[I’m indebted to Tim Bonner himself for the title of this post, though I will try to avoid using as many logical fallacies as he does…
I mean, just look at the man:
Ahem… Rewilding has been earning itself some flack lately in the UK, mainly from people representing the interests of farmers and landowners. The latest email bulletin from Rewilding Britain provided a great example, alongside remarkable news that beavers are back in Scotland with the security of legal protection, and that the UK government says it will put £15m towards ‘natural flood management’ which may or may not include support for re-introduced beaver populations in England & Wales too (hint: it should). At the end of the mail they provided a few links to mentions of rewilding in the press, including this article by Tim Bonner, CEO of the Countryside Alliance:
I couldn’t find any links to a critique of his positions online, and most of the comments under the piece were supportive (probably because you have to register with Conservative Home in order to leave a comment – too much for most people to stomach I’m sure!) or from the same general political outlook. RB have so far limited their response to an ‘of course, we disagree!’ in the original mail, so I thought I’d help out by shooting some of the fish in Bonner’s Barrel…
Land ownership, land rights and land use have always been central to progressive politics. From the Russian revolution through to Scottish land reform legislation, the ability of the majority to impose its will on the landowning minority has been irresistible to purveyors of social change.
Progressives are cast as the enemy of an embattled minority group of landowners & farmers. The examples jump immediately to those crazy bolsheviks in Russia and dastardly scots attempting to have a say over who controls their land. Guilt by association – anyone questioning land ownership or attempting reform is dangerous and will probably pave the way for mass confiscations, socialist tyranny and eventual famine and societal collapse. Also ‘landowning minority’ plays the victim and attempts to obscure the truth that this ‘minority’ in fact wields enormous power, well beyond the limited influence exerted by progressives or any other typical member of society. The stats for Britain again: ‘70% of land is still owned by less than 1% of the population’, and ‘nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population’. Things are even worse in Scotland, which
[…] has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world. The degree of concentration is evident from the fact that a mere 432 landowners account for half of all Scotland’s privately owned land– such land (since not much more than 10 per cent of Scotland is in public ownership) accounting, in turn, for the bulk of the country (‘Towards a comprehensive land reform agenda for Scotland‘ (pdf) – via this excellent 2014 article by George Monbiot which also touches on the situation in England)
– a legacy of their centuries-long colonisation by the major power centers in England.
The problem, however, is that with, very few exceptions, land use policies enacted to punish land owners and dismantle traditional land use systems have proved disastrous both for the countryside and the populations it feeds.
Amid what he describes as a burgeoning biomass around 9,200BC, while the tundra retreated, horses and reindeer disappeared from southern Britain and were replaced by elk, roe deer, red deer, boar and aurochs. He describes the aurochs as quick, agile and a match for hesitant wolves, their favoured habitat being level, low-lying, fertile and open – “woodland would not have supported the rich grassland they depended upon. Congregating in herds on floodplains and valley floors, they were the biggest beasts in Britain”. It was, however, their “preference for valleys and floodplains that put the herds in conflict with humans who used these landscapes for routeways, foraging and hunting missions”. They killed aurochs, which were a source of red meat and raw materials like bone and hide, the bone being used to make scrapers for cleaning hides. Crane sees the eventual demise of the aurochs in Britain as being the most conspicuous casualty of the farming onslaught competing for the low-lying, level, fertile land – “Aurochs took to grazing in surviving tracts of marginal wetland, but eventually they lost this last-chance reserve, too. By around 1350BC, Britain’s largest mammal had been driven to extinction”. (link)
Back to Bonner:
From the millions of Russians who starved in famines caused by Stalin’s collectivisation to the hungry population of Zimbabwe today, ideologically-driven rural policy has failed almost without exception. On a smaller scale, some ‘community buy outs’ funded by the Scottish Government after the first round of its land reform legislation have struggled to become financially sustainable without the external cash injections traditionally provided by ‘lairds’.
