‘A Life on Our Planet’: Attenborough’s recipe and human reluctance — Chronicle of a failure foretold

“Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right”

I. Asimov

In the outstanding film “A life on our planet”, Sir David Attenborough tells us which actions we need to implement to avoid a future catastrophe. His plan is feasible and affordable: we already have all the knowledge and technology required to implement each action. There are no insurmountable technical obstacles. But there is an obstacle that could be very hard to overcome: people’s reluctance. To implement the plan, people must be able to overcome deeply rooted prejudices, rethink the idea of nature and countryside, debunk myths and break taboos. Are people able to do this? Examples from the past indicate they are not.

By Lucia Tamburino

“A Film The World Needs To See ”. “The greatest movie of all time ”. “A masterpiece for the ages”. These are just some of the cheering reviews that you can find on IMDb of the film David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. The film is really outstanding. Many people talk about climate change and other environmental issues, but Sir David is a step ahead of all. He doesn’t just look at the single pieces of the puzzle, but puts all the pieces together, giving us the bigger picture. So, we learn that greenhouse emissions are only a part — albeit important — of a more general and deeper problem: an invasive species increased beyond any limit and altering all the world’s habitats, converting “wild into tame” and breaking the fundamental equilibria of the planet. Starting from this, it is clear what we need to do: “We must rewild the world” (h 0.55).

The problem here is that space on our planet is limited and wild nature competes with agriculture and other human land uses. There are already 5 billion cultivated hectares globally and all of them are at the expense of natural ecosystems. Agricultural expansion is estimated to be the proximate driver for around 80% of deforestation worldwide: commercial agriculture in Latin America, subsistence agriculture in Africa and tropical and sub-tropical Asia [1]. In the future, there is a strong risk of a further agriculture expansion, in order to satisfy rapidly increasing food demands [2]. Feeding humanity and at the same time protecting and restoring wild nature is hence a big challenge. We can, however, succeed in this challenge according to Attenborough. At 0.56 h of the film, he says: “I’m going to tell you how”.

Attenborough’s recipe

  1. Stop population growth (h 0.57).
  2. Energy from renewable sources (h 1.00). Note: he indicates “sunlight, wind, water and geothermal“, not biofuel! Most biofuels require soil to be cultivated, subtracting space from natural ecosystems.
  3. Create large no-fishing zones in the oceans (h 1.02)
  4. Radically reduce the area we use to farm“, to make space for returning wilderness. This can be achieved through the following actions:
    • switch to a mainly plant-based diet (h 1.05);
    • high yield farming, i.e., “much more food from much less land” (h 1.07).
  5. Immediately halt deforestation and do reforestation on a massive scale (h 1.09).

Alone, none of these actions is sufficient, but all are necessary. If implemented together, they can act in synergy reinforcing each other. For example, the more we reduce population and switch to a plant-based diet, the less crop land we need and, as a consequence, the more space we have for rewilding and reforestation, absorbing more carbon emissions. The plan might work. And it is feasible: we already have all the knowledge and technology required to implement each action. In some cases, it is not especially difficult nor expensive. There are no particular obstacles. But there is an obstacle that could be the hardest to overcome: people’s reluctance.

Human reluctance

Almost everybody claims to be a nature-lover, but many people have a wrong idea about what nature is. They say “nature”, but they think “countryside”. Traditional farming systems are perceived as nature, in contrast with modern agriculture.

Instead, Sir David teaches us that the real contraposition is not traditional vs. modern agriculture, but agriculture vs. wilderness. And he tells us that modern high-yield farming is our valuable ally because it is able to produce more food in less space, hence releasing land for nature (the true wild nature, not countryside!) [3].

Talking about future agriculture, Attenborough does not show a rural landscape: he shows the highly mechanized, hi-tech, indoor farming practiced in the Netherlands, vertical agriculture, and kelp farming (see Fig. 1). While many people argue that returning to nature means that people must return on the land, Attenborough explains that we should cultivate food in new spaces (e.g. “indoors, within cities”) to allow wild nature to take back the land.

Figure 1: High-yield farming in the Netherlands; vertical agriculture; and kelp farming. “As we improve our approach to farming, we’ll start to reverse the land-grab that we’ve been pursuing ever since we began to farm, which is essential because we have an urgent need for all that free land” (h 1.08). We need free land for forests (last picture). All pictures are taken from David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet.

