The term rewilding emerged from within the applied science of conservation biology. Rewilding typically involves attempts to reinsert “keystone” species that have dwindled or vanished or were intentionally eliminated from local ecosystems, in an effort to reestablish some semblance of what those ecosystems were like in the past.
Large terrestrial predators are common candidates for rewilding because they frequently serve as keystone species and because they have historically been targets for elimination due to their presumed (but usually minor or nonexistent) threat to humans or livestock. So a wolf pack might be reintroduced into an area in which wolves have been hunted into extinction, for example, with the idea that the reintroduction of the indigenous predator will resonate through the rest of the food chain and restore a level of balance and ecological integrity that has been missing.
A few environmental activists, along with proponents of certain versions of anarchism, most notably green anarchy and anarcho-primitivism, have appropriated the term from conservation biology, and advocate a “rewilding” of the human species. However, to talk about rewilding humans requires a nuanced reworking of the original meaning of the term if it is to be used as something other than a trite bumper sticker.
For the biologists, rewilding typically involves reinserting keystone species into environments in which they are presently absent. Keystone species are those that play a foundational role in the complex web of interactions within a given ecological system such that without their presence the system is altered dramatically or collapses altogether. Despite our self-assigned position at the top of the global food chain, civilized humans are nothing close to being a keystone species. In fact, for the last few millennia the human impact on local environments has been the diametric opposite of a keystone; the introduction of post-Neolithic humans into an ecological system invariably leads to destabilization and, in many cases, complete local ecological collapse. Nor are we in any immediate danger of disappearing from the scene: humans presently inhabit virtually every inhabitable chunk of land on the planet, and in numbers approaching or greatly surpassing the land’s natural carrying capacity.
The one qualification that, to my mind at least, renders the idea of rewilding in its original sense applicable to the human case as something more than bumper sticker propaganda is that most humans—check that, almost all humans—are no longer inhabiting anything close to a natural human habitat—and the vanishingly few humans that are still living like actual humans appear to be on a very rapid and inescapable slide into oblivion.
Thus, taking the conservation biology definition of rewilding and applying it in a direct and literal fashion to the human situation suggests that humans need to be reintroduced to their natural habitat.
What does that mean?
What is a human’s natural habitat? Over the course of the last few million years, humans and their ancestor species have occupied such a wide variety of environments, such a large number of distinct and disparate habitats that the question may be impossible to answer.
Perhaps a better way of approaching the question of “What is a human’s natural habitat?” is to ask its inverse: “What isn’t natural human habitat?” It turns out that this reversing of the question makes it a fairly easy one to answer. Although I strongly suspect that for most folks the answer will not be at all an easy one to hear.
And the project of human rewilding will require more than just learning how to survive outside the cage of civilization (although that will surely be part of it). It will require a relearning—or, more precisely, an unlearning—of everything civilization teaches us about what it means to be human.