George Monbiot is a well-known environmentalist. He has a regular column in the Guardian newspaper, writes occasionally for a number of other publications (all his articles can be viewed on the clutter free website www.monbiot.com) and a number of books already under his name. As a child, I sometimes dreamed of ‘saving the rainforest’ and probably for this reason Monbiot became a natural role model as I grew up, even though he quickly destroyed my overly simplistic views of ‘good’ conservationists vs the ‘bad’ deforesters. His writing is broad, encapsulating the links between many different elements of what is, invariably, a more complex problem than what first impressions indicate. In the mid 2000s, George Monbiot took-on the ‘greatest environmental threat’ - climate change - almost head-on in his acclaimed book Heat. This provided motivation for me to seek solutions, not only on some abstract policy level, but in my everyday life.
Fast-forward five years. Instead of fretting over our collective failure to overcome society’s enduring addiction to fossil fuels, it is refreshing to see that Monbiot has moved on. Environmental problems are big and, due partly to the long timespans over which they develop, can seem intractible. Instead of discussing the problem, in this case lack of wild or ‘self-willed’ ecosystems, from an abstract perspective, Monbiot dives into some vivid descriptions of experiences in the wilderness. Contrast this with the monotony of everyday life and it becomes apparent that many people are suffering from ecological boredom. We have got to the point in which opening a poorly designed bag of nuts constitutes the most exciting manual task of the day! The escapism of video games and the many other distractions of the modern world is provided as anecdotal evidence for this, alongside a wealth of peer-reviewed literature on nature deficit disorder provides an undeniable argument: we need to re-engage with nature.
As Monbiot has himself said elsewhere, the underlying concept of this book is a simple one. It is eloquently written, yet succinct and without excessive diversions. The personal story that provides the backdrop to the ideas presented is not self-indulgent, but clear, concise and at times brutal.
Regarding the actual policies that he is proposing, George Monbiot seems to have moved further towards the ‘pragmatist’ camp of environmentalism since the ‘Age of Consent’, in which global issues are tackled head-on and the real-politik of potential solutions are apparently hammered-out (disclaimer: I’ve not read the book). Older and perhaps wiser, the solutions in Feral are less complex and eminently more feasible. These include (in the order that they are presented in the book) the return of trees and ‘keystone species’ such as the moose and otter to low-intensity farmland; a reduction in overgrazing in ‘Sheepwrecked’ uplands, and the enforcement of ‘no fish zones’. All of these could easily have economic benefits that dwarf their costs over time, even for the farmers and fishing industries that currently resist any whiff of environmentally beneficial regulation. The description of whales as a keystone species with the potential to fertilise the seas and sequester large volumes of carbon dioxide in the process in “Rewilding the Sea” was particularly interesting, and supported with ample peer-reviewed literature to persuade even the most hard-nosed ‘factivist’.
Ultimately this book is not about facts, though, but about our inbuilt need to interact with nature, the wider benefits this could bring, and practical steps towards making it happen. I heartily recommend this book to anyone: young and old; deep environmentalist or environmental skeptic;high-powered businessman or local forager. The ideas will change the way you think about nature and, at the very least, encourage you get out there more often.