This clearly implies a big change, in our minds and on the landscape. Rural and semi-rural landscapes might be replaced by forests, in place of lawns and grazing sheep we could see trees and wild animals. This is already happening in some parts of Europe due to farmland abandonment.

Farmland abandonment is a great opportunity for rewilding Europe, but people do not seem to appreciate it. Indeed, several measures and laws have been implemented to do exactly the opposite. As part of the European Common Agriculture Policy, “Less Favoured Areas” (areas where agricultural use is less profitable) were designated mainly to prevent rural abandonment and to maintain rural landscapes. The largest amounts of funding for biodiversity conservation are available through agri-environmental schemes aimed at preserving traditional farming systems and reversing abandonment trends [4]. Not only farmers and policy makers, but also many environmentalists and ecologists consider land abandonment something bad that must be countered.

Actually, it’s true that farmland abandonment may have negative consequences in the short term. For example, uncontrolled shrub development can lead to an increased risk of fires and to reduced biodiversity [5, 6]. However, after a transition phase, abandoned areas can become self-sustaining wild areas, providing a wide variety of ecosystem services, e.g. flood prevention, soil protection, removal of air pollutants and water supply [7, 8]. Moreover, “the return of the trees would absorb” a large amount of carbon emissions, as Sir David highlights (h 1.10).

Biodiversity can increase too, especially when large connected areas are rewilded, allowing the return of animals who need large ranges, like top predators. Wolves, for instance, are key species for the functioning of natural ecosystems, and keep herbivores under control. After being persecuted for centuries and eradicated from most of Europe, they are finally coming back in many European countries. Farmers and hunters want to eradicate them again, as they are seen as a threat to cattle.

Yet, rangeland farmers are still seen as bio-maintainers, high-yield farming is regarded with suspicion, and rural landscapes are considered locations of high natural and cultural values, which must be maintained at any cost. The attachment to the past risks prevailing over the need for change, undermining humanity’s future.

A further reluctance – Population

Unfortunately, there are further reluctances and resistances against Attenborough’s recipe. One of these has already emerged in many criticisms against the film and concerns population.

Even if many people insist that “only overconsumption is the problem, not overpopulation”, it is clear that a large population exacerbates the burden exerted on our planet [9, 10]. Voluntary rights-based family planning programs would reduce this ecological burden and improve people’s lives, especially in developing countries and especially among women.

Don’t forget that lots of women have many children not because of their free choice: they are forced to marry very young, sometimes as little girls, or do not have sufficient access to contraception [11]. Family planning programs would improve their condition through prolonging female education and increasing access to contraception.

Moreover, in many regions in Africa, having a lot of children is a matter of pride for men. As a consequence, men want to have many children even if they are not able to give them the happy and prosperous life that should be the right of any child. Instead of being considered as creatures to love, children are seen as a tool to increase men’s status and sometimes as a source of livelihood for their family, as they are forced to work in the fields or in the factory. By combating this mentality, family planning programs would improve children’s lives [12, 13].

A question arises spontaneously, and it is the same question that Sir David asks at h 0.58 of this new film: “Why wouldn’t we want to do these things?

Rationally, this question is impossible to answer. There are however several irrational reasons why people refuse the idea of stopping population growth.

One reason is that limiting the number of children is immoral to many people, for instance many religious leaders, and giving life to more humans seems to override all other considerations. A second reason is that admitting that overpopulation is a problem implies recognizing that developing countries also have responsibilities for dealing with global environmental and social problems. Many people object to this, believing that any blame for these problems must be placed only on rich countries. So these people sometimes oppose family planning programs in developing countries, even though such programs would help many people rise out of poverty [14].

“Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right” quipped Isaac Asimov many years ago. Unfortunately, a confused sense of morals rooted in strong and deep prejudices risks prevailing over the need for change, undermining our future.

A failure foretold

“Go to vegan!” “Phase out fossil fuels!” “Reduce consumption!” People shout their slogans. All seem to know the perfect solution of global issues, but most of the times, they only have a narrow view, focusing just on a part of the problem. Attenborough’s look instead embraces the whole planet.

He tells us that all actions are important and it’s important to implement all of them. This implies that we all need to change ourselves, in one way or another. We need to change diet and behaviour, but also our mind. We need to overcome prejudices, to rethink the idea of nature and countryside, to debunk the myth of the wise old peasant and to break the population taboo.

