Over the winter break I spent a month in Lower Puna, on the namesake island of Hawai'i. I went there to help a friend of mine set up a campsite and garden on a 44 acre plot. His intention is that a group of 10 students will take a summer course there, a course on re-wilding. Re-wilding primarily refers to the re-building of natural landscapes that have been degraded by mining, ranching, lumbering, overhunting, etc. I recommend, for further reading on re-wilding, "Re-wilding North America," by Josh Donlan et al. Nature 436, 913–914 (18 August 2005) and Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators by William Stolzenburg. The term re-wilding may also refer to restoring individuals' bond with the world around them. It is primarily the latter version of re-wilding that is intended to be the focus of this class, his theory being that the re-wilding of the public's mind must precede meaningful advances in environmental preservation.
I say environmental preservation instead of the current favorite buzzword, sustainability. Sustainability is a funny term to be using as a benchmark of success. All it implies is doing the bare minimum to maintain the natural systems on which one relies. It is unsuitable for discussing environmental issues for another, less talked about reason: There isn't a whole lot left to sustain. Most of the global environment is gone, and what is left is going under fast. We do not fully appreciate this because of something called shifting-baselines. We can piece together, from historical records, that the oceans are practically empty of fish compared to the past, but there are few, if any, people alive today who understand that from personal experience. The High Sierras today may be picturesque, but, ravaged by drought, stripped of their native mega-fauna, and hazy from air pollution blown from around the Pacific, they are a shadow of what John Muir would have beheld. And, while Yosemite is still recognizable as the valley crossed by John Muir in the 19th century, the deciduous forests crossed by John Audubon are a different world from the fertilizer-soaked monocultures of present day Midwest.
Perhaps nowhere is the decline as obvious as the big island of Hawai'i. Prior to interference by humans, there were no mosquitos and no rats on Hawai'i. Mosquitos are a mild nuisance. The rats are much worse, carrying a dangerous parasite, rat lung worm, that can be transmitted by way of some invertebrates to humans. A person who did not know that these species were not endemic to the island, or one who did know but did not think through the implications, would draw the conclusion that nature is something dangerous to be controlled, when in fact it was meddling with nature that introduced danger where there was none. In the last week of my trip, I had a chance to go snorkeling at two coral reefs: The Kapoho Tide Pools on the east side of the Island, and Two-Steps reef on the west side. Around the world, coral reefs are being killed by ocean acidification. Hawai'i is no exception, and the state has declared that, while they may be able to slow the decline, they cannot halt it unless the fossil fuel industry is eliminated. As the coral dies, it turns white and dissolves. The coral at the Kapoho Tide Pools retained much, though not all, of its color when I visited. The much larger reef at Two-Steps, however, was bleached completely white. No matter how much I would like to restore Two-Steps, I still doubt that I fully appreciate its importance, as someone who saw it when it was alive would. Those who come after me will understand even less.
Right now, we are caught in a negative feedback loop, where the world is more bleak every year, and the shifting baselines principle means as it becomes bleaker, people forget how great it once was, and might be again if the trend could be reversed. We need to find ways to reverse the cycle. That starts with changing people's aspirations by teaching as much as possible about what flourishing can be like, followed by restoring natural systems rather than just delaying further degradation.