Do We Need to Re-embrace Wilderness?

Can humankind strike an appropriate balance of its activities as an integral part of the natural eco-sytem? Unfortunately, the prevailing anthropocentric view is that the success of nature's yields should be based primarily on their accomplishment in serving humankind alone. A truly self-regulating eco-system would have multiple yields that are supportive of ALL the earth’s users.

History suggests that opportunistic foraging and hunting maintained an early hominid population in amongst an un-degrading, self-regulatory natural eco-system. The development and dispersal of agriculture in Neolithic times allowed the hominids to break free from that self-regulating system and become a dominant but de-stabilising influence. Thousands of years later, it has taken the exposition of land and people-based interdisciplinary thought and whole-design systems – such as Permaculture - to start to re-integrate to varying degrees the hominid population back into a self-regulating natural eco-system i.e. reposition us within the context of wilderness. (Permaculture just happens to chuck in an ethical framework as well, which marks it out from other interdisciplinary systems.) Where is there evidence to support this need to re-embrace wilderness?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science produced a report that provides an Atlas of Population and Environment based on high resolution satellite images. The Atlas shows areas of human transformation of land across the globe, as well as natural landscapes of forest, savannah/grass, wetlands, shrubland, dessert and snow/ice. Europe and in particular the UK shows large areas of transformation, with virtually no area of any size in the UK that has not been affected, leaving little truly natural habitat. (Oliver Rackham has chronicled our complete loss of wildwood). The USA, that environmental villain, shows 50% of its landmass that is untransformed, and Australia plus Canada probably has 90%.

A joint study by World Resources Institute and the International Food Policy Research Institute  provides more evidence ( The Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: AGROECOSYSTEMS gives an analysis of the extent of global agricultural land use and assesses the status of those agroecosystems. The report' authors suggest that the data can show ways to better understand and monitor changes in the capacity of systems to provide sustainable goods and services. Here is what it concludes on carbon storage:

"Land use change that has increased production of food and other commodities has reduced the net capacity of ecosystems to sequester and store carbon. Carbon-rich grasslands and forests in the temperate zone have been extensively converted to cropland and pasture, which store less carbon per unit area of land. Deforestation is itself a significant source of carbon emissions, because carbon stored in plant tissue is released by burning and accelerated de-composition. Forests currently store about 40 percent of all the carbon held in terrestrial ecosystems. Forests in the northern hemisphere are slowly increasing their storage capacity as they regrow after historic clearance. This gain, however, is more than offset by deforestation in the tropics. Land use change accounts for about 20 percent of anthropogenic carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Globally, forests today are a net source of carbon."

This lays a heavy burden of blame at the doorstep of agriculture, and it would be unrealistic to expect wholesale change overnight, even if there were agreement on the need. Thus we must look to the incremental changes that will begin to add up and swing the ship of farming around onto a new course. The second pillar of the CAP and its future reforms - which begin to decouple subsidy from production - can have potential as a driver for more eco-equitable land use. Here are some other examples:

Research with the farming communities in the counties of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire (funded by the ESRC) looked at the benefits of farmers combining together to jointly implement ‘whole landscape management’. This implied farmers co-operating across privately owned boundaries to develop the conservation and biodiversity value of the whole landscape through planting hedges and buffer zones. They were also asked to consider the reflooding of the Thames Valley (Designing and Evaluating Sustainable Agriculture Landscapes, O’Riordan et al, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, 2000). The authors concluded that this approach would enhance farmers standing with the public and would provide a good principle in attracting subsidy for environmental objectives.

Chris Baines in his speech to Bradford District’s Rural Renaissance Conference (Future Countryside, 2002) talked about the rural landscape being redesigned to bring about better water management. The flooding of the last few years could be avoided by paying for the land to function as a part of flood protection. Thus broadleaved woodlands would be planted in uplands, and farmland in lowlands could be allowed to flood as seasonal and permanent wetland.

Land management also has a role in climate change. A report from the Country Landowners Assoction looks at the many different activities in the rural landscape that could help (Climate Change and the Rural Economy, 2001). Soil acts as a carbon sink when soil organic matter levels increase, and as a carbon emitter when they decrease. Practices to increase soil carbon not only reduce atmospheric carbon, but also deliver many other public goods, such as improved biodiversity. The greatest dividend comes from conversion of arable land to agroforestry. Significant amounts of carbon can also be accumulated by conversion of arable to grassland and by improving crop and grazing management. In addition, there is scope for changing soil management practices to accumulate carbon, for example appropriate conservation tillage and maintaining winter cover crops.

Ian Hodge takes speculation on future rural landscapes further. In an article in Land Use Policy, he tries to understand how a shift in emphasis towards delivering countryside goods (as averse to 'bads') can be funded and managed (Beyond agri-environmental policy: towards an alternative model of environmental governance, Land Use Policy Vol. 18, ppg 99-111, 2001). He lays out a number of models such as payments for positive actions - through tolls as a signal of willingness to pay, or through financial support of conservation organisations - and on to the complexity of setting up new institutional systems that link the demand for countryside goods with the ownership and control of the land.

William Sutherland provides the simple message that funding habitat restoration is probably a best approach for rural landscapes. Sutherland says that although some agri-environment schemes can be beneficial, others generate negligible gains. An alternative is to combine carefully targeted agri-environment schemes with large-scale habitat restoration, both natural (as Peter Marren would recommend) and by intervention. Restoration provides the opportunity to deal with multiple problems simultaneously, such as sea-level rise, water-catchment protection, and flood defence while at the same time as increasing and safeguarding biodiversity (Restoring a Sustainable Countryside, Trends in Evolution & Ecology Vol 17, ppg 148-150, 2002).

But as always this is just blowing hot air out of every hole unless there is the human will to do something about it. Thus time for some uplifting quotes:

"Rather than argue about where to put our wastes, who will pay for it, and how long it will be before toxins leak into the groundwater, we should be trying to design systems that are elegantly imitative of climax ecosystems found in nature"

from The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability by Paul Hawken, Harper & Row, 1993

"we are living in a time when both the earth and the human species seem to be crying out for a radical readjustment in the scale of our political thought. Is it possible that in this sense the personal and the planetary are pointing the way towards some new basis for sustainable and emotional life, a society of good environmental citizenship that can ally the intimately emotional and the vastly biospheric?"

from Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind by Theodore Roszak, Sierra Club Books, 1995

Dr Mark Fisher, 20 August 2002