Unfortunately, changing mind is not the strong side of human beings. We are a social species whose social cohesion depends on believing what those around us believe, and not rocking the boat. Cultural change happens incrementally, but can it happen fast enough? Morevoer, we evolved in a relatively stable environment, where rapid adaptations were generally not required. Our environment is not stable any more but our brain is still rigid. That is why we are likely going to fail and collapse, as has already happened to several past civilizations [15]. This time, the collapse risks to be global.

I am sorry that I cannot be more positive. But I’ll be glad if you prove me wrong.

References

[1]  FAO. The future of food and agriculture trends and challenges. Report, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2017.

[2]  Deepak K Ray, Nathaniel D Mueller, Paul C West, and Jonathan A Foley. Yield trends are insufficient to double global crop production by 2050. PloS one, 8(6):e66428, 2013.

[3]  Andrew Balmford, Tatsuya Amano, Harriet Bartlett, Dave Chadwick, Adrian Collins, David Edwards, Rob Field, Philip Garnsworthy, Rhys Green, Pete Smith, et al. The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming. Nature Sustainability, 1(9):477–485, 2018.

[4]  Laetitia M Navarro and Henrique M Pereira. Towards a European policy for rewilding. Rewilding European Landscapes, page 205, 2015.

[5]  Cibele Queiroz, Ruth Beilin, Carl Folke, and Regina Lindborg. Farmland abandonment: threat or opportunity for biodiversity conservation? A global review. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12(5):288–296, 2014.

[6]  Laetitia M Navarro and Henrique M Pereira. Rewilding abandoned landscapes in Europe. In Rewilding European Landscapes, pages 3–23. Springer, Cham, 2015.

[7]  Annik Schnitzler. Towards a new european wilderness: embracing unmanaged forest growth and the decolonisation of nature. Landscape and Urban Planning, 126:74–80, 2014.

[8]  Yvonne Cerqueira, Laetitia M Navarro, Joachim Maes, Cristina Marta-Pedroso, João Pradinho Honrado, and Henrique M Pereira. Ecosystem services: the opportunities of rewilding in Europe. In Rewilding European Landscapes, pages 47–64. Springer, Cham, 2015.

[9]  Jenna C Dodson, Patrícia Dérer, Philip Cafaro, and Frank Götmark. Population growth and climate change: Addressing the overlooked threat multiplier. Science of the Total Environment, 748:141346, 2020.

[10]  C.K. Tucker. A Planet of 3 Billion. Atlas Observatory Press, 2019.

[11]  Gilda Sedgh, Lori S Ashoford, and Rubina Hussain. Unmet need for contraception in developing countries: examine women’s reasons for not using a method. Technical report, The Guttmacher Institute, 2016.

[12]  James P Grant. The state of the world’s children 1992. Technical report, UNICEF, 1992.

[13]  Alhaji A Aliyu. Family planning services in Africa: The successes and challenges. In FamilyPlanning. InTech, June 2018.

[14]  Jane N O’Sullivan. Synergy between population policy, climate adaptation and mitigation. In Pathways to a sustainable economy, pages 103–125. Springer, 2018.

[15]  Jared Diamond. Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. Penguin, 2005.

14 thoughts on “‘A Life on Our Planet’: Attenborough’s recipe and human reluctance — Chronicle of a failure foretold

  1. Attenborough says, “Stop population growth.” The reviewer says, “The more we reduce population . . .” I say, use strategic intelligence to start a nuclear war between China and India. Messy, but gets population moving in the right direction.

    1. History unfortunately shows that wars culling population do start by themselves when people overshoot environmental limits. The point actually is what we can do to prevent this to happen. That’s why “Attenborough’s recipe” is so important. If you like wars, just continue business-as-usual.

