Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery: The Illustrated Edition By Paul Jepsen and Cain Blythe MIT Press | 2022 | 224 pages | 110 color illustrations
The tone of the discourse around ecological issues these days is rather apocalyptic. From congresswomen implying the world will end in 12 years to activists claiming billions will die from climate change, the mood is so dark that young people are suffering from what is known as “climate anxiety.” My own students sometimes tell me they are disinclined to have children, since they don’t want to bring life into this dying world.
Amidst this pervasive pessimism comes Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe’s book Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery, an introduction and overview of the theory and practice of a very particular kind of ecological restoration. It seems to me that rewilding represents perhaps the only approach to our myriad ecological issues that offers a hopeful vision of future potentialities. Whether the rewilding movement can successfully realize that potential is another matter.
Rewilding as a practice focuses on “the restoration of ecological functions.” Like other restoration practices, rewilding seeks to return land to some semblance of its previous existence before humans altered it. Given this similarity, the authors continually emphasize how rewilding differs from previous approaches to restoration. While the conservation and biodiversity movements focus on conserving land and preserving individual species, rewilding focuses on establishing or restarting ecological processes. This focus allows rewilding to be more future-oriented than other approaches to ecosystem restoration since the focus on function over species allows rewilding to be more flexible and dynamic. This is where the hopefulness comes from. If one species is lost, rewilding asks if we can replace it with another that will perform the same function.
Rewilding is a book of cutting-edge ecological thinking presented for a general, non-specialist audience. The authors call it the “first popular science book on rewilding.” The format itself is conducive to this purpose: a blend of glossy magazine, website, and textbook aesthetics, with dual columns of text on each page frequently interspersed with color illustrations, infographics, and break-out boxes. But this book is also significantly a work of advocacy: the authors are not neutral observers but advocates for the practice of rewilding.
Though rewilding might be future-oriented, it is predicated on detailed and accurate understanding of ecological history. One rather surprising consequence of this is rewilding’s emphasis on megaherbivores. The contention at the heart of this book is that grasslands and large herbivores were much more important and widespread than was previously understood. The general inclination to see forests, rather than grasslands, as the “natural” state for most ecosystems is wrong, according to Jepson and Blythe.
To support this thesis, the authors use evidence from evolutionary biology, geology, and paleontology to paint a convincing picture about the ways that ecosystems have changed since humans migrated out of Africa and spread across the globe. This change has been a general decline in grasslands. The extinction of large herbivores on most continents by the hand of humans changed the character of most ecosystems from grassland to forest. Large herbivores kept the forests at bay; in their absence, the forests took over. Therefore, the practice of rewilding is often focused on recovering or reestablishing grasslands and the megaherbivores that maintain them
The book does an admirable job of balancing science, history, theory, and practice in order to appeal to a general audience. Case studies receive ample attention, and the political and ethical obstacles are addressed. And while the authors are clearly advocates for this approach, they often take care to give voice to different perspectives without demonizing or ridiculing dissenting viewpoints.
But nothing is perfect. Due to the expansive scope of the book, along with its generalist audience, I was left with many questions. For instance, the whole premise of rewilding is that the Pleistocene world before the megafauna extinctions is a good baseline for how ecosystems should look and function. But why? What objective standard makes this a better baseline than other time periods? If a Pleistocene world is better for some species, it will almost certainly be worse for others. Can a Pleistocene world comfortably host eight billion humans? How do you keep the mammoths out of the cabbages? Or the giant ground sloths off the train tracks? And while the book holds up rewilding as the vanguard of ecological thought and practice, it was clear to me that these ideas have their roots in Romantic primitivism as well as the anthropology and human ecology of the early- to mid-20th century. Yet these roots are not given any attention here.
But no single book can cover everything or answer every question. For anyone—laymen or scholar—looking for a good, broad introduction to the practice of rewilding, this is it. Even though I am an ecocritic with experience in many of the topics covered here, I certainly learned a lot about ecological history, paleontology, and current issues in ecology, conservation, and restoration.
David Tagnani lives in Spokane, Washington, and teaches writing and literature at Gonzaga University. His scholarship focuses on the relationship between mysticism and materialism in American nature writing.