Icons of Oblivion
In Rewilding the World, Caroline Fraser travels the globe, visiting sites where naturalists are struggling to return habitats to a wild state. Rather than defining her terms--she never explains precisely what she means by "wild," for instance--Fraser tells inspiring stories about scientists reintroducing wolves in the American West, creating wilderness corridors in Latin America, protecting forests in Europe, opening peace parks in the Middle East, saving elephants and big cats in Africa and restoring ruined agricultural land in Australia. Fraser's subjects are thinking big, sometimes working on a continental scale. She claims that they offer perhaps the last and certainly the best hope for a planet teetering on the brink of biotic collapse. "Conservation biology and its epiphanies," Fraser notes, "constitute a latter-day Copernican revolution. Just as Copernicus revealed that the earth was not the fixed center of the universe, so conservation biologists have found that Homo sapiens is not the independent actor he has imagined himself to be." She is, in sum, a true believer in the high church of ecology. So while Barrow the scholar typically moderates his tone and enthusiasm, Fraser the acolyte sings her subjects' praises.
Except when she doesn't. For every success story recounted in Rewilding the World, there are multiple tales of catastrophic failure. On one side of the ledger stands a massive preserve in Costa Rica, its future bright because one of its creators, a visionary biologist named Dan Janzen, understands not only the region's delicate ecology but also the vagaries of high finance. Janzen had the foresight to create a huge endowment for the park, a critical component of what he calls sustainable conservation. On the other side of the ledger, though, are wolves being slaughtered by irate ranchers in the desert Southwest; big cats and elephants being poached by tribal people in Africa, hunters too hungry to be troubled by conservation politics; and potentially vibrant peace parks sitting empty along the borders of North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, and Israel and Jordan, as the parks' founders wait for peace to arrive in these regions.
Fraser, like Barrow, suggests that such failures are often rooted in history. In Africa, for example, conservationists once served as agents of colonialism, much as in the United States activists like William Hornaday advocated dispossessing Native Americans of land that could be transformed into parks. Oddly, though, Fraser doesn't answer contemporary critics, even when they crop up in her book, who believe that the modern environmental movement hasn't transcended its roots, that it remains too top-down and that rewilding is a luxury only elites can afford. For Fraser, such complaints are beside the point. In her view, "the environment must become a top priority" or the planet will enter a prolonged "demographic winter." The crisis is existential: rewilding is a matter of life or death for everyone. That may be true, but it ignores the thorny politics of environmentalism, the reality that while scientists can identify endangered animals, they usually cannot preserve species without marshaling popular support and political will to their side. Instead of grappling with this issue, Fraser offers doomsday predictions and a discordant anecdote about her own engagement with rewilding--she feeds threatened prairie dogs discarded produce from Whole Foods.
The good news is that absent ongoing degradation, it turns out many threatened species and the landscapes they inhabit have rebounded remarkably quickly. But there's a hitch. The conditions most conducive to fostering an ecosystem's rebirth are deadly to human beings. In the wake of the cold war, for example, scientists discovered that what had been known as the Death Zone, the narrow parcel of land separating East from West Germany, was among "the most undisturbed natural areas" in Europe. Similarly, intractable strife has transformed the Korean Demilitarized Zone into an "Eden" entirely given over to wild nature, but only because it's a no man's land. As Fraser notes: "The 38th parallel, a border 155 miles long and 2½ miles wide, guarded by two million North and South Korean soldiers, is believed to be the best-preserved piece of land on earth. It is also the most dangerous. No human being has set foot in it in fifty-five years." So long as war must serve as rewilding's most potent ally, Aldo Leopold's land ethic remains little more than a utopian dream.
And so, even as Fraser demonstrates that "land and wildlife recover when we leave them alone," she admits that deeper questions linger: "Can we find the will to restrain ourselves without the threat of annihilation? Can we do it in time?" On balance, Rewilding the World offers readers at best ambivalent answers. It seems that too many people remain enthralled by myths of abundance, or by the idea that the planet belongs to the human race; they doubt environmentalists' good faith, or live in circumstances so desperate that subsistence understandably supersedes conservation as a concern. For these people, sharing the planet with their nonhuman neighbors, on something like equal terms, seems as unlikely an outcome as extinction once did to eighteenth-century naturalists. Fraser remains resolute, going so far as to report on a futuristic rewilding scheme. Scientists recently discovered a beautifully preserved mammoth whose DNA, she says, "may, one day, help to resurrect her species." Jefferson, who in life rarely shied away from gloating, may just have stirred in his crypt and muttered, "I told you so."