Why Humanity Must 'Rewild' (Op-Ed)

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Why Humanity Must 'Rewild' (Op-Ed)
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A clearing storm created a stunning scene at Yosemite National Park in California.

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff's latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed (New World Library, 2013). This Op-Ed is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Most people find it difficult to live a rich and meaningful life that involves being out in nature — and appreciating the magnificence of our one and only planet — because they are constantly in the process of being "unwilded." 

People are pulled away from nature and other animals because they are simply too busy trying to survive, or too busy trying to make ends meet. And unwilding begins early in life — too many youngsters aren't allowed to "go out and get dirty" or just have fun doing nothing but enjoying themselves outside. [The Benefits of Digging in the Dirt (Op-Ed )]

Because of that alienation — and humanity's lack of attention to, or knowledge about, the destructive effects of over-population and over-consumption — Earth is losing species and habitats at an unprecedented rate in our current geological epoch, the Anthropocene — the age of humanity. While the term has not been formally recognized as official nomenclature, it fits our current human nature as big-brained, big-footed, overproducing, over-consuming, arrogant and selfish mammals that freely, recklessly, wantonly and mindlessly trump the interests of countless nonhuman animals. 

Every second of every day, humans decide who lives and who dies — we are that powerful. Critical habitats are disappearing at alarming and unprecedented rates, imperiling animals ranging from polar bears to grey wolves. Overfishing is devastating many diverse aquatic environments and economies. Yes, we do many positive things for our magnificent planet and its inhabitants, but rather than pat ourselves on the back for all the good we do, if we do not take action to right many wrongs, it will be too late for many animals, including ourselves. 

First, humanity must pay careful attention to the rapidly growing international and interdisciplinary field called "compassionate conservation," a platform for determining how to share space with the rest of the life on our planet.

Second, more people must choose the transformative process of personal "rewilding" — a movement that applies to human perspective as much as it does to human landscapes. Rewilding our hearts calls for a global paradigm shift — a social revolution — in how people interact with other animals and with other humans. 

Compassionate conservation

The goals of compassionate conservation are clearly stated in the mission statement for a recently established Center for Compassionate Conservation at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, and in a book I edited "Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation ," (University of Chicago Press, 2013) in which authors stress the importance of respecting individual animals, take into account cultural differences in conservation practices, and respecting the interests of all stakeholders, nonhuman and human alike. 

The center's mission statement promotes the protection of captive and wild animals as individuals within conservation practice and policy, finding ways to compassionately and practically share space and co-exist via trade-offs among different values.

Compassion (and empathy) alleviate suffering in humans and other animals, particularly to resolve issues of land sharing. A compassionate and practical ethic for conservation that focuses on individual well being, in combination with other values, provides a novel framework of transparency and robust decision-making for conservation that will benefit all stakeholders.

Compassionate conservation prioritizes the protection of other animals as individuals: not just as members of populations of species, but valued in their own right. This is important because of what we now know about animals' cognitive and emotional lives (consciousness and sentience). 

Compassionate conservation requires that humans must protect animals as individuals — they are not merely objects or metrics who can be traded off for the good of populations, species or biodiversity. Such a paradigm shift in our approach to other animals is vital because of what we now know about the cognitive and emotional capacities of other animals and their ability to suffer.

With a guiding principle of "first do no harm," compassionate conservation offers a bold, virtuous, inclusive and forward-looking framework that provides a meeting place for different perspectives and agendas to discuss and solve issues of human-animal conflict when sharing space. Peaceful coexistence with other animals and their homes is needed in an increasingly human-dominated world if we are to preserve and conserve nature.

Surely, adhering to the principles of compassionate conservation will go a long way toward reducing the ecocide in which we are now engaged and for which we all are responsible.

Rewilding our hearts

My forthcoming book, "Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence," will lay out the details for a much-needed social movement and paradigm shift that can help humans extricate ourselves from our ecocidal ways and contribute to a more peaceful world for all beings in these trying times of over-population and habitat encroachment. We live in a world in which being "unwilded" is the norm rather than the exception. If we didn't unwild we wouldn't have to rewild.

The word "rewilding" became an essential talking point of conservationists in the late 1990s when two well-known conservation biologists, Michael Soulé and Reed Noss, wrote a now classic paper called "Rewilding and biodiversity: Complimentary goals for continental conservation" that appeared in the magazine WIld Earth (Fall 1998).

