Abstract

This Forum article explains how many of today’s calamities—specifically, climate change, biodiversity loss, and COVID-19—are the result of humanity’s ongoing relationship to wildness. For millennia, humans have pushed unpredictability and discomfort out of their immediate surroundings in search of security and convenience. They have been remarkably successful. Today, many people, but especially the affluent, rarely encounter wild animals, suffer exposure to the elements, or even have to tolerate the capriciousness of other people. But wildness is akin to energy: it cannot be created or destroyed. As people craft havens of stability, they do not eradicate wildness but shove it into the lives of the less fortunate and onto the global level. These days, marginalized people face profound vulnerability, and key biophysical and social systems on Earth are spiraling out of control. This article demonstrates the dynamics of global wildness. It shows how trying to banish wildness from one’s surroundings leads directly to climate change, mass extinction, and COVID-19. It ends by advancing a strategy of rewilding as a way to address these challenges. It suggests that opening to greater uncertainty and a modicum of discomfort—both individually and collectively—can relieve some of the pressure generating global wildness and offer an ethically appropriate orientation for this moment of planetary intensification.

This special issue focuses on the politics of planetary disasters. It seeks to make sense of the urgent quality and global scope of crosscutting challenges—such as COVID-19, climate change, and mass extinction—that are tearing apart the Earth’s organic infrastructure and rendering life around the world increasingly fragile. While every time period is unique, there seems to be something nevertheless exceptional about this moment of environmental and social intensification. It is as if something has grabbed hold of world affairs and ecological conditions and is whiplashing them into a frenzy of global instability and vulnerability.

Contemplating planetary disasters is an exercise in fear and anxiety. The very concept brings to mind cataclysm on a scale and intensity wherein life as we know it—in all its routine and predictability—gets brutally thrown aside. In its darkest meaning, the idea of disaster takes on almost cosmic proportions as savage forces, seemingly beyond human control, rip life apart with heartless indifference. This correlates the word’s etymological ancestry in that the term derives from the Italian disastro, meaning “ill-starred event.” Disasters happen when the stars are ill-aligned or the cosmos is in chaos.

Social scientists tend not to look to the stars for causal explanations. They focus on human agency and trace consequences to human decisions and actions. And yet, what is going on seems partly to transcend the human domain. It is as if people set things into motion but can no longer manage the consequences. Something beyond human control is now animating events. What might this be?

A general answer is the Anthropocene. By infusing the human species deeply into the mechanics of planetary homeostasis, humans have introduced an additional and powerful element of uncertainty into how the Earth biologically functions and thus how all life, including human life, continues to unfold. Humans now influence atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, and biospheric dynamics. This is not simply a gentle interference but a radical disruption that has taken on a life of its own. As Clive Hamilton (2017, 41) suggests in his appropriately titled book Defiant Earth, as humanity’s presence has grown planetary, “the giant has been awakened.” Gaia, in all its complexity and ferocity, “has been enraged” (Hamilton 2017, 45). The result is that the ecological and social fabric of twenty-first-century life is fraying beyond resilience. Humanity’s ubiquitous presence has opened the equivalent of Pandora’s box. Now that the lid is lifted, humanity seems unable to latch it back down or manage the challenges that now swarm around the planet.

The Anthropocene is profoundly rattling, so that, as Yeats has famously written, “things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But what are the precise dynamics that fuel global dismemberment? What is it about the Anthropocene that is breaking the world? What is the ill-starred quality that animates the Anthropocene?

In the following, I argue that it has to do with wildness. Today’s disasters are simply the latest but most profound face of the wild component inherent in life itself.

The End of Wildness?

Wildness means different things to different people (Kahn and Hasbach 2013; Van Horn and Hausdoerffer 2017). Many equate it with wilderness (Callicott and Nelson 1998; Nash 1969; Oelschlaeger 1991). Wilderness, as such, is what people encounter when they head into the woods, trek across a desert, or dive beneath the ocean’s surface. Away from a dominating human presence—which is still relatively possible in the Anthropocene—people come up against things they cannot fully control. In the woods, trees fall, lightning strikes, animals attack. As the word’s etymological origins suggest, “wild” things are self-willed. They have an agency to them that is indifferent to human design and well-being. Wildness as wilderness refers to a place comparatively separate from human dwelling that operates largely on its own.

