Editor’s note. This is a ‘taster opinion’ as part of some uncomfortable conversations ahead. Offence is not a defence – have the debate, leave a comment or ask for a guest blog!
Mark Lynas (ML) I actually do see a sort of ecomodernist vision as being integral to how rewilding can happen. You can’t have large areas of land being spared for nature, unless you’ve moved beyond subsistence agriculture into essentially an modern industrialised agricultural model where you have very high productivity on very small amounts of land.
Rob Yorke (RY) you are talking about land sparing and sharing?
ML I think there will always be a blend of the two and it is not a black and white issue but is actually very different from the traditional green imagination of getting back to nature and sharing the land where you feel very embedded into nature. And to some extent ecomodernism has become misunderstood as a rather ghastly philosophy where everyone is living behind glass in skyscrapers eating lab meat and actually the main originators are very nature loving- almost nature worshipping people. I think we have a spiritual side of us which loves nature. It is not actually about being materialistic, it is not about pricing nature – it is not about nature providing natural services, ecosystem services etc and if you are going to be materialistic about it, human engineering can always do better.
The point of nature is for nature. And so rewilding as a concept, is very different.
RY Putting aside the impact on people who live and work within rewilded areas, can we rewild for nature as well as provide humans the contact with that same nature?
ML You can but you can’t have the dependence on nature in a material sense – you cannot be living in subsistence economies where you are scratching a living from the land and have rewilding. You will have constant conflict with large predators – including large herbivores – just in terms of their land use. Also, those kinds of economies tend to be very inefficient as they tend to be low input and also very low output. If you travel around sub-continent Africa, and see the yield gaps as compared to modern agriculture it is less than a 10th in some cases. We were talking earlier about monoculture and yes, these may be very polyculture-type farming systems, but they have a very very low output. People can barely make a living from them and everyone, who has the opportunity, wants to get off the hell off the land; certainly their kids want to get to the city to get a job. So that modernisation process, which I think some people think ecomodernists are trying to push as development, are processes which are already happening anyway. The point is to try to save as much of nature during that process, and then to spare land for rewilding afterwards.
RY When hosting conversations about rewilding, I split it between humans stepping back to let nature do its ‘own thing’, (passive rewilding) and the reintroduction of mammals (active rewilding). Much of the former is already happening here in the Black Mountains…
ML You can see that here, coming around the side of Hay Bluff near the Gospel Pass, with exception of the bits which are preserved as nature reserves, some of the areas are ‘sheep deserts’. There is even a big wildlife sign up there saying ‘We are preserving this habitat for tormentil by preventing the scrub from returning.’
Tormentil? It is something you see everywhere all over the uplands in the Lake District and Wales. The sheep have decimated some of the environment – and it’s the maintenance of that imagined baseline of sheep grazing I think has to change. That is what rewilding has brought to the fore of conservation to this country and transformed how we address matters.
RY How about trying to engage farmers to adapt land management practices from ‘bottom-up’, rather than impose policy ‘top-down’ on them?
ML Because farming is mainly subsidy driven in this country, there is no market. So farming exists as a social good and we pay for it through our taxes on that basis and, in theory, it gives society more of a role in deciding what the farming output should be. And so very small numbers of sheep from very large areas of overgrazed hillside are not the key output as far as I am concerned.
RY I agree with some of that but would it be better to have farmers incentivised to do more than presently under the agricultural subsidy regime?
ML The difficulty is that there is a culture of sheep farming and it is a very strong tradition which goes back many generations. Interestingly, unlike Wales or Northern England, in Scotland with distance memories of the Highland Clearances, sheep might be perceived as something of a bad thing. But the countryside is not fossilised, it is not set in aspic and actually it is always changing and we have a very different model to where we were in the 70’s and 80’s when hedgerows were being removed, we had set-aside and butter mountains. But now we are more into an age of returning scarcity where we are concerned about production of food. It is clear that our land is being used inefficiently and that we really have got a lot more room for nature than we think.
RY We should concentrate more efficient food production in some areas and relax it within the more unproductive areas?
ML Yes, plus ruminants are bad for climate change and if you are going to eat meat at all, we really should focus on poultry and farmed fish where it can be done sustainably. But extensive cattle and extensive sheep are terrible in terms of emissions and land use.
RY Are you saying organic farming is on ‘thin ground’?
ML Yes, they’re onto a loser really. There’s a niche for some, but people think that grass-fed extensive farming is good for the environment, I believe the opposite is the case.
There may even be a trade-off between animal welfare and environmental sustainability in these things – assuming that cattle prefer to range over large areas of land outside rather than being stuck inside sheds being fed concentrated feed. Even if arguably that is actually a much more efficient way to use the inputs by raising cattle for slaughter in half the time and therefore consuming half the food with reduced emissions.