More stalinists and another Official Enemy in the form of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, whose ‘fast track’ reform of repossessing land from white farmers (hint: if you live in Africa and you haven’t got black skin you probably got where you are now thanks to a series of atrocities perpetrated on the indigenous population) predictably turned him into persona non grata among western hypocrites who otherwise have no problem dealing with murderous despots around the globe. Mark Curtis writes:
There is little doubt of the urgent need for radical land reform in [Zimbabwe]. By the beginning of the ‘fast track’ programme, around 4,500 mainly white large-scale commercial farmers still held 28 per cent of the total land; at the same time, more than one million black families, or around 6 million people, eked out an existence in overcrowded, arid, ‘communal’ areas, representing around 41 per cent of the land – essentially the land allocated to Africans by the British colonial government. This situation created ‘a significant land hunger in Zimbabwe’, in the words of Human Rights Watch. (Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, pp.118-9)
But I suppose I should concede that a need for reform doesn’t guarantee success when government officials actually attempt to put this into practice. Usually they have their own interests in mind at the same time. As far as I understand the mid-20th century collectivisation of farms under Stalin, it wasn’t a response to land inequality so much as an attempt to boost productivity and skim off the surpluses so that city-dwellers could devote themselves wholly to the nascent city-based industries. Mugabe apparently handed out many of the confiscated farms to members of his parliamentary cabinet who had little or no experience with farming. As for the situation in Scotland it remains to be seen how things pan out but Bonner’s comparison is clearly absurd and intended to shut down a fair consideration of the attempts they’re making. Besides, is it any wonder that small-time farmers with limited funds and none of the benefits of inherited land and/or property would have difficulty competing from the outset in a cut-throat system that rewards the kind of economies of scale only possible in huge mega-farms? Clearly Bonner doesn’t consider market fundamentalism or doctrines of efficiency, progress, productivity etc as dangerous ideologies which have driven the rural policies of enclosure, mechanisation, depopulation and gigantism leading to the current sorry state of Britain’s landscape in an impressively short space of time.
Shortly after the Hunting Act was passed Peter Bradley, then a Labour MP, wrote one of the most honest explanations of the perverse approach of some on the left to rural policy. Having stated that the ban was “class war” he went on to explain why Labour MPs had pursued it so obsessively: “Labour governments have come and gone and left little impression on the gentry. But a ban on hunting touches them. It threatens their inalienable right to do as they please on their land.”
Only leftists engage in ‘class war’. If they didn’t feel the need to stir up trouble everything would be just fine. Excluding people from the land they once lived on and denying them a right to have a say in how it’s managed does not constitute ‘class war’. I don’t know why he feels the need to include this paragraph. Presumably it’s meant to hurt the Evil Progressive Reformers in some way by exposing some secret dark machinations driving their behaviour? To me Bradley’s comments just seem factually correct. Anyway, why doesn’t it surprise me he’s in favour of sport hunting… An online search for ‘tim bonner rewilding’ brings up this tweet from October 14th:
The more contradictory nonsense I read about ‘rewilding’ the more it’s clear that we hunters have been doing it for years
which surprisingly links to the Rewilding (anarchism) page on Wikipedia. I can’t tell if he’s mentioning this form of rewilding (the one that most speaks to me) merely as an attempt to discredit the landscape rewilding that predominates in the UK or if he actually appreciates an aspect of it. ‘Contradictory nonsense’ and reference to anarchists would indicate more guilt by association (I somehow doubt he views anarchism in a positive light!), but then his attempt at creating a new hashtag (on which, sadly, this appears to be the sole tweet thus far) seems to lay claim to some of the ideas espoused by the ‘anarchist’ or human rewilders. In a response below the tweet he writes that ‘my wildfowling club involved in managed retreat on estuary 20 years ago…no grandstanding just good management’ which leads me to believe it’s the ‘[rewilding] emphasizes regenerative land management techniques employed by hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, as well as development of the senses and fostering deepening personal relationships with members of other species and the natural world’ part of the wiki page which he relates to. I’d be interested to hear more about the kind of ‘management’ his wildfowling club was involved in, but somehow I doubt rewilders would welcome it unreservedly, mainly because of the sporting aspect. I suspect their view would more closely align with this quote from Roy Haiyupis, a Nuu-Chah-Nulth elder and ‘cultural specialist’ from the northwest coast area of the US (my emph.):