  2. As a small farmer, I really wish that the propaganda against animal products and pasture would stop. Yes, we cannot eat as much meat and animal products as we’ve become accustomed to (at least while we’re so many – in the Middle Ages they could), and yes, we do need to rewild, but high-yield agriculture is not the solution, as it is environmentally devastating. It is also soul-crushing for those that do it, and produces nutritionally poor food. The damage high-yield agriculture INEVITABLY does to water, biodiversity, air, human and animal health, is so vast I cannot summarize it here. How is that the solution?
    I think people readily believe that all meat is bad because they never look at a holistic picture of how things are produced (and David Attenborough, whom I of course admire, is no exception). I have just bough a field that I intend to use as pasture, and that is right next to a field producing corn. Of course the neighbouring field will produce more food, but it is so lifeless (and probably polluted) compared to mine, which has already being planted with trees and grass species, and in which I’ve seen hare, roe deer, a rare bird I couldn’t identify and pretty blue butterflies. Also, it is a space that makes people happy when they come. Why are we only looking at yields? Do we not want people to have a low-impact, lower-yield agriculture that leaves much room for wildlife too? Pasture, done properly, is actually really good for the land, and is necessary for some wild species that have coexisted with us for a very long time.
    Like I’ve said, there’s certainly a need to rewild, but not everything, because humans do need to eat. This idea that we, and our domesticated animals, can only exist apart from nature, coming from environmentalists of all people, makes me really sad.

    1. You argue there is a propaganda against animal products and pastures, but I’d say it’s quite the opposite. Farmers make often propaganda pro animal products, using arguments that are little supported by data. For example, you claim: “high-yield agriculture […] is environmentally devastating”, but this is not true. Indeed, scientific studies indicate that land-efficient systems have often lower impact per unit of production (in terms of water use, GHG emissions, phosphorus and soil losses). I invite you to read this article published on Nature Sustainability: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0138-5
      Smallholder farmers just look at their own farm and defend their status quo, but adopting a broader perspective and looking at the whole planet -as Attenborough does- it’s clear that we need to stop rising livestock and change approach to farming.
      Your comment shows that I’m unfortunately right: there is a strong reluctance against Attenborough’s recipe. And a big part of such a reluctance comes indeed by smallholder farmers.

      1. “For greenhouse gas emissions, these associations become more strongly positive once forgone sequestration is included.”
        You can massage the data to make it say whatever you want it to say. “Forgone sequestration” is an assumption, not a reality. And what about pesticides and herbicides? If you are Italian like me, which your name suggests, you can look at what happened in Northern Italy with high-yielding corn production on a large scale. It’s basically killed every other form of life for hundreds of kilometers, in the water, on the land and in the skies, and it is making people sick, too. Now I dare you tell me that a malga with cows grazing up in the Alps does the same. I know, that corn goes to animals and energy production, but if it went to people, or if it was soy instead of corn, the outcome would be the same.
        I am not saying ALL the world should be turned to pasture, I am saying that we won’t gain anything by destroying this form of production. Who are you to say I only look at my own farm? What do you know about me? Maybe I started a farm because I looked at the whole world, at the madness that surrounds us, and decided that starting a farm here would be a contribution to make the world a better place. Attenborough has probably polluted in his own life time more than my animals would in ten, with all the flying around and his net worth of millions, so before we point fingers let’s look at the whole picture.
        I am not defending the status quo: I am advocating for producing animal-based foods in smaller overall quantities and in a more environmentally friendly way through pasture, which, if properly managed, actually absorbs CO2, can give us plant-based food as well, reduces water consumption and improves quality of life for both animals and people. It’s also nice to look at, as opposed to a lab or greenhouse (oh so environmentally friendly!) producing a billion identical tomatoes that all taste like water.
        Moreover, animals in agriculture don’t just produce food: they produce fiber, feathers and fertiliser, they can be used in fighting pests, transportation, clearing fields and as an insurance against failure of the crops and as reserves for the winter. Does the study discuss this, too? Do people realise that there is no ecosystem in the world without animals, and yet we want to create an animal-less agriculture, which would be the greatest aberration of nature on the largest scale? To me, that is nothing but fanaticism. If you don’t want to eat animals, don’t. But don’t tell other people not to using the environment as an excuse, because they might disagree with you, for good reason, on what “the environment” is.
        And also, what is all this picking on food? Why aren’t we also protesting all the land we use to build large houses and infrastructure for travelling, to produce food for our pets (which is somehow ok), to keep horses and donkeys, for alcohol or paper for books or fiber for fashion or tea or tobacco or coffee or drugs? Because the rich people want to keep these things, so they are basically telling the poor that every wasteful land use is ok, as long as it’s not to produce meat. But people are starting to see through this: you want to deprive me of my hamburger so you can keep your long-distance vacation and large mansion or whatever other thing it’s ok to use land for.
        Arguments between people who advocate abolishing animal husbandry and those who don’t tend to run around in circles, each cherry-picking data to suit their view. So I’ll stop. I just hope that my contribution has gotten people thinking that reality is not as simple as the big corporations (who are the ones who gain from high-yield agriculture, no doubt about that) would like us to think.

