World Domination

Rewilding schemes aim to subdue nature with nature itself

Late in the first volume of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy on the colonization of Mars, one of the first colonists sees a news report describing a scheme on Earth to dust the Antarctic Ocean with iron to restore the phytoplankton blooms that helped control the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Alone in a rover on Mars, Frank remarks wryly to himself, “Now they’re terraforming earth.”

Today, iron fertilization is among a number of proposed geoengineering schemes being considered, if only partly seriously, to ameliorate our own impending climate doom. Other plans involve seeding the atmosphere with sulphate particles to reflect solar radiation back into space. The ultimate effect of the sulphate plan would be planetary cooling, accompanied by a dramatic reddening of the sky. In Robinson’s Red Mars, the terraforming advocates hope for the opposite, actively inducing the warming of the frigid atmosphere, and mark its progress by the gradual clearing of the ruddy Martian sunsets. Humans watch the red sun and revel in their handiwork.

Rewilding and natural self-reclamation of landscapes is a conduit for the exercise of power, not its relinquishment

In science fiction, terraforming is the process of “earth shaping” other worlds to make them livable for humans. In the trilogy, a faction of early colonists and radicals oppose terraforming, inspired by the anti-interventionist position of the character Ann Clayborne. These “Reds” seem to embody the painful expression of an idea from our contemporary climate discourse known as solastalgia. The term was coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht and his colleagues in 2007 to describe “the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment.” The Mars that Ann and the Reds most desire is untouched by human intervention, raw and pure and ancient.

The terraforming debate in Red Mars theorizes the morality of human intervention, and mirrors our contemporary discourse on climate change. The trilogy’s factions are analogues for opposing camps in our current moment of climate crisis: the forceful technological solutions of geoengineering, and the seemingly passive techniques of rewilding, in which conservationists attempt to “reset” nature by letting it do the work of its own renewal. Instead of tangling ourselves into an ever-tighter knot of intervention and more intervention to repair the damage of intervention, with rewilding, the thinking goes, we could power down all our machines, pack up our gear, and leave things be.

Ann’s preferred state of Mars would require her to survive on the surface and study the barren planet; she makes a false distinction between living nature and technology, which her work requires. Similarly, the idea of rewilding, which supposedly lets nature do its own restoration, is only possible by mobilizing a complex network of scientific knowledge and technological intervention. Rewilding and natural self-reclamation of landscapes is a conduit for the exercise of power, not its relinquishment.

Rewilding is a term that describes any number of conservation techniques that involve the reintroduction of plants and animals to landscapes where they have been extirpated by human activity. In the context of climate change, some rewilding schemes could allow nature to resume its old carbon-fixing habits, or help to keep permafrost frozen — rewilding advocates believe that the reintroduction of extirpated, or even extinct, “keystone species,” especially large predators, will trigger chain reactions within an ecosystem that can ameliorate the effects of human activity. If successful, it would mean that humans could ameliorate the effects of climate change without resorting to technology, which has come to symbolize the horrific guilt of killing the planet.

Perhaps the most ambitious rewilding plan currently in process is that of the Pleistocene Park: scientists Nikita and Sergey Zimov plan to revive an ancient grassland — first in Siberia, then in a great world-wrapping ring of reflective arctic plains — working on the theory that such landscapes reflect more sunlight and will help to keep the Siberian permafrost frozen. In order to do this, they are bulldozing trees; eventually they plan to grow wooly mammoths in laboratories, releasing them to their stewardship of the landscape. Pleistocene Park is supposed to be completely self-regulating, relying on the ancient lifeways of extinct creatures to bring their garden back to its pre-human state.

Environment and technology historian Dolly Jorgensen notes that “[t]he animals chosen for rewilding initiatives reveal the permeability of the nature-culture divide even if activists do not recognize it.” In the Pleistocene Park, mammoths would have to be engineered and grown in vats, their breeding managed by humans until they could form a sustainable, tree-smashing herd. They are no less machines in the Siberian garden than the tanks the scientists are currently using to deforest the land.