Respect is the very core of our traditions, culture and existence. It is very basic to all we encounter in life. … Respect for nature requires a healthy state of stewardship with a healthy attitude. It is wise to respect nature. Respect the spiritual. … It is not human to waste food. It is inhuman to overexploit. “Protect and Conserve” are key values in respect of nature and natural food sources. Never harm or kill for sport. It is degrading for your honour. … It challenges your integrity and accountability. Nature has that shield or protective barrier [that], once broken, will hit back at you. (quoted in The Earth’s Blanket by Nancy Turner, p.130)
Finally, Bonner gets round to the main thrust of his article:
Which brings me on to the latest attempt at radical land use change: the strange and almost indefinable cult of ‘rewilding’. This ideology seems to have grown out of a number of strands including those who seek to reintroduce flora and fauna, in particular ‘charismatic’ mammals (charismatic megafauna) such as wolves and lynxes to their historic range; those with a John Muir-ian belief that man’s intervention in the environment is always a ‘bad thing’; and those who see a debate about land use as central to counter-acting global warming. To a greater or lesser extent, they all share the belief that their proposals should over-ride the rights of existing landowners and users, and the cultural landscapes they have historically created. To a greater or lesser extent, such proposals also seem to be motivated by political, as well as practical, aims.
‘Cult’ – nice value-neutral terminology there! Without quotes this whole paragraph is just a series of strawmen – what, to Bonner (after his exhaustive research conducted, we must assume, entirely in good faith), the ideology ‘seems’ to be. ‘To a greater or lesser extent’ is a particularly slimy way of making sweeping accusations without taking the responsibility to point out actual examples which might prove his point … to a greater or lesser extent. He may have a point with the ‘John Muir-ian belief that man’s intervention in the environment is always a ‘bad thing’’ – a philosophical aspect to some landscape rewilding which I’ve critiqued on these pages, and which others have started speaking about in wider-reaching publications. But he’s at least aware that some human management practices are celebrated by rewilders, whether we’re talking about indigenous lifeways or the active role for humans in restoration projects like Trees For Life. The whole feeling of optimism infusing the various forms of the movement stems precisely from this belief that it’s actually possible for us humans to ‘intervene’ in a positive way!
As for over-riding the ‘rights of existing landowners and users, and the cultural landscapes they have historically created’, a) you have to ask if they deserve to have these ‘rights’ honoured if it can be shown that their behaviour actually degrades the land for no real benefit and b) it’s flatly wrong to say that rewilders don’t consider this (a little too much in my opinion, but then I’m in a particularly radical wing of the ‘cult’). George Monbiot, one of the leading voices behind landscape rewilding in Britain, wrestles with the problem of how to avoid ‘ethnic cleansing’ of traditional sheep farmers in Wales for a whole chapter of his book Feral before coming to the conclusion that altering the conditions attached to their subsidies would leave them unscathed:
[S]heep farmers in the Welsh hills receive an average of £53,000 a year in subsidies while their average net farm income is £33,000. Keeping livestock, in other words, costs them £20,000 a year, though this gap may diminish if the price of lamb continues to rise. But, under the Common Agricultural Policy, if you want your subsidy payment, one of the few things you are forbidden to do is nothing. The Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition rules specify that if you do not keep the land clear, you forfeit everything. There is no requirement to produce anything; you must merely stop the land from reverting to nature, by either ploughing it, grazing it or simply cutting the resurgent vegetation. The purpose is to prevent the restoration of the ecosystem.
