Rewilding: One Explanation
Imagine living in a way in which you’re rarely hungry or cold. You live in a comfortable house nearby all of your family and close friends. It’s not fancy, no, not hardly, but it’s comfortable and it’s yours. It smells like fragrant wood smoke, cooking, and dried herbs.
You eat seasonally, and the food that you and your family and friends get is full of delicious and varied flavors, far more than anything you could have found in a grocery store. And it’s healthy, too, not like the crap you remember eating before. No pesticides, mercury, or dioxin in it, no meat fed on poisons. Funny how it didn’t seem so bad then, but now you couldn’t eat it.
You all spend your days in leisure, or at least the work you do tends to seem like it most of the time. When you want, when the mood strikes or you just think it’s a good idea, you might set out hunting, or fishing, or perhaps doing a little bit of gardening. You know, those things people used to consider past-times and hobbies, things you did on your vacations and weekends. When the season is right, you and all your friends and family go to pick berries, stuffing your faces with berries both sweet and tart. A few months later, fruits and nuts just fall from trees for you to pick up.
Splitting tasks up or doing them together while socializing, it hardly seems like work. Everyone shares the work, too, and nobody has control or coercive influence over anyone else. When you’re not doing these things, you might sit down with people and play some games, maybe cards or dice, or maybe you’ll play games with the children to keep them occupied and teach them things. Parents aren’t yoked to their children, even when they spend most of the day with them. If they have the need to do something without the child, another of the parents or perhaps an aunt, uncle, or grandparent can easily keep an eye on them.
Your art is going well. Most of your group has really developed their chosen arts and crafts, given the spare time they have. The music the talented people play has taken on a new power of its own. Your village is adorned with attractive embellishments and carvings, painted and woven throws draped over furniture and hung on walls.
At night, everyone gets together for meals of delicacies and home cooking, often in big, party-like gatherings and tells stories. In addition, you notice that you all are getting sick less often, probably because you’re all eating healthier and finally getting enough sleep. People rarely fight amongst each other, and rarely does a conflict turn to violence. Instead, everyone intervenes and helps to work out the problem.
At night, you go to sleep satisfied. You’re living the good life, and you never thought it’d happen, especially not this way.
Don’t think you can live this way? You can, but first we need to build it!
What is Rewilding?
Most basically put, to rewild means to return to a more natural or wild state; it is the process of undoing domestication. It involves the rejection of civilization, and for lack of better terms involves becoming 'native' or 'indigenous', but in our own way (“neo-indigenous”). What this means isn't going to be incredibly clear to everyone, so some vocabulary clarifications are needed.
Civilization can be defined as the hierarchical cultures that exist as a direct result of agriculture, and involve the creation of cities. Cities are centers of population big enough to require the importation of resources from outside of the city by the threat or enforcement of violence. That last part is key, since intact traditional societies do not give up the resources that their communities are based on unless said communities have been destroyed.
Hierarchy probably needs to be explained some, since it’s been my experience that people don’t know what hierarchy is. Some even go so far as to state that all human cultures have hierarchy, and then give as examples cultures that do not. Having a social structure doesn’t mean a hierarchy is in place. Even having designated jobs like ‘chief’ and ‘medicine person’ doesn’t mean there is a hierarchy. A true hierarchy involves at least one person, though sometimes a group or ‘caste’ having authoritarian control over the rest of the people. It means the institutionalization of things like ‘divine right’ and police protecting private property of corporations over people. It is the very existence of police and military. Egalitarian cultures, on the other hand, involve people only having the power of persuasion, and their respect in the community. Many ‘chiefs’ in primitive cultures were just a highly respected person, chosen by the people to be the one to speak to outsiders. Influence being the only power that people wield over one another, they are otherwise equal to others.
Agriculture, to be differentiated from horticulture by factors of technique and scale, is the act of cultivating large fields ('agri'=field, 'horti'=garden) to produce a single crop, which depletes the land because of the clear cutting, plowing, and destruction of biodiversity. Some people differentiate between agriculture and horticulture by the fact that agriculture destroys land-base, while horticulture doesn't, and agriculture is subject to diminishing returns. Populations which have the large but malnourishing food supply that monocrop grain agriculture gives will naturally increase in size, because that's what animal populations do when there is excess food. The combination of soil depletion and exponential population growth means that civilization must, by its very nature, spread and take over surrounding areas to make up for their depleted area, hence why the "Fertile Crescent" went from old growth forests to the barren deserts we have today. "Fertile Crescent" wasn't always a cruel joke. Agriculture and the resulting civilization, in short, are unsustainable.