Beyond the ordinary horror of the machine in the garden, the distaste we feel for the technological irruption of nature is predicated on an explicitly gendered understanding of nature, science, and technology. Feminine nature is subdued by masculine science. Sometimes, in the headiest of these anthropocene fantasies, nature simply submits. “Nature is such a potent symbol of innocence partly because ‘she’ is imagined to be without technology,” Donna Haraway writes in Primate Visions. “Social relations of domination are built into the hardware and logistics of technology, producing the illusion of technological determinism.” But this gender binary between nature and technology — between nature and men — also sets the domineering tone of many climate amelioration schemes, whose very conception speaks to the same will to power, repressed. Our discourses about climate change are dominated by the people who will manage to avoid its effects the longest, and who have the luxury of mourning for lost land. To the project of Western science, rewilding advocates often add the affective lure of a globalized solastalgia, and take up its imperial impulse to dominate for the greater good.

It is intoxicating, almost erotic; the ability to bring the planet to the edge of death and then, capriciously, reset the conditions for it to bring itself back

An apolitical solastalgia underpins George Monbiot’s TED talk about rewilding, in which he descends into raptures about the actual geographic impact of reintroduced predators that through a chain reaction, beginning with thinning the deer population, can in some cases stem erosion and re-route waterways. Monbiot pauses for effect — we could change the actual shape of the land simply by reintroducing wolves to parts of North America! It’s not the prospect of restoration or the potential to halt climate change that transports Monbiot; it is the pure expression of human power, the manful, operationalization of centuries of diligent observation and knowledge production. His final pitch for rewilding is the possibility of bringing exotic biomes and animals right into European backyards, relocating the savage riches of the empire within the metropole itself. Monbiot mourns the loss of wild places in Europe, while the Global South faces famine, drought, and the specific pain of watching their homeland become uninhabitable. This globalized solastalgia is why Ann and the Reds aren’t taken all that seriously in Red Mars; the terraforming advocates are too preoccupied making the planet livable for an ever-increasing flood of immigrants who need food and shelter to indulge Ann’s grief for the loss of primitive Mars.

In rewilding, we are drawn to the exercise of power across deep planetary time. We make use of an ecological understanding complete enough that humans can simply choose the one action that will create a “natural” chain reaction that accomplishes their goals with a minimum of “technological” intervention. And the recognition that climate change and rewilding are expressions of the same impulse only adds to the sense of totalizing power. It is intoxicating, almost erotic; the ability to bring the planet to the edge of death and then, capriciously, reset the conditions for it to bring itself back. It is the singular act of a deistic god, who sets the universe in motion and then perhaps only visits now and again by bullet train. To successfully arrest the death of the planet via rewilding would signal not concession to the inevitability of nature, but rather the long-awaited climax of the Enlightenment. To truly subdue nature, not with steel and soot but with the scratching, scrabbling keratin claw of nature itself, is the ultimate human coup in the eternal conflict with nature.

It is fitting that The Rewilding Institute, one of a number of ecological think tanks scattered around the North America and Europe, is based in New Mexico. The land here seems to encroach much more on human activity than the reverse, perhaps in part because it has nurtured the evolution of a kind of desperate biome where plants and animals fight for spare water and resources under a baking sun at high elevation. Everything here has to be fought off by humans trying to carve out space for cities and towns. Prickly pear and cow’s tongue cactus take over backyards like spiny molds. Goatheads resist being cut out of the loose, sandy soil and hitch rides on our shoes and dog paws. The salt cedar that chokes the banks of the Rio Grande forces its shoots up between equally tenacious elm trees. We have the ordinary pests, but also mammals like prairie dogs and coyotes, which have learned to eat our trash and build cities in our vacant real estate. The mice carry hantavirus and bubonic plague. Rewilding is the idea of letting nature reset to its “natural” conditions, and nature here is robust enough, angry enough, to manage it. The desert would do it out of spite.

In this irritable desert where I live, there is a very flippant discourse on climate change. How much more extreme could this desert really get? We talk about it all the time, but we always seem to settle on “fuck it” in the end. There’s a weird storm; the trees bloom weeks early; the drought deepens dramatically. We shrug and wait for the monsoons. Maybe living in an already-extreme environment makes us jaded, jonesing for the science-fiction thrills of climate disaster. One summer in college, a catastrophic forest fire in Arizona pumped smoke into our city for weeks and stained the sun a dusty Martian red. We ignored the air quality warnings on the news and went out into the street to worship under the angry red eye of the sun, drinking beer and listening to doom records.

Anna Reser is a historian of technology and the editor of Lady Science.