So here, perhaps, is the resolution of the conundrum that caused me such trouble: this rule should be dropped. Those farmers who are in it only for the money would quickly discover that they would earn more by lying on a beach than by chasing sheep over rain-sodden hills. Those who, like Dafydd and Delyth, believe in what they are doing, and have wider aims than just the maximization of profit, would keep farming. Where the life and community associated with raising sheep are highly valued, farming will continue. Where they are not, it will stop. Large areas of land would be rewilded, and the farmers who owned it could receive, as well as their main payments, genuinely green subsidies for the planting, reintroductions and other tasks required to permit a functioning ecosystem to recover. The alternative is the system we have at present: compulsory farming, enforced by the subsidy regime. (pp.180-1)
A lot of effort has also gone into researching the attitudes of farmers and the general public in areas of Europe that have seen reintroductions of some the larger mammals like boar, lynx, wolf and bear, on balance with positive views of the situation even from the farmers. As for political as opposed to practical motivations presumably this is some kind of right wing code meant to denigrate political aspirations and suggest that they’re completely divorced from practical realities. What’s wrong with being motivated by political aims? Isn’t maintaining the status quo, with all its inequity and environmental damage, a deeply political aim as well?
Next Bonner asserts that ‘All that those who recycle the mantra of ‘rewilding’ [including renegade conservatives ‘Bright Blue’ who have raised Bonner’s ire by hosting an article by Rewilding Britain’s Helen Meech] are actually doing is advertising ignorance of the reality of the British countryside’. What is this ‘reality’?
First, it is best to start with some facts. Most important of these is that almost the entirety of the British landscape has been created and maintained in its current form by man. With the tiny exception of a few very high mountain tops, the countryside we love (and the polling is very clear that we really do love it) is man-made and unnatural. Perhaps the best example of an adored created landscape is the Lake District. Man and sheep created that extraordinarily beautiful countryside: they maintain it and, crucially, are also part of it. Millions come to walk on the fells that Wainwright wrote about – or even just to gaze at them – but it is no more a ‘natural’ landscape than a ploughed East Anglian field. Even Wordsworth’s daffodils are an introduced species.
I don’t know why some people take such delight in pointing these things out. Are they trying to depress their listeners, educate them, dispel their childish wonder, or stake a claim to virtue in the beauty still visible in the bones of a ‘working [read: enslaved and dying] landscape’? I feel like responding: “Yes, I know that nearly all of the woodland left in this country has been heavily managed by people for hundreds, even thousands of years. I happen to think that has degraded the ecosystems they supported. But there’s still plenty to value there, irrespective of the demands still being made on it (less since the fossil fuels took off). Furthermore there’s still lies a potential for a return to what once was, no matter how many times this gets frustrated.” Bonner finds the Lake District ‘extraordinarily beautiful’. I found it kindof sad, boggy, quiet (apart from when the wind gets up), rugged. Undeniably beautiful but in a bleak, harsh sort of way. Somewhere to visit, not to stay. The polls say ‘we’ love ‘the countryside’. Fair enough, I can’t argue with that. I know it’s possible to love somebody, however, knowing that not everything is right with them, and feeling the desire to help them heal the damages that have impacted them and to realise their inner potential; to get back to who they really are, or as near to this as is still possible. Aldo Leopold wrote that:
One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. (link)
That’s my burden, living with eyes just starting to widen to the astonishing litany of abuse – both historical and ongoing – written in the landscape everywhere I turn. That’s also my constant marvel, at how living beings resolutely struggle to re-emerge, live, eat, reproduce and die as well as they can in the few ways that are still possible alongside this culture which seems to be purposefully destroying everything it possibly can.