Civilization doesn't improve quality of life, either. In fact, it hurts it dramatically. This is the misconception that most civilized people have, that agriculturally based societies like ours are more secure and have better quality of life than the hunter-gatherer-gardeners. In reality, civilization has caused almost all of the health problems that we have today, such as heart disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes... the list goes on. It's due to a combination of extreme stress (from hierarchies, working more than we should, disconnection from life) and poor diet, as well as sedentary lifestyle and now a poisoned environment. Smallpox, the plague, SARS, bird flu, and all those other nasty viruses formed because of the domestication of animals. Foraging peoples also are virtually immune to famine, something that started happening 10,000-12,000 years ago when some people started becoming full time agriculturalists. That's what happens when you depend on a very narrow selection of closely related plants and animals for food, which require very specific conditions to live in. One bad season and they all go, but a forager can always find some sort of plant food, and usually at least a bit of small game. Lean times aren’t as lean for people with a varied source of food.
Industrial civilization in particular is unsustainable, because of our dependence on the non-renewable resource, petroleum. Petroleum is running out, of that there’s no doubt. This won't just make it more expensive to drive, though. This will mean a complete breakdown of the industrial system, and soon. Most people don't realize just how much oil is necessary to grow all the crops that American farmers grow. It isn't just the tractors and harvesters, but also the tons and tons and tons of fertilizer that needs to be shipped in, because in reality the Dustbowl of the Great Depression didn't go away; we just covered the desert land with fertilizer. Many of these fertilizers are themselves petroleum based, aside from requiring petroleum to ship them. When oil runs out, the food crises that have already started will become much, much worse.
Energy crises like this in the past have meant the collapse of civilizations. Our civilization, that of global industrial capitalism, is going through such a collapse. It's not coming, it's already here, and we're showing all the signs. It's been happening for decades, some say a century. In the past, some civilizations have prolonged collapse by switching to a new energy source. This is the hope of so many well-meaning environmentalists pushing green technology, but that's not enough. In some cases, they'll just make things worse, since technologies that make more efficient use of a resource usually lead to that resource being used way more. If everyone recycles it saves some resource, but only a tiny fraction of what industry creates. The only real way to stop the wholesale destruction of the earth is to abandon industrial society.
Collapse isn't really my reason for rewilding, though, and while it's a good motivator I feel it serves more to emphasize how messed up civilization really is. My primary reason is because living primitively is just a better way to live. It's what we're adapted to do. Indigenous peoples have given us great models for living, using the least amount of resources while maintaining good lives. Not perfect, no system involving humans is or ever will be perfect, but still a really good way to live. Not that rewilders want to go out and "Play Indian", or copy indigenous cultures exactly, but we use their example as a jumping off point.
Human animals evolved to live in small egalitarian groups and live a leisurely lifestyle. We're not supposed to work 40+ hours a week just for mere survival and a few useless trinkets. We're supposed to work half that or less and thrive. A typical hunter-gatherer can feed five people working two hours a day on subsistence. We're supposed to interact with the rest of the world, instead of shielding ourselves away from the rest of life. Part of my motivation is spiritual/religious. We're supposed to have real connections to family and friends, not just superficial relationships and MySpace "friends". Hunter-gatherers spend a lot of time hanging out with their friends and family, telling stories and playing games of chance. Some Hadza men never go hunting, and just spend all their spare time playing games!
There’s also the issue of psychological health to be considered. People living in intact primitive cultures have dramatically lower rates of stress, trauma, and insanity. You might have pieced together from the earlier parts of this essay that civilization’s relationship is basically in the model of a completely abusive, psychotic relationship. Cutting us off from other stimuli (other ways of living), killing loved ones, inflicting violence on a large portion of us and then blaming us for it, and of course using the threats of violence to keep us from leaving, the parallels are obvious. By rewilding, we can heal as a people much in the same way individuals recover from abuse and trauma, and develop healthy relationships between each other once again.
The most important resource for a hunter-gatherer-gardener is the social network they belong to. Humans don't need a huge group, and in fact groups that are too large present cognitive troubles to us. Our brains are wired to have a close group of around a dozen people, and to be able to have decent relationships with around 150 total. Beyond that, we can't totally comprehend people as full people, which is why very few tribal villages historically went beyond this size. Having some sort of 'tribe' makes living easy, so I consider building such a group the biggest step in rewilding. Learning to hunt, gather, fish, trap, and garden, as well as building shelter and tools, are also pretty important, but the community is key. Like I said before, the typical hunter-gatherer can feed five people working two hours a day on subsistence, so while I've been working on getting good at gathering plants, learning about fishing and hunting, and other such primitive skills, my priority is strengthening my friendships and my family bonds.
