‘Pretty damn cool’: Ellie Goulding on rewilding as a cure for our planet – and our mental health | Rewilding

I just got back from a walk in Hyde park with headphones in, Max Richter plays, after a bulging 30 degree day in London. I stopped halfway to take off my running shoes and put my feet on the grass. This is where I often go when I need to breathe, and not think.

I have been a nature nerd since the days of making mud pies (and grass on the side), beating up rocks to see worms and louse and foraging for blackberries with the other kids in the village, often to make some sort of inedible fruity soup.

When I think of this special time in my childhood, I feel a visceral traction, like missing someone. I found out that at the age of five we were moving out of town and into rural Herefordshire, somewhere on the border between Wales and England. I remember I hated the idea. But it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me.

My background has many times been described as “humble”, and that was it. I often fled my house because of the tranquility of the greenery around it. Me and my friend Niall walked for hours hoping to get lost, and as buses rarely showed up, we ended up knowing shortcuts through every field and every hedge. Such as Kerry and Kurtan often hang around a field in [the BBC comedy] This country talk to me.

Although I do not come from a “privileged” upbringing, knowing the landscape so well gave me a connection that is a form of wealth. From a young age, I knew instinctively that my fate on this planet is inextricably linked to nature – to the fate of flora and fauna and fungi.

Quick guide

Rewilding: what is it?

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What is rewilding?

Rewilding is the restoration of nature in places changed by human activity. From exposing apex predators such as jaguars and wolves to making room for native grasslands in urban areas, rewilding can be done on a large or small scale.
Although there are competing definitions, most have the rebuilding of sustainable ecological health at their core, whether it is the re-emergence of seaweed forests on the Sussex coast of England or the reintroduction of mockingbirds in the Galápagos Islands.

Why has the term become so popular?

Rewilding has captured the imagination of the public by being an environmental movement and a science-based process at the same time. With visions of a wilder planet, highprofile environmentalists like David Attenborough and George Monbiot inspired millions with paths to a more biodiversity, ecologically healthy future. The success of rewilling pioneers around the world has shown what is possible: from the restoration of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique after the Civil War to the Knepp estate in the south of England.

Does rewilding have universal support?

No. Critics of rewilding fear that the term will be used to justify the removal of people from the countryside, especially peasants and indigenous communities. In the UK, some have dismissed the concept as a fashion phenomenon for ‘toffs’ and high-income landowners, while others fear it will be used to attack agricultural communities that have cultivated areas for hundreds of years.

Can you rewilde?

While the boldest rewilding initiatives take place on a landscape scale, small changes can have a big impact. Millions of people changing how they mow their grass or let nature get into their gardens, balconies and window sills can be increased, giving more room for biodiversity to recover.

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I felt it in my bones, and the era of the “wooden hugger” or the “eco warrior” is definitely over because we are all in this ecological mess together, whether we feel a connection to nature or not. We are 100% dependent on these incredible natural systems in this biosphere. We know that for clean water you need healthy forests; to balance carbon you need healthy seas and peat bogs, mangroves and seagrass. Nature is not just a beautiful nature. We is nature – and we are dependent on it.

Ellie Goulding, pictured at the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland
‘Hearing the ice crack soberly tuned me into the climate crisis’: Ellie Goulding at the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland. Photo: Tristan Fewings / WWF / PA

It felt natural for me to start talking about the destruction of nature and more generally about my fears and hopes for this amazing planet: asking questions, asking people for responsibility, trying to open the conversation. I gave the crisis a name high – the climate and nature crisis – as many others did, but in my industry no one talked about it. The biggest threat to humanity… and it was business as usual! It was completely bizarre.

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I just wanted it to be the headlines, as it always should have been. Now we’re in a pretty creepy place.

