Writer and environmental and political activist George Monbiot talks to us about Feral, ecocide, and environmental preservation
In Feral, you write that ‘rewilding is not about abandoning civilisation but enhancing it’. Is preserving ecology fundamentally at odds with building architecture?
One problem that environmentalists suffer from is that we overemphasise the impact of the built environment and underemphasise the impact of what happens elsewhere. One example of this is our response to floods: people concentrate on the floodplain, but the real issues are upstream where rivers rise in the hills. What goes on elsewhere in the river basin, which tends not to be urban, is more important than what goes on in the small proportion that is built on.
Similarly, when we look at the disappearance of wild land, there is a massive emphasis on urbanisation, but it is less of a cause than agricultural transformation. In the UK, six per cent of land is classified as built land; 70-odd per cent is farmland. The built environment is often much richer in wildlife that the farmed due to the way that farms exclude almost all forms of wildlife. We focus too little attention on the industries of fishing and farming which are by far the biggest drivers of habitat destruction and species loss.
I don’t want to dismiss the impact of the built environment, not least because it extends beyond the site itself, in carbon emissions and the impact of construction materials, many of which are imported from elsewhere. But we need to broaden our gaze to ensure that we are looking at the whole system.
Architects are assisting the campaign to make ecocide a crime by gathering spatial evidence. What other roles might architects play in an ecologically healthy future?
Architecture plays a crucial role in changing the direction of the climate crisis, but it is beyond the individual building. Asking how to improve transport nodes isn’t the right question. The right question is how can we reduce the overall impact of travel, and this means travelling less, rather than travelling differently. Urban architecture is critical to determining whether we are able to travel less. If town planning is based on travel in a private car, we can’t resolve our environmental crisis. We ask how we can change the kind of cars we drive but this doesn’t solve the problem – electric cars require a massive new resource drive entailing incredibly damaging extraction and disposal of metals. A quarter of the area of Barcelona is devoted to transport, 60 per cent in Houston. We need a radically new vision which starts with the question, ‘do we need to travel so much?’
‘Conservation movements in the UK are unambitious, ecologically illiterate and incapable of seeing the bigger picture’
In Feral, you argue the harm of traditional conservation practices – in what ways is ‘preservation’ damaging our ecosystems?
‘Shifting baseline syndrome’ is a concept coined by the biologist Daniel Pauly, describing the way that what we experience in our youth is conceived by us as natural and normal, and is a baseline state to which we should return. So if we grew up experiencing a lot of butterflies and moths, we think that is the natural state of the environment. We forget that the ecosystems with which we were brought up were already extremely damaged. We have an extraordinary situation where, particularly in the UK, we are dominated by single-species thinking, where we will preserve one species at the expense of all others. We exclude far more species than we protect.
A classic example is the extraordinary emphasis on rough grassland and heather moorland in the UK, much which occupies land which was previously temperate rainforest. It’s a bit like turning up in the Amazon and saying ‘those cattle ranches, that’s what we want to protect and we must stop them from reverting to rainforest’. There is no rainforest restoration movement in the UK to speak of, and instead, conservation groups are desperately maintaining these burnt-out shells of habitats and cutting, grazing and even burning them in order to keep them in that state. We have a perverse preservation idea that says ‘this is what we have so this is what we should maintain’ rather than saying ‘this is what we could have so this is what we should aspire to’. Conservation movements in this country are unambitious, poorly informed, ecologically illiterate and incapable of seeing the bigger picture.
In what ways does rewilding challenge ideas about ecological preservation?
One of the ideas that inspired rewilding is that ecosystems are more complex than people imagine. One of the problems with conservation is that it takes a complex system and treats it as if it were a simple linear one, and in the process, turns it into just that. Two crucial discoveries have been the role of keystone species – animals whose ecological effects are far greater than their numbers or mass would suggest – and trophic cascades, that tumble from the top of an ecosystem to the bottom. What we think of as a natural ecosystem in the UK is no more natural than a garden that you maintain every day, weeding the herbaceous border. When you bring back critical species – beavers, boar, wolves – you suddenly realise how impoverished in terms of species, abundance and ecological function, our current systems are.
