Particularly in the post-modern, Western world, most people live lifestyles increasingly alienated from the natural world, to devastating effect. Our socio-economic systems are designed from a worldview of ecological disconnection, effecting all spheres of our lives – our lifestyles, resource use, buildings and urban design, transport, economic, education and health systems. Research shows that disconnection from nature is linked to mental and physical problems in individuals, and increased conflict, violence and crime in communities. On a societal level, an exploitative, objectifying relationship with nature fuels the ongoing destruction of the natural world upon which we depend for life.
We have built a false world upon a misguided world-view of ecological disconnection. Ignoring ecological limits and cycles, we live high-speed lives that deny nature’s ebbs and flows, cultivating ‘useful’ species and eliminating those that threaten or inconvenience us. In our attempts to tame and control nature, to de-wild the natural world, we also tame, control and de-wild ourselves, and in the process lose fundamental parts of us that make being alive meaningful and enjoyable. We deny parts of ourselves that frighten and inconvenience us, ignore messages from our animal bodies as we stare at screens under artificial lights, inside concrete buildings kept at artificial temperatures to boost ‘productivity’.
The recent surge in interest in ‘rewilding’ reveals a yearning for a different way, and offers restored health to our degraded ecosystems as well as bringing many benefits for us. Rewilding aims to regenerate, reconnect and restore, to create healthy, functional ecosystems. This is achieved through ‘cores, corridors and carnivores’ – protecting core wilderness areas, reconnecting habitats for free movement of wildlife and restoring lost keystone species.
Rewilding ourselves, rewilding our souls
But, as key parts of the ecosystems we dominate, humans must be part of the rewilding. The concept of rewilding is usually used in an ecological sense – as a restoration of ecosystems and natural processes. But the concept interpreted in its broadest sense offers a holistic framework for regenerating not only healthy ecosystems, but also healthy human society and ourselves. A rewilding of the self, of the heart and soul, is a re-enchantment with the natural world, a re-awakening of our senses and intuition, a dissolving of the false boundaries between our atomised selves and our Earthly home. It is a restoration of meaningful connections with nature, our selves and each other.
The emerging field of ecopsychology is discovering that it is not only our relationships with our family and society that fundamentally effect our well-being and inform patterns of behaviour, but also our relationship with nature. Crucially, our relationships with nature, ourselves and each other all shape each other – so as long as we continue having an exploitative, objectifying relationship with the natural world, we will not be able to eradicate exploitation in our societies and vice versa. As long as white people dominate people of colour, men dominate women, the straight and cis-gendered dominate the queer and humans dominate nature, domination will poison all of our relationships and lead us ultimately to our ruin. To begin to heal the broken relationship with the natural world and each other we must reclaim and regenerate meaningful, healthy connections.
Rewilding ourselves is also a reawakening of our sacred relationship with the natural world, an ancient reverence that has been lost and forgotten. Countless generations of humans had an intimate, sacred relationship with nature. Natural cycles unfolded around our ancestors with profound meaning; they were not separate from them. They honoured their need for spiritual connection and understanding of life’s mysteries through earth-centric ceremony and ritual, with nature-based creation stories and mythology, and a deep reverence for nature.
‘Heathen’ Earth-based traditions have been exterminated on a huge scale; the subsequent rise of reductionist science, capitalism and the eventual ‘death of God’ has led us to worship the gods of material accumulation instead. We see ourselves as separate from nature, and nothing is sacred; the natural landscape provides little more than a backdrop for our dramas of self-interest. Organised religion today feels out-dated, irrelevant or questionable to many people, particularly younger generations, a mistrust fed by the abuse of the power religious institutions have accumulated. But the growing numbers of people exploring being ‘spiritual but not religious’, reveals an enduring appetite for meaning, community and spirituality – without the sanctimony.
The severance of our spiritual connection to the natural world has driven us to a point of social, ecological and economic crisis on a planetary scale; ultimately this is a spiritual crisis. Efforts towards regeneration must incorporate a contemporary spiritual dimension with popular appeal. Rekindling a sacred connection to the Earth and its inhabitants has the potential to feed this hunger, support the growth of a life-affirming society, heal the sickness of our times and transform social relationships. It can infuse our lives and communities with meaning, connection and depth that goes beyond dogma and separation, firmly rooted in the irrefutable immediate physicality of the Earth.
A rewilding of society is a restoration of healthy cultures and social structures that honour our connection to the natural world. Our socio-economic systems are designed from a worldview of ecological disconnection. This affects our whole human world – our daily lifestyles, resource use, buildings and urban design, transport, economic, education and health systems. Imagine what buildings, hospitals, cities and schools would look like if they included nature rather than marginalised it, embraced nature’s intelligence and worked with it rather than against it? Some progressive ‘biophilic’ cities are already blazing trails in this area, such as Vancouver, Amsterdam, and Singapore with its Khoo Teck Puat Hospital – a ‘hospital in a garden, and a garden in a hospital.’
There are many channels through which we can redress the ecological disconnection at a societal level; to reconnect, restore and regenerate healthy human society.We need an integrated, whole-system approach with legal underpinnings. We can change how we plan new communities, we can integrate our environment, health and education policies, and incentivise farmers to promote multi-purpose countryside rather than ecologically destructive industrial monocultures, creating opportunities for more connections. And we can create the world we want to see in our own communities, without waiting for leadership or permission from above.
Rebel, reclaim, rewild!
Transitioning to a healthier society is held back in various ways. We lack of a framework which supports change: our current socio-economic system keeps us locked in to the fossil fuel economy for the wealth of a privileged few, which stifles cultural and political leadership. Behaviour change research suggests that these key factors, along with how the media encourages us to see the challenge in relation to our own lives, create the pervasive inaction and apathy we see in our society – not ignorance or indifference. If we are to change society and transition away from polluting fossil fuels we must challenge the status quo and those in power with bold action, powerful mass movements and the courage to reclaim our power and live as if the Earth mattered.
Rewilding offers a holistic framework for both the vision of what a healthy future on this planet could look like, and the path of how we might get there. Much needed in these times when despair and denial is too easily fallen into, it also offers a positive environmentalism – something to hope for rather than something to fight against.
By working with people working in the key spheres of a transitioning society, such as the built environment, social change, new economics, sustainability and adaptation, I hope to help in some small way to make the transition to a more life-affirming society, thereby creating a healthier, happier, more sustainable future for all. And have a wild time in the process…