Wildness goes beyond forests and deserts. It is not simply a place but a state of mind or quality of experience (Van Horn 2017, 2). In this sense, wildness pertains also to human affairs. When people live together, unpredictable things happen. Large crowds, wars, and even social media are inherently unpredictable and can generate volatility. As political theorist Hannah Arendt (1958) noted decades ago, because humans are thinking creatures whose actions intersect with the lives of others, they have the potential to introduce novelty into the world. Machiavelli (2009) made a similar point, centuries before Arendt, when he spoke of fortuna and how unique historical contexts, the fickleness simply of experience, and the actions of others introduce uncertainty and unintended consequences into political affairs. Novelty, uncertainty, and uncontrollability are the essence of wildness. Despite humanity’s pervasive presence in the Anthropocene, humans are not masters of their fate or the fate of the planet. Otherness comes into the picture and inserts a profound element of unpredictability.

For millennia, humans have battled wildness. They have braced against and tried to gain the upper hand over the vicissitudes of nature and over the unreliable intentions and actions of other people. They have not—nor does it seem that they will ever—completely triumph, but their success has been extraordinary.

Today, many people, but especially the affluent, live largely immune from wildness. Sheltered in apartments or houses, they barely feel the elements. Most buy food in grocery stores, drink treated water, and draw energy from a plug. They track themselves through GPS, monitor weather on cell phones, and flip a switch to light up darkness or turn cold to heat. They have refrigerators, microwave ovens, cars, computers, and a seemingly infinite number of gadgets to protect themselves from inconvenience and to provide a sense of control over their immediate environment. Many live under stable regimes ruled by law or hold ample power to be otherwise secure. White people especially live with institutional privilege that immunes them from discrimination, unjustifiable arrest, and state-sanctioned violence in much of the world. Many have driver’s licenses, education, medical care, internet service, and protection from theft. To be sure, the privileged and many others who enjoy modernity’s gifts still experience unpredictable things. They get sick, lose their jobs, suffer from dysfunctional relationships, and so forth. Wealth and technological power can go only so far. Nonetheless, these days, increasing numbers of people are experiencing risk and inconvenience in progressively circumscribed ways. They have largely locked wildness out of their houses, occupations, and daily affairs.

Wildness Unbound

The problem with this picture is that it captures only one side of the wildness equation—the success of banishing unpredictability from one’s immediate life. It neglects the consequences of such success beyond circles of privilege. Wildness is like energy: it cannot be created or destroyed. When people push it out of their immediate experience, it does not disappear. Rather, they displace it into the lives of others and catapult it up to the global level. So, while many people enjoy safer, more comfortable lives surrounded by their gadgets and institutional protections, they have won this at the expense of others’ well-being and, in the extreme, global endangerment. Today, calving glaciers, epidemics, disappearing species, severe economic dislocation, and deadly heatwaves indicate that wildness has not been beaten back but has only assumed a new form. Now, instead of pestering or endangering people’s immediate lives, wildness wracks the planet. The world now faces global wildness.

One sees this with climate change. Fossil fuels represent, arguably, one of the most powerful tools for escaping wildness. By harnessing coal, oil, and natural gas, humans have been able literally to move mountains (often to search for more fuel). Fossil fuels magnify human exertion by orders of magnitude such that people need not accommodate themselves to the elements or the whims of other people but can create lives largely of their own making. Think for a moment about cars and airplanes. Before fossil fuels, people traveled and hauled goods by foot, horse, or ship. This exposed them to punishing winds, wild animals, bandits, and uncontrollable seas. Cars and airplanes insulate people from all of this. They represent the conquest of environmental conditions as one speeds across terrain in the comfort of one’s own seat and often outfitted with heating, cooling, lighting, and entertainment. Fossil-fueled machines render bodies of water, expanses of land, currents of air, and often even other people immaterial. The same goes for every deployment of fossil fuels. By enabling the manufacturing of steel and concrete, fossil fuels free people from battling weather. By powering the transport of food across the world, they liberate people from the seasons. By fueling the internet and delivery trucks, people need not suffer even the inconveniences of neighbors as one can order almost anything online and have it delivered to one’s door. By every measure, fossil fuels minimize the unpredictability that comes from being subject to the ways of nature and of other people. Impressed by how much ease, control, security, and power fossil fuels have placed in human hands, journalist Charles Mann (2018, 255) concludes that “fossil fuels exhaust hyperbole.”

