What “rewilding” means—and what’s missing from this new movement

In Colombia, there’s a national debate about what to do with Pablo Escobar’s feral “cocaine hippos.” To many, the 160 hippos—descendants of four illegally imported African hippopotamuses that escaped from the drug kingpin’s private zoo after his death in 1993—are agents of destruction. Each night, they collectively chomp through half a ton of vegetation, and…
What “rewilding” means—and what’s missing from this new movement

Restoring the planet is always a process of design, one that is shaped by the values, idiosyncrasies, and blind spots of those in charge.

Laura J. Martin, environmental historian

These fish fared surprisingly well—twice as well as non-irradiated fish—and ever since have been outcompeting natural fish and breeding with them, not to mention the countless other “improved” fish released by states and federal government agencies every year since at least the 1930s. Catch a wild fish today and its body probably bears marks of human manipulation: “It is perhaps anachronistic to call any fishery ‘wild,’” Martin writes.

Wild by Design’s biggest gift is to “denaturalize” restoration as it is done today, showing that concepts that can seem essential to the practice, such as eradicating invasive species or returning landscapes to some pre-­disturbance state, have been insignificant for much of the movement’s history. 

Readers might be surprised to learn that both Wilding and Banana Leaves critique what they view as alarmist narratives around non-native species. Martin shows how invasive-species management grew to prominence opportunistically by capitalizing on other forms of American nativism. Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, environmental charities piggybacked on fears about migration and the softening of national borders. By the post-9/11 years, the Nature Conservancy had adopted the language of counterterrorism, calling for “rapid-response” units to “attack” invasive species and transforming environmental managers into “Exotic Plant Eradication Strike Teams.” 

Martin argues that returning landscapes to “pre-­human” or precolonial conditions—often assumed to be the core purpose of restoration—emerged as a widespread goal only in the 1980s before diminishing again in the 2000s, as climate change and human development made that impossible. Nor was it necessarily desirable. Since the American restoration movement largely set the arrival of Europeans as its baseline and excluded Native Americans from the lands in question, it typically resulted in human-cleared, ecologically restored fantasy worlds that allowed White Americans to perpetuate the myth of the New World’s “discovery.” 

Restoring the planet is always a process of design, says Martin—one that is shaped by the values, idiosyncrasies, and blind spots of those in charge, even when they claim to be ceding control to wild and primeval forces. “Restoration is, by definition, active: it is an attempt to intervene in the fate of a species or an entire ecosystem,” she writes. “If preservation is the desire to hold nature in time and conservation is the desire to manage nature for future human use, restoration asks us to do something more complicated: to make decisions about where and how to heal. To repair and to care. To make amends for the damage we have done, while learning from nature even as we intervene in it.”

Wild by Design, like Fresh Banana Leaves, is held together by a forthright argument for responsibility and accountability. Restoration projects cannot afford to commit mistakes already made by wildlife conservationists, they argue, by displacing vulnerable minorities and erasing culture in pursuit of pharaonic visions of nature cleared of human influence. Both these accounts, grounded in history, show why restoration must be democratic and guided by open deliberation about justice. “Who benefits from restoration? Who is harmed? Who does the work of care, and who is cared for?” asks Martin. “Whose vision of wildness is acted on?” 

Rewilding, as it is framed by Burrell and Tree, has little to say on such questions of justice. Given that their practice arises from a private landholding, ideas like democracy and participatory decision-making are far from the authors’ minds. The restoration that happens is their personal vision; justice never gets a mention in 500 pages of Wilding. Yet as these accounts show, questions about how to share the finite space of the planet with other people, as well as other species, cannot be ignored. As restorative practices become wide-reaching and world-shaping, Martin concludes, restoration’s power to transform landscapes reintroduces familiar dangers for the powerless: “I suggest that we conceive of restoration as an optimistic collaboration with nonhuman species, a practice of co-designing the wild with them. But we still have the responsibility to collaborate with one another, too.” 

Matthew Ponsford is a freelance reporter based in London.