Second, ‘rewilding’, in the context of the UK, is increasingly used to describe any environmental pipe dream which challenges current land ownership and use. Perhaps because the purity of simply withdrawing all management or human impact on large areas of our crowded island is so obviously impossible, we have now entered a surreal phase of redefinition. A recent select committee inquiry used the phrase ‘managed rewilding’ in its call for evidence, a charity included a session on ‘rewilding a golf course’ in its annual conference and even the primary cheerleader, ‘Rewilding Britain’, describes the restoration of a chalk stream, the ultimate in intensively managed watercourses, as ‘rewilding’.
Again, the primary motive is really to challenge farmers and landowners, presumably just for the sake of it. ‘So obviously impossible’ eh? We’ll have to see about that. He gives no further reasoning, and just goes into a few cherry-picked examples of supposed surreality which will probably evaporate on closer inspection (maybe I’ll look into them later) so this whole paragraph is basically an incoherent splutter. Oh, and the old favourite: reductio ad absurdum.
I would argue that anyone really interested in conserving the countryside and improving our environment should be rejecting this sort of nonsense, and instead engaging with the huge opportunities that post-Brexit rural policy presents. After all, most of the really damaging impacts on our countryside and in particular the uplands in the post-war period – from tax breaks for planting commercial conifer plantations, to subsidy for draining upland bogs, to the idiocy of headage payments which pushed sheep numbers to completely unsustainable levels – have been the direct result of government and EU policy.
Huge opportunities such as those infamously listed to the tune of Jerusalem by the Telegraph in the wake of Brexit? Among the many deranged and dishonest examples of supposed benefits, alongside ‘crooked cucumbers,’ ‘cheap tennis balls,’ ‘no EU human rights laws,’ ‘stop EU child benefits,’ ‘fewer chemicals restriction,’ ‘drop green targets,’ and of course ‘straight bananas’ was this one:
Searches of the Countryside Alliance website yielded no results for these terms:
(‘Peak oil’ returned 30 results, but these all pointed to pages dealing with how best to cook pheasant and other game meats!) Admittedly this isn’t very ‘exhaustive research’, and maybe someone who is a CA member can confirm whether these remarkable blind spots are in fact representative of their broader output and campaigning priorities. I trawled through the ‘related articles’ in their ‘food and farming’ section and found this article on the recent ‘State of Nature‘ report, which, while it accepted the findings (‘Between 1970 and 2013, 56% of species declined, with 40% showing strong or moderate declines […] Of the nearly 8,000 species assessed using modern Red List criteria,15% are extinct or threatened with extinction from Great Britain’) and admitted that ‘it would appear to be grim reading […] incredibly alarming’, proceeded to line up with the NFU in denying that farming practices bore significant responsibility for the decline of wildlife, had a go at the RSPB for having the temerity to do so, and asserted that farmers have already ‘begun to [deliver] biodiversity benefits’ and that management for sport hunting also made for good conservation. Perhaps it does, and State of Nature does acknowledge that ‘wildlife-friendly [sic] farming schemes’ have ‘bucked national trends’. Either way there seems to be little understanding or acceptance, much less any call to action, over many key issues related to farming and its ecological and social impacts. Presumably issues such as the damage caused by herbicides, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, problems related to soil erosion and flooding (according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation ‘if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years’), weather instability due to climate change, and the impacts of peak oil on the ability to maintain current rates of production as well as on how this is done – none of these appear to register, I would guess because following the implications through would grate too heavily – even invalidate – their own political ideologies. Naomi Klein observed this phenomenon among conservative climate change deniers in the US:
Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. There is simply no way to square a belief system that vilifies collective action and venerates total market freedom with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that created and are deepening the crisis.