Fossil fuels came to dominance not simply because they provided greater ease for many people but also because they enabled early industrialists to advance their own parochial comfort and control. As Malm (2016) points out, in contrast to wind and waterpower, coal offered an energy source that could be captured and centralized so that manufacturing could take place in factories and thus workers could be more easily regulated. Mitchell (2011) makes a similar point regarding oil. A select few could oversee its extraction and transportation (reducing the number of employees and thus the need for extensive worker oversight), and since early deposits were located in the Middle East, workers’ rights and democratic demands could be largely ignored. Fossil fuels, in other words, did not appear as a collective panacea in the struggle against wildness but a provincial one that allowed industrial elites to streamline and minimize unrest among laborers to minimize their own struggles with commercial unpredictability and control.

The problem, of course, is that such comfort and protection come at a high price. In the case of industrialists, the capture of fossil fuels threw wildness deeper into the lives of workers who now had to labor under harsher, more exploitable conditions and who had thus lost greater control over their own lives. In this sense, industrialists displaced wildness “horizontally”—to the less fortunate. Elite well-being was won on the backs of the less privileged. In terms of global effects, widespread use of fossil fuels displaced wildness “vertically” by shooting unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—resulting in runaway climate change. Unpredictability and lack of control are now signatures of planetary life. The horizontal and vertical dimensions of displacement come together in that the main beneficiaries of fossil fuels are the wealthy and otherwise privileged who enjoy access as well as the safety and conveniences of fossil fuels while the poor and energy deficient bear the brunt of climate disruption. Lacking the financial means to withstand and recover from climate disasters, the less fortunate are on the receiving end of fossil-fueled security and comfort (Islam and Winkel 2016; Nixon 2011). In short, by harnessing and using fossil fuels, people have not rid themselves of wildness but simply relocated it onto the lives of others and flung it onto the planet itself.

One sees a similar pattern with biological diversity. Humans have long tried to tame or protect themselves from other creatures. They have bred farm animals, used insecticides, cultivated preferred species, and expanded their own habitat in an effort to stamp out, be able to ignore, or simply control plants and other animals. Much of this has proven to be a godsend insofar as it has secured reliable sources of food, reduced the number of predatory animals, led to medical advances based on animal testing and appropriating plant material, and opened up vast areas to agriculture so as to feed increasing numbers of people. Such effort has been so successful that many people rarely encounter animals of any kind (except perhaps pets and the occasional pigeon, squirrel, or rat) or even landscapes that are not significantly designed by humans. By controlling the plant and animal “kingdoms,” people have quieted the world and made it easier to live as they see fit.

The problem, of course, is that quieting the world may have brought greater ease and safety to some people, but it has increased vulnerability for others and, more dramatically, has generated a global catastrophe. Today, people are driving not simply individual creatures but whole species to extinction at rates unseen for the past 65 million years (IPBES 2019; Kolbert 2015). Biodiversity is plummeting and thus the fabric of life itself is being torn to shreds. According to one figure, humans have reduced the total mass of wild mammals by 82.5 percent; they have reduced the total mass of fish by 83.7 percent and plants by 50 percent (Jabr 2020, 35). No one knows how long humans can live on a biologically depleted planet, but already there are signs that mass extinction is taking its toll on resources available for ecosystem services like cleaning air and water, medical science, and crop resilience.

Biodiversity loss is also endangering indigenous and other local people, as they tend to live in ecologically rich areas that are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Many such communities have suffered dislocation, illness, and simply misery as corporate entities have cut down nearby forests for plantations; spoiled lands through mineral extraction; or seized community holdings in an effort to identify, remove, and often patent plant material for pharmaceuticals. In each case, the more-than-human world serves not simply as a stock of material that can be controlled and exploited for general human comfort and safety but as a means toward greater wealth and power for particular people.

Aside from anthropocentric concerns, it must be said that humanity’s war on other creatures is also bringing immense suffering to the more-than-human world. As keystone species, essential ecological services, and whole ecosystems fall under the ax, tractor, fire, or chemical modification by humans, vast numbers of finned, four-legged, rooted, and winged creatures lose the biological foundations underpinning their lives and experience visceral pain. This is also the case with industrial-level livestock farming that keeps countless animals often in punishing captivity. Few hear the cries or witness the suffering—especially insofar as other creatures lack means of human expression—but this does not erase the somatic consequences of winning control over the more-than-human world. In short, by pushing other creatures to the margins of human experience and instrumentalizing them, people are not extinguishing wildness but thrusting it horizontally into the lives of the less fortunate and vertically onto the planet’s organic infrastructure.