I noticed that everything I said that was nature or climate related had consequences for me. It was apparently a big deal to say out loud that I was afraid for our future. For example, pleading with us to keep the forests intact was treated as if I had made a huge political statement, and I quickly began to lose followers on social media. To really engage young people (instead of scaring them) I had to change the narrative from panic and anger to ambition and optimism. Hopelessness led me nowhere. My followers have risen again recently. Considering I haven’t released music in a while, there might be something catchy!

In 2017, I became an environmental ambassador for the UN, which meant I had to go out in scary conferences and give speeches to scientists and global leaders. Terrible. As someone with a phobia of public speaking and chronic fraudulent syndrome, this was not a fun process.

Ellie Goulding stands in a garden holding a rose in front of her face
‘We can reverse the loss of biodiversity.’ Photo: Caspar Jopling / Handout

If I had not had such a strong connection to nature, I do not think I would have been able to. My passion also comes from how much it has saved me and been there for me when poor mental health took me to a dark place. That alone gave me a kind of legitimacy to speak out and train myself in discussions, mainly between politicians who decide our future and the future of our children.

I traveled with WWF (I have since become WWF Ambassador) to Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier. Witnessing the large and huge size of the glaciers and hearing the ice crack was a huge sensory overload and soberly put me into the climate crisis.

Basically, what we do to the planet is like pointing a hair dryer at an ice cube sitting in hot water. But such analogies do not seem to wash with humans. As a songwriter and performer, I deal with emotions and feelings, so I understand that. Telling stories is everything; how we connect, intertwine, relate, empathy.

I was so lucky to meet the scientists – who only have the science and the data and nothing more, no metaphors or puns, just facts – and I really felt their irritation. They are in the front line and provide evidence to our politicians, who then try to negotiate with them instead of really acting.

My tactic is now to show up as often as possible armed with messages from scientists and views and questions from people who follow me on social media. I am always as aware of who is not in the room as who is. For us nature nerds, things are finally changing for the better. The official climate process has stopped treating nature and climate as two different issues.

At Cop26 in Glasgow last year, I spoke and met a network of incredible environment ministers from around the world, from Kenya, Costa Rica and Ecuador, who are reversing the current of destruction, sometimes under very dangerous circumstances. They back up nature in a way we have not seen before. Canadian Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has been in and out of jail for eco-activism. A nice guy! I’m not saying this is happening everywhere, but we should not write off committed, talented political people who can turn the system from drawing the destruction of the natural world to protecting it.

No matter how uncomfortable I am, it is nothing compared to the risks taken by indigenous communities that do most of the work and take most of the risk. When I go to a summit or conference, I try to catch up with young activists from all over the globe. At Stockholm + 50, I met young climate and environmental leaders who had fled war zones and persecution to attend these meetings. They included people from rainforest regions who had traveled for days – also by canoe – just to be heard. That level of risk and sacrifice is unimaginable.

Ellie Goulding speaks at Stockholm + 50
Ellie Goulding speaks at Stockholm + 50, where she met young activists from all over the globe. Photo: Handout

These are my heroes and allies. These are the people I want represented. It breaks my heart to think that young people, a demographic that includes my one-year-old son, could grow up without the kind of relationship with nature that I was lucky to have. It is for this reason that I am so relieved to see that rewilding is on the radar again. The idea that we can reverse the loss of biodiversity, deliver the ecological functions we all depend on, and create robust local economies for ourselves and our children – just by letting everything go its natural way once in a while – is damn cool .

Nature can truly heal itself if we let it. At the same time, if we truly commit to immersing ourselves in it, it can do wonders for mental health.

I would say to everyone that from supporting Global Witness, WWF, Unep and ambitious goals of rewilling Europe by 2030 and protecting at least 30% of the oceans, there is a you-shaped hole in ecological activism. It is not separate from you, it is a part of you. You really have a lot more power than you realize and there is no better time to seize it.

Be aware of your daily actions in how you can be as kind to the Earth as possible. Talk to your friends, start groups, join local environmental communities, plan nature walks, hang in there. But above all, stay in active hope.

There is still so much we can turn around. We just have to keep fighting and holding on to this incredible planet that we are going to call home.

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