At the Heartland conference—where everyone from the Ayn Rand Institute to the Heritage Foundation has a table hawking books and pamphlets—these anxieties are close to the surface. [Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute] is forthcoming about the fact that Heartland’s campaign against climate science grew out of fear about the policies that the science would require. “When we look at this issue, we say, This is a recipe for massive increase in government…. Before we take this step, let’s take another look at the science. So conservative and libertarian groups, I think, stopped and said, Let’s not simply accept this as an article of faith; let’s actually do our own research.” This is a crucial point to understand: it is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real-world implications of those facts.
What Bast is describing—albeit inadvertently—is a phenomenon receiving a great deal of attention these days from a growing subset of social scientists trying to explain the dramatic shifts in belief about climate change. Researchers with Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project have found that political/cultural worldview explains “individuals’ beliefs about global warming more powerfully than any other individual characteristic.”
Those with strong “egalitarian” and “communitarian” worldviews (marked by an inclination toward collective action and social justice, concern about inequality and suspicion of corporate power) overwhelmingly accept the scientific consensus on climate change. On the other hand, those with strong “hierarchical” and “individualistic” worldviews (marked by opposition to government assistance for the poor and minorities, strong support for industry and a belief that we all get what we deserve) overwhelmingly reject the scientific consensus.
For example, among the segment of the US population that displays the strongest “hierarchical” views, only 11 percent rate climate change as a “high risk,” compared with 69 percent of the segment displaying the strongest “egalitarian” views. Yale law professor Dan Kahan, the lead author on this study, attributes this tight correlation between “worldview” and acceptance of climate science to “cultural cognition.” This refers to the process by which all of us—regardless of political leanings—filter new information in ways designed to protect our “preferred vision of the good society.” As Kahan explained in Nature, “People find it disconcerting to believe that behaviour that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behaviour that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.” In other words, it is always easier to deny reality than to watch your worldview get shattered, a fact that was as true of die-hard Stalinists at the height of the purges as it is of libertarian climate deniers today. (‘Capitalism vs. the Climate‘)
So perhaps Bonner is projecting when he views leftists and progressives as taking any opportunity to stick it to the landed gentry rather than having a genuine interest in protecting, preserving and repairing the damage done to the environment and only coming into conflict with farmers and landowners when they undermine or stand in the way of these efforts. He can’t view their concerns as legitimate without calling into question his own belief system, so he must therefore view them as sworn enemies in a culture war, who he must stand up to in defense of his identity – tightly bound up with his conception of the Countryside; what it Is and how it should be kept that way. (By the way I don’t claim to be immune to this ‘cultural cognition’. For example, raised as a dedicated suburbanite, I’ve never made a living from farming, so there aren’t so many obstacles in the way of my accepting strong critiques of agriculture, and I don’t feel the same visceral aversion to nondomesticated life, especially the predators “out there in the Natural World” just waiting to attack my livelihood at the first available opportunity. I can understand why farmers get worked up over city-dwellers lecturing them on how they should operate, when their own lifestyles have been made possible in the first place by the same industrial-scale methods they now deplore.)
Now is the time to agree what outcomes we want from the countryside, which will include everything from food, to water, to carbon capture, and create a new system of payments which will allow farmers and the rural community to deliver them. Real conservatives should forget the dubious rhetoric of ‘rewilding’, and focus on the delivery of public goods and sustaining the cultural landscape of the British countryside.
Drawing up the battle lines: ‘agree’ what ‘we’ want as ‘real conservatives’ and prepare to fight those who have different ideas. Nice to see carbon capture on the list, I suppose.
Some people are impervious to reason or persuasion either on political or practical levels. It’s probably a waste of time attempting to engage with them, so direct your attention to those who will listen and perhaps lend you their support if you deliver on your promises and prove your worth. Fortunately the young rewilding movement seems to have significant public support on its side, which might help it to deliver some genuinely positive changes for the much-abused communities of wild plants and animals on this island. If these changes also benefit humans so much the better, but we should remember that what’s good for humanity is not necessarily what’s good for agriculture. In fact the correlation most often goes the other way.
There’s another Countryside out there waiting for us to make our alliances with it.