Encroaching upon and controlling animals is also responsible for another type of global disaster, namely, COVID-19. Indeed, almost all hypotheses for the virus’ origin point to zoonotic infection. Much evidence suggests that COVID-19 first appeared in caged bats being sold in markets in Wuhan, China. Villagers from outside Wuhan probably captured the bats in limestone caves with the aim of selling them as part of a local and ultimately international wildlife trade. Bats are prone to developing viruses. As an ancient and diverse lineage, they have been coevolving with various viruses for more than 50 million years. However, historically bats have not mingled with other species and thus have contained viruses within what is called a “natural reservoir.” As people have moved closer to bat habitat and began capturing bats for wildlife trade, they have punctured the reservoir (Jabr 2020). Humans have been puncturing numerous such reservoirs, and thus COVID-19 may have jumped to humans from any number of other species. For instance, some scientists suspect it may have originated in pangolins, but any number of animals trapped in the stressful and biological confines of the international wildlife trade also remain candidates (Quammen 2020). Add to zoonotic infection the depletion of biodiversity, which ordinarily keeps contagions in check, and globalization, which allows viruses to whip around the planet on the wings of worldwide movement and trade, and it is no surprise that viruses can turn into pandemics.

Opening up the natural reservoir happens most powerfully when bats and other animals are brought to market. Caged in cramped quarters, surrounded by a myriad of other creatures, undernourished, and stressed, they are more susceptible to infection, and such susceptibility increases as one moves up the supply chain. A study of field rats in Vietnam, for instance, found that the percentage infected with coronaviruses jumped dramatically as traders sold them to local markets, then to larger ones, and eventually to urban markets that cater to restaurants (Goreman 2020). As density increases, so does the chance of transmission from one animal to the next and eventually to humans.

Pandemics, of course, do not affect everyone equally. As COVID-19 is demonstrating, social stratification directs infection toward the less fortunate, and differentiated access to health care ensures that some will suffer more from the disease than others. In the United States, for instance, the poor and especially people of color face higher incidences and their cases are more prone to be fatal (Crockett and Grier 2020; Golden 2020). In this way, the dynamics of COVID-19 mimic other instances of pushing wildness from immediate experience. As humans encroach upon and transform the habitats of other creatures in pursuit of greater freedom, economic gain, and comfort, they do not destroy wildness but displace it. They move it into the lives of other people and ultimately to the globe itself.

Rewilding Human Life

What is to be done? How can people and states now respond to global wildness? There are, obviously, no easy answers. Humanity has been cultivating global wildness for so long and the mechanisms driving it are so deeply embedded within our politics, economics, and culture that it is hard to imagine clear routes to avoiding the disastrous effects of global wildness. This is why some observers look at contemporary conditions and resign themselves to planetary dismemberment (see, e.g., Dark Mountain Project 2017). Shifting gears against an impulse that has been building momentum for millennia can seem like a lost cause.

Such pessimism, however, only makes sense if one is trying to “solve” the different facets of global wildness with specific responses or in one fell swoop. Climate change, mass extinction, and pandemics are not discrete threats but part of a larger, systemic whole. As suggested, they have to do with humanity’s ideational and material orientation to wildness. As a result, they are not individual puzzles in search of discrete solutions but existential challenges that require deep reflection and new orientations to living. Put differently, contemporary disasters are not technocratic or even merely policy conundrums but philosophical dilemmas that question what it means to be human and how to live in a world of others where wildness cannot be avoided.

Key to such revisioning is developing a new relationship to wildness. Instead of seeing every expression of otherness as a nuisance or danger, political change could put into place institutions, material conditions, and cultural understandings that would treat wildness as an opportunity to open more to the inherent uncertainty of life itself. Despite humanity’s inflated sense of power in the Anthropocene, people will never extinguish uncertainty and waywardness from experience. Yes, they can circumscribe wildness and insulate themselves from its most immediate disturbing characteristics, but it will simply resurface somewhere else or in a different form. Above I have suggested that resurfacing breeds greater injustice and planetary fragility. If societies want to reject these outcomes, a different path becomes possible and even necessary. At the heart of such a path is the practice of rewilding.

