John Jacobi from The Wildist Network sent me his latest essay for Easter Holiday readings: “The Question of Revolution“. He urged me to distribute it around, and I chose to publish chapter three about our obligation to rewild. The wilderness should be our most precious commons, and although the wildist strategy is different than of the commons movement, our obligations to the wilderness are the same. Thus we share a lot of common ethics, although our approach is through green governance and the law of the commons.


By John Jacobi ([email protected])

The conservation movement is home to various factions with different, sometimes diametrically opposed, strategies, depending on the starting values. Wildists advocate a strategy called “rewilding,” which aims above all to restore the autonomy of nature and which hosts a variety of tactics placed along what is called “the tactical spectrum.” (This is separate from the rewilding program, an important tool devised by conservation biologists and organizations like The Wildlands Network. It will be mentioned later.) One side of the tactical spectrum consists of moderate, usually personal actions, like camping, naturalism, and studying evolutionary science. The middle consists of more socially impactful and “legitimate” actions, like litigation, conservation work, journalism, and scientific work. And the other side consists of radical, very impactful, and often “illegitimate” or illegal actions, like monkeywrenching. Most of normal conservation takes place on the middle of the spectrum.

Nearly all social movements have a tactical spectrum, and the most robust have elements all helping each other through varying degrees of radicalism. Martin Luther King, for instance, was greatly benefitted by the riots of the time, which were often spurred on by black nationalists.

The conservationists who spearheaded much of the contemporary movement put a lot of effort into building a robust spectrum, each of the more radical elements positioned specifically to benefit the more moderate efforts before them. This is best exemplified by a David Brower quote:

The Sierra Club made the Nature Conservancy look reasonable. I founded Friends of the Earth to make the Sierra Club look reasonable. Then I founded Earth Island Institute to make Friends of the Earth look reasonable. Earth First! now makes us look reasonable. We’re still waiting for someone else to come along and make Earth First! look reasonable.

Reform movements generally only need to occupy the middle of the spectrum with perhaps temporary diversions into the radical end. The task of revolution, however, means shifting the whole movement further to the radical end. This is a delicate task. If most of the movement is at the moderate end and only a few groups engage in highly radical actions, they will be called terrorists, and because they will be easily isolated from the rest of the movement they could be stamped out. Furthermore, if the radical factions fail to actually occupy the spectrum and their actions benefit only their own efforts (i.e., if they are not “linked” to the moderate efforts) than they will also be easily isolated and stamped out. Finally, the radical factions should take care not to move the entire movement to the radical end of the spectrum, lest they delegitimize the entire movement. Again, the role of the party is to build the spectrum, link the factions, and radicalize the movement, slowly and thanklessly. It is not to ignite a revolution immediately, but to creep along a spectrum until a catalyst makes way for more radical advances than would be normally allowed.

In our work, we must take care to build only a wildness-centered spectrum. It is possible, for instance, to be engaged in environmental litigation but for management or industrial purposes. And we’ve seen plenty of “environmental” monkeywrenching that had more to do with social justice than it had to do with restoring nature’s autonomy. There’s also the perpetual threat of revisionism, as I make clear in “Refuting the Apartheid Alternative.” So in our efforts to build and link, we should only build and link those efforts that benefit wildness-centered conservation. Otherwise, a wildness-centered revolution will become harder or even impossible.

The underlying point of rewilding is this: no matter where on the spectrum specific projects are, the moral undertone is advocacy for nature no matter the consequences for civilization. Nature first, civilization only if it doesn’t interfere. This is the ethic espoused by Muir, and we must be sure that it is the ethic that binds all of rewilding together.

Read the whole essay here.

2 Comments The Obligation to Rewild

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