Amusing the Patient

Rewilding could restore ecosystems to their natural state—but is there such a thing as "natural"?

Amusing the Patient

Rewilding could restore ecosystems to their natural state—but is there such a thing as "natural"?

In February 2022, Russia launched an invasion into Ukraine. There were infantry divisions, armoured tanks, and many, many missiles. Much of the Russian effort was to capture Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. When this proved difficult Russia turned its attention elsewhere as it began to capture districts in the north-east. Ukraine was barely managing to keep up the fight.

But when the invading army went through the forest to reach nearby Chernobyl, it retreated within a month of its own accord. What sent them back was no surprise attack by the Ukrainian army, but harmful radiation from the nuclear disaster of 1986.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was possibly the worst nuclear accident in history (unless you count the death of President Franklin Roosevelt). The resulting explosion sent out a deadly cloud of radioactive matter, killing thirty people and causing health problems in thousands of others. The nearby forest withered and turned red, giving it the name “the Red Forest”.

After this event, nature turned weird. Goats were born with legs sprouting from their backs; piglets would end up with two sets of hind quarters, complete with two tails and four hind-legs.  Plants were more fortunate, because they don’t get badly affected by cancer, but the nearby pine trees did vaporise, disintegrate, or begin to glow in the dark. Later flora didn’t turn into freaks, but they were troubled by lower fertility and growth rate.

Testament to the deadliness of this event is the fact that, thirty-six years later, a well-equipped army was weakened through radiation sickness; driven into retreat by the very land itself.

A large area around Chernobyl is still labelled as an exclusion zone, deemed uninhabitable for humans. A permit is needed even to enter the area. Other animals aren’t so strict, though, a fact which has made Chernobyl into an unexpected biodiversity hotspot.

When the nuclear disaster took place, Chernobyl and the rest of Ukraine were ironically under the Soviet Union, precursor to modern-day Russia. The Soviets have been blamed for withholding information from the public; information that would have given people an early warning and helped them escape the worst effects of the radiation.

What the Soviet Union did do efficiently was to clean up the mess they created and contain it in one area. Radioactive material did escape, even to other countries, but without Soviet efficiency things could have been much worse—and this efficiency ended up helping other animals as much as it helped humans. Radioactivity is still around, but not as deadly as before. As biologist James Morris put it, “People probably could live there, if people were happy leading short lives.

Today, with no humans to bother them, the 1000-odd square miles around Chernobyl have become a refuge for bison, bears, and wolves who are fast losing habitat in other parts of Europe.

What if we had more Red Forests, minus the nuclear accident part? Such a concept exists, and it’s called “rewilding”.

We’re in the midst of one of the largest extinction events ever, with nearly 300 species dying out every day. Slowing this process sounds like an insurmountable problem—how will we create infrastructure to support all that wildlife? But here’s the thing: most of this wildlife was doing just fine before humans existed. How about we just let them be and recover on their own?

Then, our job is simple: keep other humans away.

Voltaire the philosopher once quipped that “the art of medicine consists in amusing the patient, while nature cures the disease”. People might argue as to what degree this applies to healthcare, but it certainly does make sense for wildlife conservation. Leave the ecosystem alone, and let it regain its natural state.

There’s only one tricky question: what is natural?

Writer Joseph Nightingale describes how the concept of a “wilderness” without humans is, in today’s world, something of a myth. Does “protecting” a forest include evicting the tribal people who have made it their home for generations? He mentions the forests and mountains of the Americas, ring-fenced by the invading Europeans to “preserve their purity”.

What the invaders didn’t realise was that all this “wilderness” wasn’t as “wild” as they thought: it had only recently been cleared of all the native people who had called it their home. “Why leave this lush and fertile land to these savages, they asked, when we can come in and make better use of it?” not realising that the land was made lush and fertile precisely because of the careful tending and management by these so-called “savages”. Living closer to the land, these original inhabitants knew when to take what they needed, when to leave the environment alone to replenish itself, and how to help the process along the way.

A good illustration of this is the bison, which humans made use of but also coexisted with for tens of thousands of years. When European invaders came with their new and savage hunting techniques, the bison were gone within half a century—and with them came the collapse of the ecosystem they were so much a part of.

Many animals define their own boundaries, but humans have taken it to an extreme. Individual people have borders around their own land; groups of people draw a collective border around their village, or city, or province; then, at a higher level, is the thick and important border of a nation.

Humans make enormous efforts to keep these borders stable—whether it’s sealing the walls in their houses, or financing vast armies to defend the country. The entire Russian invasion of Ukraine can be seen as a conflict of borders: Russia wanted its borders to enclose some of Ukraine’s borders, in response to geopolitical alliances between Europe and the US that were threatening a weak spot in Russia’s own borders.