So how exactly do we go about rewilding? The question of exactly, or even broadly, what sort of techniques and technologies we use to rewild is somewhat important. Ultimately, we’re trying to reclaim a way of life that is typically referred to as “Stone Age” in civilized discourse. This designation is not just incorrect, but it is not useful for us as an idea to follow. The term “Stone Age” carries a lot of fallacies common among civilized discource, the most obvious being that stone is such an important part of the physical technologies of foraging people, when basically the whole of conceivable natural materials is used. Some cultures described as “Stone Age” don’t use any stone at all!
The more important, but less superficially obvious, fallacy in the term “Stone Age” is that humans go through prescribed, upward marching levels of technological complexity, and that it is a Good Thing. There is a judgment value made, with the unstated premise that civilization is better and that, basically, history conspired so that humans could fulfill a destiny to rape, pillage, and destroy the rest of the world, including humans who wouldn’t join civilization.
And of course, we’re not re-enactors or members of the SCA trying to replay an anachronistic version of something. We’re real people trying to live in a responsible, sane, and most of all healthy way. Like I said at the beginning, we’re not out to “Play Indian” or appropriate anything.
For these reasons, I will use the term “primitive”, and hope that instead of internalizing all of the pejorative associations involved, that it is understood that I mean it having more to do with the technology being primary, derived directly from natural resources, probably using hand tools. We seek to live entirely through primitive means, hunting with primitive tools, gathering with primitive tools, gardening with primitive tools.
We also have to remember that we can’t be purists when it comes to physical technology. We live in industrial civilization, even as we’re trying to get out and make something healthier. We don’t have the complex social support networks we want to build, and most of us don’t have all the skills we need to go-it-alone (a suicidal idea in civilization and the wild). So if we, for whatever reason, find the need to use something not ‘primitive’, we need to remember that this doesn’t make us less of a rewilder, and that it can ultimately prove to further our rewilding. More importantly, we must remember our obligations and responsibility, in the same lines as what Derrick Jensen and so many others call the “predator/prey relationship”, but I prefer to think of it more broadly as the living being relationship (since all living beings take part in it, really). When a person kills an animal for food, the respect she or he gives that animal should manifest in that person taking it upon themselves to do what they can to ensure that animal’s community continues to thrive and have a healthy environment. Similarly, by harvesting a tree to build a boat, you make it your responsibility that forests remain intact. And similarly, as Urban Scout has pointed out, by eating roadkill, you owe it to that animal to do what you can to end car culture. By using a firearm to kill a deer, you not only bring upon yourself the responsibility of ensuring deer habitat, but also of trying to end the industrial system which created so much waste to make that firearm. By using a computer to facilitate the growth of a community, as I’m doing, I make it my job to work towards creating a world in which we don’t need computers, wherein people don’t develop cancer from working on making memory cards, where electricity generating plants stop polluting the air, destroying the rivers, and causing the mountains to be stripped of precious metals to sustain an electrical system. So in my case, I owe it to the human and non-human people exploited by the technology I use to work at making the world a better place. Primitive technology is “better” only insofar as it minimizes our negative impact on our landbases (sometimes even having positive effects), and therefore the responsibilities we take on by using them are simpler. Also, they take less time to make, typically, and require less upkeep.
Ultimately, civilization will fall and we will only need to worry about living. We might end up using the scraps left by civilization, without the worry of perpetuating its death-systems. We might even try to use them in ways that increase biodiversity, strengthen our landbases, and overall strengthen the community of life. The main concern there is what will bring us closer to, or just to, that state of living, and by doing so allow the whole of the community of life (our ecosystem[s]) to live naturally.
Everything from Urban Scout, who is the motherfucking man
Diamond, Jared Guns, Germs, and Steel
Glendinning, Chellis My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization
Godesky, Jason “The Thirty Theses” found at HYPERLINK "http://anthropik.com/thirty/" http://anthropik.com/thirty/
Jensen, Derrick Endgame: Volume I – The Problem of Civilization
Jensen, Derrick & Draffan, George Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests
Montgomery, David Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations
Sahlins, Marshall “The Original Affluent Society”