The Return of Europe’s Gray Wolf and the Dialectic of Coexistence

By Max Woods

Animal rights’ and environmental activists have reason for celebration. A recent study released in Science demonstrates not only that the population of large predators in Europe, including gray wolves, brown bears, and wolverines, has been either stable or increasing during the 21st-century, but that it has done so in human-dominated areas. As the authors of the study put it, “large carnivores and people can share the same landscape”[1].

Furthermore, this conservation of large predators has required the preservation of large ecosystems crossing multiple national borders and which might otherwise have been used for housing, industry, tourism, etc. To save the gray wolf has required a coordinated international effort that has little economic return on investment. It is an especially difficult enterprise given that the wolf is one of the most hated animal figures in history and folk legend: just look at little red riding hood and the three little pigs! The conservation of the gray wolf speaks to a surprising shift in attitude towards non-human species and the value placed on non-human life.

More significantly, the myth of the incompatibility of a modern human-dominated landscape and the natural world is effectively dispelled in this new study. Given the preponderance of “the existing conflicts between large carnivores and humans,” it has often been assumed that large predator populations can only be maintained in refuges or wilderness areas[2]. This study has sufficiently undermined this belief. Using what they call the “coexistence model,” the authors have shown that large predators and humans can indeed live together[3].

This “coexistence model” should be familiar to anyone who has driven on an American highway: “coexist” bumper stickers are about as ubiquitous as billboards. This bumper sticker writes out the word “coexist” using various religious, gender, and political symbols. The underlying implication is that these only apparently conflicting genders, religions, and ideologies can all be maintained within a broader, multicultural, social harmony. The eradication of difference is eschewed for the sharing of the same social landscape amongst multiple groups. The “coexistence model” applies to different identities and systems of belief as well as to different species. The ecological paradigm has its political corollary. Not only can wolves and humans live harmoniously, but rich and poor, men and women, and peoples of all different faiths.

Despite its apparent innocuousness, this model must not be so quickly accepted. The ecological and political ideology of coexistence often ignores the possibility of radical transformation. For instance, the “e” on the “coexist” bumper sticker is composed of both the masculine and feminine symbol. Male and female are imagined living side-by-side in one world without one oppressing the other. The “e” argues for gender equality. This gender rhetoric fails on two accounts. Primarily, it reinforces a binary gender system. While it may argue for a deconstruction of the strict distinctions between genders – the formerly separate male and female symbols are combined into one letter – it still speaks within a binary discourse. The “e” accepts the language of male/female. The possibility of transforming the concepts and structures of gender is never discussed. Instead, a priori identities are simply harmonized. Secondly, the appeal to “coexistence” is stuck between two poles. On the one hand, coexistence can be a radical, liberating notion and practice. The struggle for gender equality, even when troubled by accepting the binary discourse, demands the complete reconstruction of the economic, political, and cultural landscape. The desire to produce a society in which genders coexist is to revolt against the status quo. On the other hand, the rhetoric of “coexist” can ironically and problematically uphold the status quo. To learn to coexist with one another is to learn to accept given concepts and structures the way they are: it is, by definition, the acceptance of reification. In blunt, current terms: Should the people of Ferguson learn to coexist with the current Ferguson police force? The appeal to “coexist” can be an appeal to maintain a static environment and move away from structural transformation. The point is no longer to change the world, but to coexist with the a priori and eternal structures surrounding us.

The same dialectic applies to the resurgence of Europe’s large predators. The conclusion that “large carnivores and people can share the same landscape” forces one to reconsider any anthropocentric understanding of the earth – it is not ours, it is shared by many. This could have radical political and economic consequences – the necessary changes in land-use to conserve the gray wolf require an internationalization of politics and possibly a de-privatization of large tracts of land. The implication that the natural landscape is shared undermines private property as well as ideologies of the mastery of nature and “man’s” dominion over it. Yet, this study could also function to maintain the status quo: ‘the current exploitative class system,’ the opposition could claim, ‘is compatible with the natural world.’ The “coexistence” model demonstrates that, outside of some simple reforms, our current social structures need not change. The ‘leftist’ ideology of coexistence is surprisingly conservative.

So let us celebrate the resurgence of species many thought would soon be extinct on the European continent and the proof that human survival is not connected to the brutal eradication of animals thought to be in conflict with humans. The significance of these discoveries should not be understated. But let us not forget that the simple elimination of the crudest forms of animal and natural degradation does not eliminate degradation in general, just as the elimination of the crudest forms of class exploitation does not eliminate exploitation. Yes, the “coexistence model” is preferable to the eradication of large predators, yet its latent tendency to support the status quo socio-economic and environmental order – ‘The current processes of urbanization, environmental degradation, and class society can coexist with natural biodiversity’ – must be resisted.

[1] Guillaume Chapron, et al., “Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes,” Science 346 (2014): 1517.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Work Cited
Chapron G, Kaczensky P, Linnell JDC, von Arx M, Huber D, Andrén H, López-Bao JV, Adamec M, Álvares F, Anders O, Balčiauskas L, Balys V, Bedő P, Bego F, Blanco JC, Breitenmoser U, Brøseth H, Bufka L, Bunikyte R, Ciucci P, Dutsov A, Engleder T, Fuxjäger C, Groff C, Holmala K, Hoxha B, Iliopoulos Y, Ionescu O, Jeremić J, Klemen J, Kluth G, Knauer F, Kojola I, Kos I, Krofel M, Kubala J, Kunovac S, Kusak J, Kutal M, Liberg O, Majić A, Männil P, Manz R, Marboutin E, Marucco F, Melovski D, Mersini K, Mertzanis Y, Mysłajek RW, Nowak S, Odden J, Ozolins J, Palomero G, Paunović M, Persson J, Potočnik H, Quenette P, Rauer G, Reinhardt I, Rigg R, Ryser A, Salvatori V, Skrbinšek T, Stojanov A, Swenson JE, Szemethy L, Trajçe A, Tsingarska-Sedefcheva E, Váňa M, Veeroja R, Wabakken P, Wölfl M, Wölfl S, Zimmermann F, Zlatanova D, Boitani L. “Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes.” Science 346 (2014): 1517-1519.



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