      2. Reply to Gaiabaracetti’s comment (Nov. 12).
        If you don’t like corn crops in Northern Italy, you should support a plant-based diet: those crops are mainly there to feed livestock, not people.
        A small amount of meat from grazing animals is acceptable and not in contrast with a mainly plant-based diet. Pastures can also have some environmental benefits. On the other hand, pastures represent our best opportunity to do rewilding and reforestation. This does not mean that we cannot use also other land types for rewilding but there is not much available land, unfortunately. Most land is occupied by agriculture, which is the most land-consuming activity: much more than industry, buildings, etc. Productive agricultural fields cannot be converted into nature, because there are 8 billion people to feed: that land is needed to produce food for all. Pastures are not very productive: they take land away from wild nature without producing much food. So, let’s give them back to the nature. Some pastures can be kept, but rewilding should be the priority, if we really want “to make the world a better place”.

        About high-yield farming, it does not necessarily mean intensive mono-cultures, nor large corporations. For instance, greenhouses in the Netherlands are mainly owned by smallholders. High-yield farming simply means agriculture able to produce more food in less land. This also includes new forms of agriculture, like the ones indicated by Attenborough, such as vertical agriculture and kelp farming. Many of these farming systems are not only highly productive, but also reduce pesticides, fertilizers, water use and GHG emissions. (Btw, the positive correlation exists if you read carefully: forgone sequestration just would make it stronger.)
        Only with high-yield farming we may be able to feed all the people without destroying further natural ecosystems (and possibly releasing land for nature). You instead support a kind of agriculture that cannot work in a world with 8 billion people. With low-yield farming, either you destroy the few forests left or you make people starve.

        Finally, you accuse me to deprive you of your hamburger, so I “can keep my long-distance vacation and large mansion”. It would rather seem that you want people to change their lifestyle, so you can keep eating your hamburgers. I argued that all changes are needed: different actions are not mutually exclusive, all must be done. Switch to a plant-based diet AND change lifestyle AND phase out fossil fuels AND stop population growth. In a nutshell: Attenborough’s recipe.

  3. God, the more I think about it, the more this is wrong on so many levels. Environmentalists should by now all be familiar with Jevon’s paradox: the more efficient you become in the use of a resource, the MORE of that resource is used. More efficient cars have meant more SUVs, more efficient planes an overall increase in emissions as people can afford to travel more, more efficient food production more mouths to feed, more efficient production of stuff, more stuff… so, their solution is to destroy “inefficient” – i.e. long-term sustainable, more-forms-of-life-on-your-land – agriculture, in favour of a super-efficient agriculture that is, as it has always done, gonna provide a justification for cramming yet more people onto this planet. Who is gonna make sure that the land we free for rewilding is not gonna be used instead for urban development, industry and amusement parks? After all, this is what has always happened.

    Sorry for the rants, but this death of holistic knowledge and critical thinking is very painful to watch. I’ve got more, but I’ll stop here.

    1. I agree: Jevon’s paradox is a real effect that risks reducing – and in some cases eliminating – technological advances. We need to be aware of it and deal with it. But giving up efficient solutions just because their benefits could be reduced by the Jevon’s paradox is not the smart way to deal with it. Rather, we need to combine efficiency with other actions in order to limit land use (and more in general resource use).

