Recoverable Earth: findings from key new study reinforce hopeful message

Posted by Daniel Allen on 2/12/2020


New research has found that most of the world's vertebrate populations are in better shape than previously thought. This gives new cause for optimism that efforts to restore wild nature can and will make a difference.


Rewilding offers a positive and pragmatic way forward for all those concerned about the ecological health of our planet. Credit: Daniel Allen


Unjustified negativity

Every two years the World Wildlife Fund publishes the Living Planet Report (LPR), the world's leading assessment of the health of our planet and the impact of human activity. This report is based on the Living Planet Index (LPI), which is managed by the Zoological Society of London. This index paints an alarming picture of global declines in vertebrate species.


According to 2020's LPR: "The findings are clear: our relationship with nature is broken and the loss of biodiversity affects our own health and wellbeing. Today, catastrophic impacts for people and the planet loom closer than ever."


The LPI reflects and maintains a narrative of a planet under threat from human greed and indifference, with terrible consequences for all. This environmental narrative gained coherence and power in the 1970s and has resulted in international treaties and strong nature protection laws. Media reporting of the LPI has prompted governments and towns to declare a linked climate and nature emergency and a welcome renewal of efforts to conserve biodiversity.


But a new study by Canadian scientists, published in the leading scientific Journal Nature last week, demonstrates that the distillation of many global trends into a singe index is sensitive to "analytical decision". Specifically, the research team showed that the catastrophic declines visualised by the LPI are based on a small set of vertebrate populations that are experiencing sharp declines. If these populations are excluded, then global population trends actually show a broad increase.


In their conclusion, the authors comment on the psychology of "doom and gloom" that frequently characterises environmental messaging, noting that: "continual negative and guilt-ridden messaging can cause despair, denial and inaction".


From desperation to inspiration

One of the main reasons why rewilding is so inspirational is that it offers a positive and pragmatic way forward for all those concerned about the ecological health of our planet, contrasting sharply with the doom and gloom messaging outlined above.


This is the essence of the "Recoverable Earth" narrative, first put forward by Ecosulis Nature Recovery Lead Dr. Paul Jepson in a perspective article in the progressive journal Ambio two years ago. Such a narrative is characterised by fresh and compelling stories telling of the return and recovery of European megafauna and the restoration of natural dynamics and ecological abundance. Stories of reassessment and refinding the self, and working with restored forces of nature to create novel solutions to the challenges of environmental and social change. These are stories of what can be achieved, rather than what needs to be done.


It is this narrative that has come to underpin Ecosulis's own working philosophy.


An alignment with mental health  

Positive and inspirational stories of environmental recovery align closely with the narrative structure of mental health recovery stories, which commonly incorporate four stages:


  • despair, anguish and hopelessness
  • awakenings and reassessments
  • decisions to act, often in the company of others
  • the recovery of hope and wellness


Rewilding stories assemble these components in a synergistic manner. For example, the story of Gelderse Poort, located immediately upriver from the city of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, begins with accounts of despair concerning the loss of natural values in the Dutch Delta. It continues with two key ecological awakenings: (i) that nature can spontaneously recover, given the space; and (ii) that grazing enhances the development of rich and diverse ecosystems.


This inspired a pilot project to acquire agricultural land in the floodplain and introduce grazing with freee-roaming ponies and cattle. It culminated in the rapid and unexpected recovery of nature, thereby enhancing the life quality of Nijmegen's citizens, who benefitted from reduced flood risk, low insurance costs, enhanced business opportunities and the wide range of outdoor recreation opportunities the restored landscape now offers.


Gelderse Poort is a story of the recovery of socio-ecological wellness. New stories of envir­onmental recovery and restoration lack the blame and catastrophic elements of the older narrative. They adopt a more pragmatic worldview: we are where we are, there is no way back, and there is little value in feeling guilty and attributing blame.


Rewilding Symposium

Paul spoke at the hugely popular Rewilding Symposium that took place on December 3, where he presented "Rewilding: a new narrative in conservation".  The online video of his presentation will be available shortly.



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