BigThink has been having a Month of Dangerous Ideas, in which each day they publish a pro and con for a provocative idea, like “Tax Fat People” or “Mandatory Bible Study” (promoted to make people more moral, believe it or not), from which you’d get the impression it was mainly a month of stupid ideas. There were a few interesting ones in the mix, though.
One that comes up now and then again is the idea of Pleistocene Rewilding, that we should remove people from a wide strip of the center of the country, from North Dakota down to Texas in the more elaborate versions of the plan, and actively work to repopulate it with megafauna resembling the pre-human distribution — bring over elephants and lions from Africa, and in more ambitious extremes, genetically re-engineer extinct species, reconstructing mammoths from elephant stock, for instance. I admit, it sounds very cool — I wouldn’t mind seeing great herds of bison and mammoth strolling near Morris, now and then, but ultimately it sounds like another stupid idea.
It falls apart for me on a couple of real problems. We can’t reconstruct species yet, and rebuilding a whole ecological network? Yeah, right. There’s always this focus on the big fragile animals, but if you want to rebuild the Pleistocene midwest, maybe the most important first step would be reconstructing the distribution of prairie grasses, which isn’t easy. We’ve got these things called “parks” which often have goals like preserving the flora and fauna of a region, and they struggle to do even that — we have regional parks here that take some pride in preserving patches of pre-farming prairie, and even that takes hard work and constant maintenance. And, of course, what Pleistocene Rewilding proposes is bringing in large stocks of what are basically alien species and turning them loose. That always works out well. Ask the Australians.
I have a better idea. Why not just set aside large continuous swathes of land in various biomes and declare them to be real wildernesses — we have national parks and wilderness areas now, we could just start right there and enforce stricter policies of non-exploitation for a few centuries — by not permitting grazing, mineral exploration, logging, and RVs to rip through, but instead taking seriously the idea of creating fallow land where nature works without human guidance. We do not, however, have even the political will to do that much in this country, so rewilding is even more of a fantasy.
Although I do confess that the dream of depopulating Texas does provide some political incentive. Until you realize the Texans would just be spread around more.