These borders feel very real—as real as the six-metre thick border of an enclosure that was built to contain Chernobyl’s mass of nuclear waste. And in a sense, they are, but also not. Passing from one country to another requires a lot of waiting, bureaucracy, and paperwork if you’re a human. But the refugee bears and bison that walked across the Ukrainian border went through as if it didn’t exist—because, as far as they were concerned, it didn’t.

Possibly the most difficult boundary to cross, though, is the one our human society has drawn in its head between itself and the rest of Nature.

Modern environmentalism, Joseph Nightingale writes, “seeks to restore nature to its purer state before pesky human interference. But when is that? Is that before the Europeans? Or before the natives arrived? If the latter, then how do we replace the enormous number of extinct animals lost forever?”

Looked at through this lens, rewilding can seem problematic too. By clearing out humans, what do we hope to achieve? If the whole world is interconnected, would a few acres of trees make that much difference when the country is hit by drought—or by nuclear disaster?

But perhaps we don’t have to do it that way. What if rewilding is the first step to letting some of Nature recover so we can learn to live with it properly?

Living with Nature doesn’t necessarily mean going back to caves and arrows. If we go with the right mindset, there’s no reason we can’t take technology with us—just like the architect Laurie Baker did.

Consider the air-conditioner. An ingenious device to turn the house cool, especially in warm countries. But why is the house so warm in the first place?

When India broke boundaries with the British Empire and gained recognition as a country in its own right, it received a lot of help from almost-neighbouring Russia to set up its technology and infrastructure. One hangover from this era is the “Russian style” house: squarish cement structures, efficient to construct without a thought, and well suited to absorbing and retaining the heat.

But wait, India has a warm climate! Hence, the air conditioners.

Instead of going this way, Laurie Baker had an idea that was either revolutionary or extremely obvious, depending on how you look at it. He started designing houses specifically for their given location: an air vent here, a passage there, and, to top it all, a clay building material—all of which served to keep the house naturally cool, without any artificial equipment!

Laurie Baker didn’t stop at temperature. His designs also took into account the passage of the Sun, and the surrounding trees and landscape, positioning windows and gaps to maximise the use of sunlight and minimise the use of lightbulbs. During construction, he took care to make use of all the odds and ends; the half-bricks and shattered tiles that would otherwise have been discarded.

Unfortunately, some of today’s “Laurie Baker style” architects miss the point: they make houses that look similar, but without the sustainable qualities. If there are not enough broken tiles lying around, they break some.

The architecture of Laurie Baker is only one example of what can be achieved if humanity goes back to living with Nature, rather than against it. Other real-world examples are far and few between, but luckily there’s a place where many more can be found—in fiction.

The phrase “solarpunk” might bring to mind the other “punks” of the past, like cyberpunk and steampunk—but while its origins partly lie there, solarpunk is also very different.

What started out as subreddit and hashtag communities on social media has now become a vibrant culture: one that imagines a future of solar panels, and sustainable housing, and laptops that can actually be repaired. The solarpunk philosophy is one of fitting into the world we’re given, rather than trying to turn the world into what we think it is.

If post-apocalyptic thinking merges primitive technology with a modern-day mindset, solarpunk does it the other way round.

Before you dismiss solarpunk as unachievable utopia, it’s important to note that it’s also very practical. New “green” technology, or even solar panels, are not blindly accepted, because solarpunk is also very conscious of hidden consequences.

Where are these panels being installed? What materials are they made of? How is the condition of the workers doing the manufacturing? All these questions are thrown at every new idea before it’s finally accepted—or not.

Solarpunk also acknowledges that the future isn’t going to be easy. We all know that the planet is heating at an ever-increasing pace. On the other side, the occupation of Ukraine’s nuclear power plant, Chernobyl, by a nuclear-armed nation, Russia, reminded the world of how dangerous such things can potentially be.

But the point is, despite all the potential apocalyptic futures, there is still a path ahead. There’s no guarantee that everyone will make it, but there is the possibility that we can try.

If you don’t know the distressing past, the Red Forest can seem a very tranquil place. Wolves roam peacefully without fear of being shot down; otters amble fearlessly across the road.

The place was also found to be a refuge for some of the world’s last wild horses.

There are certainly problems. Lack of microorganisms in the area means dead plants don’t decompose, instead piling up for a future gigantic fire. But for now, the green, if underpopulated land offers hope that, even in the event of climate catastrophe or nuclear apocalypse, life still has the tenacity to carry on.

Even if the inhabitants aren’t human, and even if they need to be happy leading shorter lives.