  4. The main problem with the idea of high yields is that you cannot create matter out of a vacuum: whatever you take is taken from someone else. Pastures are not very productive because they support A LOT of wildlife; productive agriculture is productive because it doesn’t. There is no way around it and that is why I think that wildlife experts should speak about wildlife and not about agriculture, which they do not understand well. The more you force land to produce for you, the more resources you have to take from somewhere else to sustain that production, and the more you kill or chase away any life form that could have a niche on that land, even if it were calculated (such as weeds, insects, birds, small mammals and reptiles, bacteria, etc). There is only so much biomass to go around.
    Let us look at proposed solutions. Greenhouses: environmentally awful. They are often made of plastic and heated; when they are not, they still cut off all wildlife from the land, consume a lot of construction materials to be built, and energy to be maintained. They need artificial irrigation as they don’t take rain. And do we really want to cover the world with plastic and glass domes?
    Seaweed farming has an impact on coastal life. If WE eat all the weeds, that means that animals don’t. It is also similar to converting wild lands to agriculture, only done in the sea.
    Vertical farming? That’s ridiculous! It is one thing to use spare space in buildings and between houses and roads to grow some food, but the idea of producing all our food this way is ludicrous. Only so much rain and sunlight can fall on a certain piece of land, so where would we take all the extra water from? How dark would our living spaces become in the shadow of these skyscrapers? What would the impact of extracting all that concrete, sand and energy to build skyscrapers be? How many mountains and beaches would we destroy JUST for the construction materials?
    Once again, we cannot imagine that we can take more from the environment in the form of food without depriving animals and plants of habitat, water and sustenance. It bears repeating: high-yields equal matter and water taken from wildlife, low-yields mean the opposite. I am not saying we should aim to produce as little as possible, just that we should take this into account.

  5. “I argued that all changes are needed: different actions are not mutually exclusive, all must be done. Switch to a plant-based diet AND change lifestyle AND phase out fossil fuels AND stop population growth. In a nutshell: Attenborough’s recipe.”
    I agree with this. For what it’s worth, I don’t even eat that many animal products, and I avoid fish entirely though I like it… I just don’t want rural lifestyle to be destroyed. I think that we should all choose some things to give up and some to keep, so that the transition will be more pleasant for everyone. We don’t need to all have the exact same lifestyle in order to be sustainable.

  6. This discussion above is interesting and important. Reducing population growth, stabilizing and reversing global population size are major goals that TOP advocate for. However these goal will take time to achieve; it seems that we can hardly avoid a maximum of 9 billion people even with strong population-related measures, such as a major increase in the use of contraceptives (needed especially in Africa).

    The discussion above concerns two distinct questions:
    1) How should agricultural systems best be designed to feed enough people, given the likely future increase in populations, in different countries?
    2) How should we best safeguard biodiversity (natural habitats, semi-natural habitats, special species-rich habitats, threatened species, genetic variability, etc) currently and in the future, in different countries?

    Conservation (protected areas, nature considerations in land use, species programs, and more) has tight links to history and “national conservation paradigms”. For instance, in the US, wilderness is emphasized to the extent that a reviewer (of one of my manuscripts on nature protection systems) commented “Why do you include farmland in analyses of Swedish protected areas – it is not part of natural variety!”. This is understandable, since white people, and forms of more modern agriculture, have a short history in the US (and other countries, e.g. in Latin America). The other extreme would be the UK, where everything except perhaps steep cliffs has been markedly changed by people over very long time scales – more 10 000 years! But that has been done in many ways, and there is also low-intensity rural use of habitats, such as woodland pastures which may be very rich in herbaceous plants, insects and birds.

    These differences were described well in a good article Henderson (1992), in the journal Ambio, title and abstract here:

    WILDERNESS AND THE NATURE CONSERVATION IDEAL – BRITAIN, CANADA, AND THE UNITED-STATES CONTRASTED

    Abstract
    Everywhere in the developed world there is great emphasis placed on preserving natural ecosystems. But examining nature conservation objectives in Britain and North America reveals striking differences in conservation purpose and in interpretation of what is natural. In Britain, conservation means intervention and active manipulation of the environment. In North America, conservation management is rooted in assumptions about the purity and inviolability of wilderness. Canadians have been markedly less concerned about conservation and wilderness than Americans. Brief management scenarios illustrate sharply different British and North American approaches to similar conservation questions. The internal logic supporting both these approaches is inconsistent and flawed. Nonetheless, there are key commonalities leading to the public undervaluation of the importance of nature conservation on both sides of the Atlantic.

    My own country (Sweden) is somewhere in-between these two “paradigms”. Southern Sweden is fairly rich in old cultural habitats, scattered patches with traditional management – called seminatural pastures by conservationists. They are mostly grazed by cattle through EU + Swedish conservation subsidies (not formally protected). There is scope for rewilding, though mostly in the few semi-natural forest in the south (less than 5% of the forest there, about 90% is production forest with clear-cuts). However, note 1) that the cattle in the semi-natural pastures are a small proportion of all cattle (1%? 2%? 3% – I don’t know), and 2) that if grazing animals were to be removed from the 400 000 hectares of conservation pastures (out of Sweden’s total 41 million hectares of land, mostly forested/wooded, like in Finland) there would be a drastic decline among herbaceous plants, insects, and some birds. Because we have so little open old species-rich habitat, our Red List report much greater overall threat to species on agricultural land per area, than per area of forest (despite the strong dominance of clear-cutting).