When a building is restored, the architect decides what stays and goes, and what year the building will be restored to. How do we decide which geological age of ecosystem we restore?
I would argue that rewilding is not trying to restore the ecosystem to any prior state. What I see rewilding as doing is generating as rich and diverse an ecosystem as possible by reintroducing crucial keystone species. The result will be very different to anything we have seen in the past because we already have 1 degree Celsius of global heating, our soils have been impoverished, and some of our previous keystone species are extinct and cannot be brought back.
It is critical that we are informed by paleoecology – possibly the most fascinating subject on Earth because it is a portal through which we may pass to an enchanted kingdom. In the last interglacial period, which ended just over 100,000 years ago, we had almost all the animals with which we are now familiar – badgers, foxes, magpies, robins – as well as elephants, rhinos, hyenas and lions. Everywhere had a megafauna. The reason we see it as weird and exotic now is because we wiped it out everywhere except for a few pockets in Africa and Asia, and they only survived because they worked out how dangerous we were before we wiped them out.
‘Stop designing airports, we cannot afford to install any more fossil fuel infrastructure’
What does the rewilding project mean in different contexts outside the UK, in Brazil for example?
In Brazil, the crucial task is to stop the destruction of rainforest and cerrado. What we are seeing in Brazil happened centuries ago in the UK, which is the destruction of rainforest and replacement with vast, far poorer habitat. We want to see a restoration of these trashed lands – it is essential for the rainforest itself, as fragmented rainforest ceases to generate the rainfall that supports the entire ecosphere. Brazil is also missing its megafauna: there used to be elephants, giant ground sloths, and birds with a 26-foot wingspan.
What are the resistances and challenges to rewilding?
The challenge for rewilding is political, it is never ecological. Nature wants to restore itself and given half a chance it will. In the UK at the moment, although this may be subject to change, the dominant issue is the common agricultural policy of the European Union, which pays people to keep land bare. Across the EU it has been responsible for destroying hundreds of thousands of hectares of prime wildlife habitat, because you can’t claim your farm subsidies unless your land is in so-called ‘agricultural condition’ – you don’t have to produce any food at all, the land just has to be cut, grazed or burnt in order to look as if food production could happen there. It is a €40 billion perverse incentive for maximum environmental destruction. The more land you own, the more you are paid from the public purse, so the richest people get the most money.
What could rewilding mean for the built world? How are these ideas relevant for cities?
The most important role of rewilding in cities is across rivers – they are natural wildlife corridors, and the richest ecosystems that pass through cities. What I would love to see is rivers brought to life once more, and in one or two places that is happening already, for example the Wandle Brook in south London, or in Madrid. We are already seeing the return of urban otters and kingfishers which used to be very rare. There is no reason why we shouldn’t have salmon, sea trout, 6-metre-long sturgeon, water voles, beavers, cranes, pelicans, in our cities if we are imaginative and bold enough. City and countryside are treated as entirely different spheres – this could connect city and countryside in new ways.
You were arrested in October for your demonstration as part of Extinction Rebellion – what are the ways that architects can stand up against ecocide?
The campaign to make ecocide an international crime, the same status as genocide, is now getting a lot of traction. Crimes of ecocide are being committed every day, by the fossil fuel industry, by people like Jair Bolsonaro, by mass industrial fishing fleets. This is a crucial task for all humanity and we need to prevent a very small minority of the world’s people from trashing our support systems with devastating effects.
We urgently need architects to be a part of this. The first step is to not do the ‘bad stuff’ – stop designing airports please, we cannot afford to install any more fossil fuel infrastructure. Just recently, a paper in Nature suggested that if we have any hope of coming in at 1.5 degrees Celsius of global heating then we must retire existing fossil fuel infrastructure. So continuing to build and expand it is a route to the destruction of humanity and much of the rest of the living world. Put your energies into what your children and grandchildren will thank you for which is the creation of a better world.
Lead image courtesy of Tuba Cebeci / Getty Images
This piece is featured in the AR December 2019/January 2020 issue on New into Old and Preservation – click here to buy your copy today