Like most sane people, I agree with you most of the time, most often when you indict consumerism as the cause of a post-social collapse that is slowly, and in the most miserable way possible, killing us. As you say, we’re lonelier than ever, less trustful of those who govern us, and less generally sociable, to the point where we need to wear badges to let people know it’s OK to talk to us.
And yet there is a difference between lamenting the sorry state of our society and believing that we can recover our humanity by rewilding our land. There are many, like you, who have argued for the environmental necessity of rewilding, in particular to provide endangered species with a deserving habitat. I think you go too far, however, when you suggest that rewilding is a project which is as redemptive as it is essential.
When you talk about the redemptiveness of rewilding, you sound a little punchdrunk, a little like you’re lost in a prelapsarian reverie. In startlingly provocative language, you describe the thrill of hoisting a deer on to your shoulders. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to baulk at the savagery you seem to delight in. You seem awestruck by the “thrilling, terrible world” we arose in, populated by “fanged salmon” and Godzilla sized armadillos. Blame the cowardice bred by my sanitised urban upbringing, but I live in fear of pugs on the loose without muzzles.
George, there’s a serious flaw to your mission to recuperate this prehistoric paradise. You yourself have condemned ideologies of heroic individualism for spiking our narcissism and corroding the fabric of human solidarity. But the salvation you seeks through rewilding and the recovery of an elemental connection to the wild is,itself, all about the heroic individual. Reflect on the language you use to describe your atavistic triumphs in the wild. I didn’t even even hear a whisper of another person. These are solitary pursuits: violent, atavistic and brutish. No doubt you’ve seen Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, an account of the tortured death of Matthew McCandless. If you had, I’m surprised it didn’t jolt you, as it jolted me, from an ecstatic passion for the wild, and to be reminded of the hazard of admiring nature more than humanity.
Perhaps you’re roaming too far in your search for existential redemption. Around the world, we are witnessing a movement to reclaim and rehabilitate our cities. Meu Rio, founded by Alessandra Orofino, is a mobilisation network in Rio de Janeiro which boasts over 160,000 members (1 in 15 of Rio’s under 30s). Collectively, the movement has supported community-based recycling projects, opposed the demolition of public schools and ultimately served as a powerful grassroots rejoinder to those who wield municipal power with impunity.
Closer to home, in Birmingham, FutureShift’s Civic Foundry is helping to seed a new civic economy geared towards changing the basic systems of our society and economy, challenging entrenched ideas of how we grow, distribute and share, how we provide care and mobilise public space. In their own words, “ each new initiative adds to a body of imaginative ideas and critical lessons of how we, as individuals, organisations and government, can together create stronger local communities and economies”.
It is the cumulative, catalytical impact of these imaginative ideas that promises so much. It would be wrong of us (and irresponsible) to assume that our urban life is hardwired to be isolating and individualistic. A far more hopeful perspective would believe that our cities are as plastic as we now know our minds are: through the right kinds of stimulus, we can reshape them. Each act of civic innovation is both generative and provocative: generative in that they ignite new creativity new collaborations and new models; provocative because they are forms of world-making, acts of creative dissent, stretching the horizons of possibility in our urban ecologies. Not only is do we live in an urban world we have indisputably chosen and crafted, but it is also a young ecology in metamorphosis. If this were a Hindi movie, I’d have four words for you: “picture abhi bakhi hai” (translation: there’s still a lot of this story to run).
It’s easy to assume that the participation revolution we’re witnessing in our cities is driven by a manic zeal to hack social systems, an inchoate army of technological disrupters let loose in the real world. In fact, much of the creativity we’re seeing is animated by a will to choose a new destiny for our cities, a choice for solidarity instead of loneliness, of kindness instead of indifference. This is all to the good, because a slew of recent research remind us that altruism is as primal as hunting (link). It is as beneficial for us as it is for the people we seek to help, and can help combat those other ills of the modern era, such as heart disease and depression. In our impersonalised world we are primed to thrill in the rawness of nature because our sensory landscape has become deadened to basic social interaction.
I can imagine you raising your eyebrows at this, but even our much-maligned social media technologies, accused of exacerbating and piquing our narcissistic and bullying nature (hyperlinks) can be appropriated for compassionate ends. Twitter, in particular, has stimulated some of the most creative challenges to our most entrenched social issues. Hashtag activism, the likes of #blacklivesmatter and #jesuisAhmed have given racism and Islamaphobia fewer places to hide,amplifying the collective angst of a generation. Innovative ventures such as SpeakSet are using everyday technologies like TVs to bring isolated older people into contact with medical expertise and distant relatives. Web-based neighbourhood platforms like Streetbank enable us rehabilitate local, human ecologies one act of sharing at a time.
Ultimately, George, I simply think that you’ve over-estimating the redemptive power of rewilding. It is undoubtedly vital to our environmental future, but we don’t have to venture into the wilderness, strip down to our underwear and smear our faces in animal blood to remember who we are. Like others who espouse a creed of sustainability, you underestimate the value that lies in remaking and reshaping our urban ecologies: a quest to “unwild” our cities. We can either abandon hope of altering its trajectory and focus our attention on finding ourselves, like Gap Year students, in an exotic adventure beyond our immediate environment, or confront the task that lies before us: to craft a compassionate, convivial and kind urban environment we can be proud of. It can be distilled to a simple shift of perspective; have we lost a world, or do we have a world to win? Which one would you want us to choose?