stage for rewilding? This seems an important question to at least ask. Is it linked to de-agrarianization? Should we not interrogate the unequal power dynamics at play between West and East in this set up?

Funding for this initiative is coming from largely Western European-based organizations, including 3 million Euro startup money from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, support from WWF-Netherlands, and backing from London-based ‘conservation enterprise’ investment company, Conservation Capital. This latter organization has “raised and structured over 200 million Euros of private investment finance for conservation-based businesses across 26 countries” and interested in developing a “nature-based economy in key areas of rural Europe where declining forms of economic activity (primarily agriculture) will be replaced with new wildlife and wilderness-based businesses”.

What sorts of relationships of bio-capitalism are we witnessing here? Or should we more see this as a redistribution of resources in a positive light? Where is the debate on this?


In his recent book Extinction: A Radical History, Ashley Dawson explicitly ties the issue of extinction to capitalist modes of production, exploitation and histories of dispossession. As such he calls for an “anti-capitalist movement against extinction [that] must be framed in terms of a refusal to turn land, people, flora, and fauna into commodities” particularly when cloaked “in arguments about preserving biodiversity”.

I must agree, and yet Dawson seems to limit his critique too narrowly to relations between ‘Global North and South’. He bemoans the fact that “all too often rewilding schemes focus exclusively on wealthy areas of the planet”, such as Europe. While I support Dawson’s radical focus on distributive justice, I would caution that rewilding could come in capitalist guise itself.

Moreover, an indiscriminate lens on the ‘Global North’ does little to reveal the inequities and power relations occurring within Europe’s own borders, not to mention placing a generalized blame for colonialism on countries that have never been colonial powers, and indeed, recently, have themselves been explored through a post-colonial lens.

Once again, Eastern Europe gets invisibilized and erased from notions of ‘Europe’ and the ‘Global North’ more generally. Of course European countries are much wealthier than the world’s poorest, but that still does not alter the huge discrepancies between European countries in which many were only counted as ‘European’ very recently, and even then, precariously so.

To conclude – rewilding is not a return but a future-in-the-making. It is a wholly natural-cultural project in becoming-with. Imaginations of rewilded places must therefore be steeped in the recognition of what political ecologist Bruce Braun calls the “irreducible nature of experimentation at the heart of rewilding practices”. Where we make them, how come, with and without whom, all matter to the kinds of experiments we are carrying out. History itself is forgotten in this process at our peril.

*Irma Allen is a Marie Curie PhD Fellow at the Environmental Humanities Laboratory, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, and is part of the ENHANCE ITN.

13 thoughts on “The trouble with rewilding…

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