How the pandemic leads us to landscape ethics
The beginning of 2021 had me lying in bed recovering from COVID-19. My body was weak, but luckily enough the virus did not hit me hard and my mind remained active. The bedbound days provided time to think and read some books new to me and re-read others that are familiar.
When leafing through Aldo Leopold’s A Sandy County Almanac one passage struck me. In the chapter, “Thinking Like a Mountain”, Leopold describes his realization after shooting a wolf:
“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes — something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
Leopold captures his personal shift from “ego” to “eco”. He realizes the interdependency found within natural systems and that when one element is disrupted, the whole system is thrown off balance. In this context, it is the wolf that keeps grazers like deer on the move, preventing them from constant browsing and thus deforestation, soil erosion and landscape degradation. For Leopold, the loss of wolves meant the end of wilderness.
Today, the role that wolves play in ecosystems is well-known: reintroduction efforts in Yellowstone have even changed the course of rivers. Because the wolf is a bringer of balance.
While I lay in bed recovering, reading, thinking, a pack of wolves was filmed in the Dutch central forests of the Veluwe. After 150 years, wolves are visiting and even breeding in the Netherlands — and just an hour — drive from Amsterdam! As an ecologist trying to realize systems change, by building practical bridges between ecology and sustainable economics, it is satisfying to watch a family of wolves living in one of Europe’s most densely populated countries. It is so positive to see the impacts of nature reserves and ecological corridors. Thanks to this natural infrastructure, wolves have been moving West since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.
Yet the pack of wolves in the Veluwe means more than that. To me, as it was with Aldo Leopold, the return of the wolf is a symbol of change, or more specifically, of systems change.
After decades of policy inaction on biodiversity and climate, a transformation is taking place. There is an interdisciplinary search for a new way of doing things. Countless financial institutions and politicians are now calling for investments into nature, recognizing that biodiversity loss gravely impacts economy, financial markets and global supply chains. There is also now a widespread realization that conventional agricultural drives biodiversity loss. Across the board, an institutional shift is moving towards nature-based solutions,with potential drivers like carbon pricing. Because it has become starkly apparent that what we have been doing just is not working.
Later this year, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity takes place to demand — let’s hope — legally binding agreements for nations to protect and enhance biodiversity. That would be a Paris moment for biodiversity. And 2021 marks the beginning of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. I’ve worked in the world of ecology and land-use for more than 30 years and, watching ideas and talk of natural solutions move from marginal to mainstream is fantastic.
Next to this, ordinary people are searching for something deeper. While the recent lockdowns put a stop to massive climate and extinction rebellion protests like we saw in 2019, the recent pandemic period has resulted in people flooding out of cities and into the outdoors by different reasons. In India millions of migrant workers were forced to return from cities to their families in rural areas. In other countries urban people tried to find a way to connect with nature, causing traffic jams around national parks. We are looking at our surroundings with different eyes. Furthermore, new connections between rural residents and urban inhabitants are taking place as people look for local sources of food.
The wolf returning to highly industrialized countries like the Netherlands is a sign of the times. We have made this possible thanks to long term consistent environmental policies. While taking the concerns of farmers very serious, this return is a signal for the transition of our landscape. The wolf brings back diversity, and diversity — biodiversity — is a prerequisite for creating resilience within landscapes. Resilience that is needed for healthy soils and food, water and natural carbon storage and space for our own wellbeing. Or in economic terms, it brings down risks to create more long-term sustainable returns.
A new balance in our thinking is close at hand. This pandemic will accelerate initiatives to restore our landscapes.We are healing the wounds of our Earth that past and current generations created through ignorance and a lack of understanding the ecosystem. But that is changing: a new landscape ethics is evolving. There is a shift towards aligning our systems into an abundant interdependency with the natural world around us. The wolf is a symbol of that shift towards regenerative agriculture and other sustainable land use practices. And wolves returning shows that by tuning out of our own ego and into the needs of ecosystems, the green fire will be rekindled.