With the anthropocene epoch firmly established and the destruction of the earth and the gutting of the human soul as inescapable realities in our time, more and more people are exploring the notion and practice of rewilding as a solution to the anthropocene calamity. Yet, two conflicting and seemingly irreconcilable approaches to rewilding have divided the movement into two broad camps: human rewilding and ecological rewilding. Among the human rewilding advocates are anti-civilization anarchists who seek to liberate humans from domestication through education and activism. One of their goals is to train domesticated humans (which is pretty much all of us) in the ways and psychology of hunter-gatherers. They maintain that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is the only viable way for humans to live on within the earth’s ecological web without destroying it. I would put John Zerzan, the late Paul Shepard, and Kevin Tucker in this camp. In contrast to the human rewilding movement, ecological rewilding advocates seek to preserve and restore large swaths of wilderness as off limits to human interference of any kind. George Monbiot and Dave Forman may be the most well-known of wilderness rewilding activists. They maintain that there should exist areas of wilderness that are untouched by the human hand.
One sees rewilded humans as the solution to the anthropocene calamity, while the other sees only larger swaths of lands uninhabited by humans as the solution. Can the two be reconciled?
Humans and wilderness can coexist. It is true that the great destruction of wilderness has occurred at the hands and tools of civilized cultures and domesticated humans. The very premise of civilization is based on clearing land, expanding to new lands and extracting from the land. Yet we also know that human societies that are not under the influence of the intoxicating, self-harming affliction of civilization are not natural enemies of wilderness. They have existed in balance with the natural world for many thousands of years without doing significant harm to the land, water and air around them. There is ample archeological, anthropological and historical evidence to support this claim.
Only a tiny fraction of the hunter-gatherer tribes that once roamed the forests, savannahs and deserts remain. The cancerous reach of civilization is rapidly closing in on their lands and way of life. These tribes are something most of us will never experience and will only read about in National Geographic or learn about from a BBC documentary. For most people, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is a mere curiosity, a way of life so far removed from the modern lifestyle that few have the capacity to imagine it as a viable and desirable alternative to their modern, afflictive lifestyle, no matter how depressing and maddening modernity may be. Outside of rewilding enthusiasts and the academic circles of anthropology, most people do not have the dream of the hunter-gatherer dancing in their heads and hearts. We need contemporary models of post-civilization hunter-gathering in order to demonstrate that the hunter-gatherer life is a valid and desirable way of living.
The question is where could contemporary models of the post-civilization hunter-gatherer lifestyle thrive? The hunter-gatherer way of life needs a large, ecologically diverse land base. We’re talking miles and miles of wild flora and fauna for a few small bands of hunter-gatherer to live upon. Where on earth today can we find the availability of such a generous offering of land? Public lands offer such a setting for the post-civilization hunter-gatherer experiment. In the United States, west of the Mississippi River, an extensive network of wild lands exist that could be delicately inhabited by a limited number of post-civilization hunter-gather bands.
Currently there are three general uses of public wilderness. Two of these uses are destructive to wilderness, while a third effectively prohibits human interference. The first use is that of extraction. For many decades, public lands have been leased to oil drillers, livestock grazers and other agricultural/industrial interests. These lands are basically an extension of the afflictive civilized society that is destroying the earth. The second use is that of recreation. Permits are granted for hunting, fishing, snow mobiles, ATVs and other recreational uses that, if not destructive of wilderness to the extent of the industrial leasers of public lands, are, nonetheless, an interruption of the natural experience of wilderness. The third use of public lands has been to effectively make them off limits to human interference, by limiting their use to the most primitive means of hiking and camping. While this use best preserves the integrity and authenticity of wilderness, it still relegates wilderness to just an idea for most. Only a relatively few people who are equipped with the money and time for hiking and camping in the extreme reaches of the wilderness and thus have an opportunity to experience wilderness. Even then, the experience is one of temporary visitor. Humans remain aliens in a foreign land.
I do not know if the idea that I will suggest has been proposed elsewhere. A quick Google search did not produce any leads on the subject. I have not encountered the idea in the rewilding literature that I have read. If it has been previously proposed, then I add my voice to those who have already imagined it. What I propose is that a limited number of post-civilization hunter-gatherer bands be given legal access to select public lands to reintroduce the hunter-gatherer lifestyle on the vast continent of North America.
This experiment would benefit both the human rewilding and wilderness rewilding movements. For the human rewilding movement, the project would provide a generous space for the demonstration of the beauty and viability of the hunter-gatherer way of life. It would allow band members to further develop and test their hunter-gatherer survival skills and to experiment with primitive society in a band life that is so foreign to the western experience. It would also serve as a way to promote the viability and desirability of the hunter-gatherer way of life to a new generation of future rewilding enthusiasts, as such an experiment would garner the attention of media and researchers. The experiment would also benefit wilderness, as the lands set aside for the post-civilization hunter-gatherer bands would be made off-limits for the other uses described above. The experiment would develop, demonstrate and champion a way of life where humans and wilderness thrive together.
The project would require partnering with state and federal authorities, which is not a desirable but yet a necessary expedient. A government body would grant through lottery a permit to a limited number of associations who would apply for one of the limited number of hunter-gatherer band permits. In order to participate in the lottery, bands would need to demonstrate they meet certain qualifications: extensive knowledge and skills related to the hunter-gatherer way of life including, practical, social, cultural and spiritual elements. Permits could be granted for five, ten, 15 or 20 years and available for renewal. Preference would be given to bands with members who have a representation of peoples indigenous to the area where the experiment will take place. The bands would be monitored to ensure participation according to established guidelines.
Yes, it sounds bureaucratic in many regards. Admittedly, it puts control of the project in the hands of bureaucrats, but are not these lands under the control of bureaucrats already? The governing board would best consist not only of bureaucrats but of anthropologists, local wilderness activists and indigenous peoples. They would be in charge of defining the criteria for permits and issuing permits. Perhaps this is the peaceful price to pay for access to the public lands that were violently confiscated from hunter-gatherers many generations ago.
If human rewilding is to compete as a viable alternative to the destructive, addictive lifestyles of modern civilization that have gifted us the anthropocene epoch, human rewilding must become more than a psychological experiment conducted by enthusiasts in their suburban backyards. It must become more than two guys with a cheap microphone creating a short-lived podcast. Human rewilding must have a generous and diverse space in which to truly bloom into the demonstrably viable and desirable way of life that it is. Public wilderness seems like the obvious place to turn, a space where human rewilidng can demonstrate its beauty and mature into an alternative that will be needed as the effects of the anthropocene visit the domesticated human species.