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Ecocide Is Suicide: Compassion and Personal Rewilding

We're killing a very tired and less resilient planet at alarming rates.

It’s common knowledge that we’re losing species and habitats at an unprecedented rate in a geological epoch known as the “anthropocene” – the age of humanity. While the term has not been formally recognized as official nomenclature, we know we’re deep into a time when humans are devastating numerous species and their homes and we are behaving in the most inhumane and selfish ways. Simply put, we humans are the cause of such massive and egregious ecocide because as big-brained, big-footed, overproducing, overconsuming, arrogant, and selfish mammals we freely move all over the place recklessly, wantonly, and mindlessly trumping the interests of countless nonhuman animals (animals). Every second of every day we decide who lives and who dies; we are that powerful. Of course, we also do many wonderful things for our magnificent planet and its fascinating inhabitants, but right now, rather than pat ourselves on the back for all the good things we do, we need to take action to right the many wrongs before it’s too late for other animals and ourselves.

I see at least two ways out of the environmental and moral muck in which we’re mired that is responsible for widespread and increasing ecocide. The first centers on paying careful attention to the rapidly growing international and interdisciplinary field called “compassionate conservation” and the second is our choosing to go through a personally transformative process that I call “rewilding our hearts”. Rewilding our hearts calls for a global paradigm shift, a social revolution, in how we interact with other animals and with other humans. 

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Compassionate conservation

The goals of compassionate conservation are clearly stated in the mission statement for a recently established Centre for Compassionate Conservation (see also) at the University of Technology, Sydney (Australia) and in a book I edited called Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation.

The mission statement for the Centre for Compassionate Conservation promotes the protection of captive and wild animals as individuals within conservation practice and policy. Finding ways to compassionately and practically share space (coexistence), via trade-offs among different values, is vital if we are to reduce harm to animals.

A simple and morally acceptable approach is to utilize the universal ethic of compassion (and empathy) to alleviate suffering in humans and other animals to resolve issues of land sharing. A compassionate and practical ethic for conservation that focuses on individual well being, in combination with other values, provides a novel framework of transparency and robust decision-making for conservation that will benefit all stakeholders.

Compassionate conservation stipulates that we need a conservation ethic that prioritizes the protection of other animals as individuals: not just as members of populations of species, but valued in their own right. This is important because of what we now know about their cognitive and emotional lives (consciousness and sentience).

Because compassionate conservation requires that we must protect animals as individuals, they are not merely objects or metrics who can be traded off for the good of populations, species or biodiversity.

A paradigm shift in our approach to other animals is vital because of what we now know about the cognitive and emotional capacities of other animals and their ability to suffer (sentience).

With a guiding principle of "first do no harm", compassionate conservation offers a bold, virtuous, inclusive, and forward-looking framework that provides a meeting place for different perspectives and agendas to discuss and solve issues of human-animal conflict when sharing space. Peaceful coexistence with other animals and their homes is needed in an increasingly human-dominated world if we are to preserve and conserve nature the best we can.

Surely, adhering to the principles of compassionate conservation will go a long way toward reducing the ecocide in which we are now engaged and for which we all are responsible.

Rewilding our hearts

My forthcoming book called Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence lays out the details for a much-needed social movement and paradigm shift that also can help extricate us from our ecocidal ways and help to maintain our hopes and dreams for a more peaceful world for all beings in very trying times. Some of the basic ideas are reviewed here. We live in a world in which “unwilding” is the norm rather than the exception. If we didn’t unwild we wouldn’t have to rewild.

The word "rewilding" became an essential part of talk among conservationists in the late 1990s when two well-known conservation biologists, Michael Soulé and Reed Noss, wrote a now classic paper called "Rewilding and biodiversity: Complimentary goals for continental conservation" that appeared in the magazine WIld Earth (Fall 1998, 18-28. 15).

In her book Rewilding the World conservationist Caroline Fraser noted that rewilding basically could be boiled down to three words: Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores. Dave Foreman, director of the Rewilding Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a true visionary, sees rewilding as a conservation strategy based on three premises: "(1) healthy ecosystems need large carnivores, (2) large carnivores need big, wild roadless areas, and (3) most roadless areas are small and thus need to be linked." Conservation biologists and others who write about rewilding or work on rewilding projects see it as a large-scale process involving projects of different sizes that go beyond carnivores, such as the ambitious, courageous, and forward-looking Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, well known as the Y2Y project. Of course, rewilding goes beyond carnivores, as it must.

