The hope of Humanity: Renaturalize our children

Perhaps the greatest source of hope and social progress arises from our rediscovery of the animal needs of babies and young children: the basic requirements for comfort, contact, and bonding. The hope of humanity is that it recognizes its animal nature.

At three weeks old, you snore softly and warmly on my shoulder as I write and you are closer to nature than you will ever be. With your animal needs and sounds, moved by a slow primordial spirit that will soon be immersed in the cacophony of thought and language, I believe you belong more to the biosphere than to the human sphere. You are my second daughter and it seems like years have passed since I saw you in the scanner; Your segmented skeleton had the appearance of an ancient animal discovered by geologists, buried in timeless rocks. I have already begun to have the hopes and fears that all parents succumb to; perhaps since the first hominids left traces that show that the human spark had been ignited.

Let me start at the beginning, with the organization you could belong to your entire life. When I was born, more than 50 years ago, in the harsh winter of 1963, the National Health Service was only 15 years old. People could find it difficult to believe that for the first time in the history of these islands they could get sick without risking economic ruin, that no one was going to die because they didn't have money. I consider this system to be the pinnacle of civilization, one of the wonders of the world.

Now, that is such a part of our lives that it is just as difficult for us to believe that we could lose it. But I fear that by the time you reach my age, free and universal healthcare will be a distant fantasy, an archaic myth as far from the experience of your children's generation as the Blitz is from my generation. One of the lessons you will learn, painfully, is that there is no public value that has not been fought for.

The growth of this system was one of the key features of the first half of the period I have lived through. Then, wealth was widely shared and the power of those who had monopolized it was reduced. Taxation was used without problem as a means of redistributing the common wealth of humanity and thus hope for a more just world was growing. This great social advance is receding and, although I may be getting ahead of myself, I fear for your adult life. It seems to me that my generation is squandering your birthright.

This destruction is like an echo of the way we treat the natural world. In my childhood, it would never have occurred to me that birds as common as the cuckoo, sparrow and starling could be in such rapid decline that I would live to see them classified as an endangered species in this country (1). I remember the surprising variety of moths that clustered on the windows on hot summer nights, the eels, dense as natural fiber, that descended the rivers every autumn, the mushrooms appearing on the grass of the meadows in their thousands.

They are images that you may never see. When your children are born, the tiger, the rhinoceros, the bluefin tuna and many other animals that have so captivated me may only be a reason for regret.

We now better understand what we did when I was born—a year after the publication of Silent Spring—regarding the natural boundaries within which we live. The science of planetary boundaries has begun to establish the points beyond which the natural resources that make our lives viable are no longer sustainable (2). We may have already crossed, this science tells us, three of the nine limits, and we are bordering the border of three others (3). You may live to see the extremes of climate change to which I have dedicated much of my life, hoping that we can avoid it, along with new ecological disasters, such as ocean acidification, the loss of most of the forests that remain in the world, its wetlands and fossilized water reserves, the large predators, the fish and the coral reefs. If so, you will undoubtedly be angered by the stupidity and shortsightedness of those who preceded you. No one can say that we were not warned.


There is another possible path, to whose research I have dedicated the last two years and to which I have dedicated a large part of my working life. It is a positive environmentalism, which attempts to renaturalize—ecologically restore—large areas of non-productive land and overexploited sea (4). It recognizes nature's remarkable capacity to recover, to reestablish the complex web of ecological relationships with which, until now, we have so grossly failed. Instead of fighting alone to avoid destruction, he offers us hope by proposing a better, richer world, a place I hope you like to live in.

In at least one respect, this country and many others have already become better places. I believe that, contrary to what politicians and the media say, family life is now better than it has been for centuries (5), than the old, cold model of distant parents and the damage - psychological, neurological and (as some research suggests) epigenetic—that caused them are finally beginning to disappear (6,7,8,9).

Perhaps the greatest source of hope and social progress arises from our rediscovery of the animal needs of babies and young children: the basic requirements for comfort, contact, and bonding. Yes, co-parenting is burdensome (now that you're starting to stir and shake, I'm afraid your mother, exhausted from a night of near-constant feeding, will have to wake up again), but I believe it's the only sure source of a better world. . Knowing what we now know, we have an opportunity to avoid the damage, the unrequited needs that have caused so many social ills, which are at the roots of war, of destructive greed, of the need to dominate.

Here then is hope: right at the beginning, in the recognition that you, like all of us, come from the natural world and belong to it.

By George Monbiot. Translated by Víctor García, Go Global


2. Johan Rockström et al, 2009. Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32.
4. My book on this subject will be published next year. The working title, which may change, is Feral: rewilding the land, the sea and human life.
5. See the fascinating book by John R Gillis, 1996. A World of Their Own Making: myth, ritual and the quest for family values. Basic Books, New York.
6. See for example Sue Gerhardt, 2004. Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain. Routledge.
7. Shir Atzil, Talma Hendler and Ruth Feldman, December 2011. Specifying the Neurobiological Basis of Human Attachment: Brain, Hormones, and Behavior in Synchronous and Intrusive Mothers. Neuropsychopharmacology 36, 2603-2615 () | doi:10.1038/npp.2011.172
Here are two papers on possible epigenetic results of different forms of parenting:
8. Ian CG Weaver et al, 2004. Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior. Nature Neuroscience Vol 7, pp847 – 854. doi:10.1038/nn1276
9. PO McGowan et al, 2011. Broad Epigenetic Signature of Maternal Care in the Brain of Adult Rats. PLoS ONE 6(2): e14739. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014739