    My point is that for biodiversity in a particular area and region, we need to define “biodiversity” (what habitat is valuable? what species?), we need to be aware of paradigms, given by history, and particularly – the national context: the land use, and the threats to species. What are they?

    For the EU, for instance, the approaches vary enormously among countries, and I don’t know a single good book that describe policies and outcome, with respect to protected areas in Europe. This is pretty remarkable, and due to the many languages of course. To be added to this complexity: the protected area system depends much on amenity and aesthetic values, and tourism.

    To be clear, I support more of rewilding efforts – to learn more about that, read Pernilla Hansson’s three good European examples in our TOP blog (write Pernilla’s name in “Search on our website”). I also support traditional management of old species-rich cultural habitats; even short-term abandonment of such management would lead to local extinction thousands of plants and insects, like orchids and bees, in Sweden, Britain, and other parts of Europe.

    For the future, we need to learn much more about habitat management for biodiversity, through careful research and evaluation of existing protected areas. Perhaps certain forms of rewilding, with natural grazers, can substitute for cattle and sheep (see Pernilla’s blog about rewilding in Portugal), but we don’t know yet. Research is badly needed!

    The question “How to best feed the world?” will surely come back in our blog. Nice to see interesting discussion.

    1. Sorry to be back. These topics are very important to me, as I find myself torn between the two extremes: rewilding on the one hand, and producing food while preserving a healthy habitat with humans in it on the other. I am against agricultural subsidies (I have written a book saying they should be abolished) but I am also against kicking human populations out of their ancestral villages in the Alps because culling even one bear or wolf to reestablish a balance is taboo (this is really what is happening, no matter what the conservationists who don’t live there say, people are protesting everywhere because of our human inability to conceive middle grounds and be sensible).
      This essay to me was eye-opening: https://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Trouble_with_Wilderness_Main.html
      Extremism in wilderness thinking is a form of colonialism, even when it’s done against white populations in Europe, same thing. “You peasants, give up your land and culture and come live in cities, we know what’s best!”
      The wildness of the Americas was largely a myth. Very recent research is showing that the Americas were much more inhabited by humans than previously thought, before the arrival of the Europeans; there were towns in the Amazon forest! Europe was much wilder when the Roman empire collapsed and people died, as opposed to the late Middle Ages when the economy grew and we were back to cultivating everything (interestingly, a meat-based, pasture-based diet seems to be associated with lower human pressure, same thing in India before cows were sacred, or before Enclosure in the UK; when you have too many people to feed, you end up destroying the land with too much tilling and growing cereals…)

      We humans are obsessed with ourselves: even when it comes to wild nature, we can see no better way to preserve it than to measure it, manage it, protect it, use it, assess it, introduce the species we want, exterminate the ones we don’t like… we just can’t let things be. When a human tragedy such as the European conquest of the Americas or the Chernobyl explosion wipes out a good number of us, nature bounces back very fast and beautifully. We should just let it be.
      My idea would be to designate some areas we just won’t touch, and let nature do its course, even if that means having alien species, shrubs, whatever *we* think is “bad”. Outside of the pure wild we set aside, we will need to figure out a balance with agriculture, biodiversity, predators, urban green spaces, etc, without black-and-white thinking. We are part of nature, we are not its appointed managers except when it comes to manage our own survival, that’s what I think.

  7. Many thanks to Lucia for stirring up this discussion with her provocative blog, to gaiabaracetti who has no need to apologize for “being back” since he is making valid points which need to be considered, and to Frank for noting some of the nuances around rewilding and agricultural lands. These are the kinds of conversations we need to be having.

    I don’t want to take away from the real differences that we may have in our conservation philosophies or our practical policy prescriptions, or deny the need to discuss them. I do think all four of us commenting on this blog share a commitment to sustainable agriculture, preserving wild species, and reducing human populations so that we can actually do those good things. The last point is crucial.

    If we do not reduce human populations around the world, and instead continue growing through most or all of this century, the prognosis is for both a lot less wild nature and a lot more hunger and malnutrition in the developing world. Again, I think we (along with Sir David A) can all agree that is not the path to take.

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