The core words associated with large-scale rewilding projects are connection and connectivity, the establishment of links among geographical areas so that animals can roam as freely as possible with few if any disruptions to their movements. For this to happen ecosystems must be connected so that their integrity and wholeness are maintained or reestablished.

Regardless of scale, ranging from huge areas encompassing a wide variety of habitats that need to be reconnected or that need to be protected to personal interactions with animals and habitats, the need to rewild and reconnect centers on the fact that there has been extensive isolation and fragmentation "out there" in nature, between ourselves and (M)other nature, and within ourselves. Many, perhaps most, human animals, are isolated and fragmented internally concerning their relationships with nonhuman animals, so much that we're alienated from them. We don't connect with other animals, including other humans, because we can't or don't empathize with them. The same goes for our lack of connection with various landscapes. We don't understand they're alive, vibrant, dynamic, magical, and magnificent. Alienation often results in different forms of domination and destruction, but domination is not what it means "to be human." Power does not mean license to do whatever we want to do because we can.

Rewilding projects often involve building wildlife bridges and underpasses so that animals can freely move about. These corridors, as they're called, can also be more personalized. I see rewilding our heart as a dynamic process that will not only foster the development of corridors of coexistence and compassion for wild animals but also facilitate the formation of corridors within our bodies that connect our heart and head. In turn, these connections, or reconnections, will result in positive feelings that will facilitate heartfelt actions to make the lives of animals better. These are the sorts of processes that will help the new field of compassionate conservation further develop. When I think about what can be done to help others a warm feeling engulfs me and I'm sure it's part of that feeling of being rewilded. To want to help others in need is natural so that glow is to be expected.

Rewilding is an attitude. It’s also a guide for action. As a social movement, it needs to be proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful, and passionate — which I call the eight Ps of rewilding.

Compassion begets compassion and there's actually a synergistic relationship, not a trade-off, when we show compassion for animals and their homes. There are indeed many reasons for hope. There's also compelling evidence that we're born to be good and that we're natural-born optimists. Therein lie many reasons for hope that in the future we will harness our basic goodness and optimism and all work together as a united community. We can look to the animals for inspiration. So, we need to tap into our empathic, compassionate and moral inclinations to make the world a better place for all beings. We need to build a culture of empathy. We need to add a healthy dose of social justice to our world right now.

We can all make more humane and compassionate choices to expand our compassion footprint, and we can all do better. We must all try as hard as we can to keep thinking positively and proactively. Never say never, ever. We can and must keep our hopes and dreams alive (see also).

When all is said and done, and more is usually said than done, we need a heartfelt revolution in how we think, what we do with what we know, and how we act. Rewilding can be a very good guide. The revolution has to come from deep within us and begin at home, in our heart and wherever we live. I want to make the process of rewilding a more personal journey and exploration that centers on bringing other animals and their homes, ecosystems of many different types, back into our heart. For some they're already there or nearly so, whereas for others it will take some work to have this happen. Nonetheless, it's inarguable that if we're going to make the world a better place now and for future generations, personal rewilding is central to the process and will entail a major paradigm shift in how we view and live in the world, and how we behave. It's not that hard to expand our compassion footprint and if each of us does something the movement will grow rapidly.

The time is right, the time is now, for an inspirational, revolutionary, and personal social movement that can save us from doom and keep us positive while we pursue our hopes and dreams. Our planet is tired and dying and not as resilient as some claim it to be.

Rewild now. Take the leap. Leap and the net will appear. It'll feel good to rewild because compassion and empathy are very contagious. 

Let’s make personal rewilding all the rage

Ecocide is suicide. Let’s make personal rewilding all the rage. When “they” (other animals) lose, we all lose. We suffer the indignities to which we subject other animals. We can feel their pains and suffering if we allow ourselves to do so.

Compassion begets compassion and violence begets violence.

There really is hope if we change our ways. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations who will inherit the world we leave them long after we’re gone.

Note: An excellent new book on this topic is Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also)and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014. (marcbekoff.com@MarcBekoff

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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