In her book "Rewilding the World," conservationist Caroline Fraser noted that rewilding could be defined by three words: Cores, Corridors and Carnivores. Dave Foreman, director of the Rewilding Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a true visionary, sees rewilding as a conservation strategy based on three premises: "(1) healthy ecosystems need large carnivores, (2) large carnivores need big, wild roadless areas, and (3) most roadless areas are small and thus need to be linked." Conservation biologists and others who write about rewilding or work on rewilding projects see it as a large-scale process involving projects of different sizes that go beyond carnivores, such as the ambitious, courageous and forward-looking Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, well known as the Y2Y project. Of course, rewilding goes beyond carnivores, as it must.

The core words associated with large-scale rewilding projects are connection and connectivity, the establishment of links among geographical areas so that animals can roam as freely as possible with few if any disruptions to their movements. For this to happen ecosystems must be connected so that their integrity and wholeness are maintained or reestablished. 

Regardless of scale — from huge areas encompassing a wide variety of habitats that need to be reconnected or protected to personal interactions with animals and habitats — the need to rewild and reconnect centers on the fact that there has been extensive isolation and fragmentation in nature, between ourselves and Mother Nature, and within ourselves. 

Many — perhaps most — human animals are isolated and fragmented internally concerning their relationships with nonhuman animals, so much so that we're alienated from them. We don't connect with other animals, including other humans, because we can't or don't empathize with them. 

The same goes for our lack of connection with various landscapes. We don't understand they're alive, vibrant, dynamic — alienation often results in different forms of domination and destruction, but domination is not what it means "to be human." Power does not mean license to do whatever we want to do because we can. Rewilding projects often involve building wildlife bridges and underpasses so that animals can freely move about. These corridors, as they're called, can also be more personalized. 

I see rewilding our heart as a dynamic process that will not only foster the development of corridors of coexistence and compassion for wild animals but also facilitate the formation of corridors within our bodies that connect our heart and mind. In turn, those connections, or reconnections, will result in positive feelings that will facilitate heartfelt actions to make the lives of animals better. These are the sorts of processes that will help the new field of compassionate conservation further develop. When I think about what can be done to help others, a warm feeling engulfs me and I'm sure it's part of that feeling of being rewilded. To want to help others in need is natural, so that glow is to be expected.

Rewilding is an attitude. It's also a guide for action. As a social movement, it needs to be proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful and passionate — which I call the eight Ps of rewilding.

Compassion begets compassion and there's actually a synergistic relationship, not a trade-off, when we show compassion for animals and their homes. There are indeed many reasons for hope. There's also compelling evidence that humans are born to be good, and that we're natural-born optimists. Therein lie many reasons for hope that in the future we will harness our basic goodness and optimism and work together as a united community. We can look to animals for inspiration. 

We need to tap into our empathic, compassionate and moral inclinations to make the world a better place for all beings. We need to build a culture of empathy. We need to add a healthy dose of social justice to our world right now.

We can all make more humane and compassionate choices to expand our compassion footprint, and we can all do better. We must all try as hard as we can to keep thinking positively and proactively. Never say never — ever. We can and must keep our hopes and dreams alive. Embracing the tenets of compassionate conservation and rewilding are good ways to remain optimistic in very challenging, difficult, and frustrating times.

When all is said and done, and more is usually said than done, people need a heartfelt revolution in how we think, what we do with what we know, and how we act. Rewilding can be a good guide. The revolution has to come from deep within us and begin at home, in our heart and wherever we live. 

 

I want to make the process of rewilding a more personal journey and exploration that centers on bringing other animals and their homes, ecosystems of many different types, back into our heart. For some people, they're already there or nearly so, whereas for others it will take some work for this to happen. Nonetheless, it's inarguable that if we're going to make the world a better place now and for future generations, personal rewilding is central to the process and will entail a major paradigm shift in how we view and live in the world, and how we behave. It's not that hard to expand our compassion footprint and if each of us contributes, the movement will grow rapidly.

The time is right, the time is now, for an inspirational, revolutionary and personal social movement such as rewilding that can save us from doom and keep us positive while we pursue our hopes and dreams. Our planet is tired and dying and not as resilient as some claim it to be.

Let’s try rewilding right now. Take the leap. Leap and the net will appear. It'll feel good to rewild because compassion and empathy are very contagious. 

Ecocide is suicide. Let's make personal rewilding all the rage. When "they" (other animals) lose, we all lose. We suffer the indignities to which we subject other animals. We can feel their pains and suffering if we allow ourselves to do so. Compassion begets compassion and violence begets violence. There really is hope if we change our ways. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations who will inherit the world we leave them long after we're gone.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "Citizen Canines? Pet Legal Status is Evolving." This article was primarily adapted from the post "Ecocide Is Suicide: Compassion and Personal Rewilding" in Psychology Today. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

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