Scholars understand rewilding in various ways (Tanasescu 2017). For present purposes, it involves welcoming more unpredictability and even a modicum of danger into human life. It calls on people to move out of their comfort zones and, in fact, decenter the whole idea of comfort as the primary value of human experience. Rewilding in the context of climate change, for instance, directs people not to turn to fossil fuel machines or even any type of machine to scratch every consumptive itch but to tolerate, say, more cold in the winter and heat in the summer; to travel more by bus, train, foot, or bicycle; and simply to explore the experience of discomfort rather than instinctually rejecting or bracing against it armed with fossil fuels. Collectively, rewilding entails societies experimenting with the uncertainties of steady state, rather than growth-oriented, economies. It also involves the complex work of adopting procedural and governance forms of adaptation that improve community access to information, establish better planning processes, and strengthen social safety nets. This includes attending to issues of justice through such efforts as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change program of loss and damage. Such adaptation—unpredictable in its own right—goes beyond technological efforts to dominant wildness and explores social organization as a way to adjust to current inevitabilities of climate intensification and long-standing patterns of climate injustice. To be sure, all of this would require assuming more risk. But might it be possible to see encountering risk as a promising endeavor rather than a preordained enemy?

Rewilding in the context of biodiversity loss would necessitate similar opportunities. Instead of formatting land and other creatures to accommodate human design, people can try to expose themselves to and appreciate the varied, often unwieldy character of the more-than-human. This could include living with more “pests,” limiting the scope of human habitation and landscape cultivation out of respect for other creatures, and experiencing a bit more fear as people learn to live among unchosen plants and animals. Collectively, rewilding invites societies to build wildlife corridors, turn down the cultural volume of anthropocentrism, and advance legislation that would not only protect endangered species and ecological hotspots but cultivate biological exuberance. Parochial notions of security and obsessive commitments to convenience have inspired generations to dewild the world around them. Rewilding offers a new way to confront cascading trophic decline as well as injustices to local people that have resulted.

When it comes to COVID-19, admittedly, rewilding looks particularly challenging. Almost everyone is looking to recently approved vaccines to stamp out COVID-19’s wildness. Letting COVID-19 flourish or accommodating ourselves to the pain and death that the virus entails is not an attractive option. Rewilding, however, can still be relevant in the context of preventing future pandemics. Rewilding invites people to restrict trade in wildlife, provide caged animals with better living conditions, and stop the hemorrhaging of biodiversity loss which, as mentioned, serves as a check against widespread contagion. It also welcomes people to examine their diets and perhaps find greater satisfaction by assuming a bit more inconvenience in the service of caring about the lives of other creatures.

Rewilding, as I have been describing it, is not an antidote to global wildness. It is not an answer to climate change, mass extinction, or pandemics. As mentioned, there is no simple answer to any of these. Rather, it is an orientation that can set the context for increasingly more effective responses and, importantly, a way for people to comport themselves in the face of such dangers. Rewilding as a strategic choice stems from seeing current disasters as instances of global wildness and, in this analytical context, seeking alternative ways of living. The world is in spasm. Current interlocking crises represent the embodiment of ill-starred events. By inviting more wildness into individual and collective life, rewilding provides a relief valve to the pressures that are accumulating at the global level and being imposed onto the lives of the less fortunate; it also offers a new vision of being human.

This special issue of Global Environmental Politics analyzes the terrifying and morally offensive cataclysms that are endangering all life. My aim in this Forum piece is to frame the inquiry in the language of wildness. Recent floods, heatwaves, COVID-19, forest fires, and cascading biological decline are the result of many things. At bottom, however, they are the expression of injustice and violence waged against other people, creatures, and ecological forces. For millennia, humans have battled the unknown, unpredictable, and other-than-human. It is time to adopt a different relationship. Re-wilding offers an alternative orientation to the unbidden and therewith a point of departure for diffusing today's interlocking disasters and fashioning a different type of human experience and future.

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Author notes

*

This article draws substantially on my recently published book, Is Wildness Over? (2020), Polity Press, Cambridge, UK. I thank anonymous reviewers and the editors of Global Environmental Politics for constructive criticism of the article.