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Cry of the Wild – Charles Foster

On Tuesday evening, the University of Bath’s Politics Society welcomed New York Times bestselling author and Fellow of Exeter College at the University of Oxford to campus, to give a stimulating talk on the challenges the natural world currently faces and how he is trying to reinvigorate the fight against climate change through the art of storytelling. 

Cry of the Wild is an attempt by Foster to show what it feels like for eight species – orca, fox, otter, rabbit, gannet, eel, mayfly and human – to inhabit the world alongside each other. Foster described the experience of writing the book as a “thrilling and disturbing journey”. 

Foster described how each species tells us a particular story about the animal community and crucially what we can learn from them. He also described how the fox is an incredibly sensory animal, using all five of its “magnetic” senses to view the world, and how we humans, crucially, have to use ours to see the world in a more colourful light.

The gannet, a migratory bird that flies to Europe from the west coast of Africa, demonstrates how the world is ecologically and geographically connected, while the common rabbit shows us the politics of animal communities. 

The majestic orcas off of the west coast of England, now in fewer numbers than ever, with just six remaining, are a tale of the isolation of some of our animal communities, simply due to not sharing a common language with others. 

The otter informs us of the relationship between the sea and river, but also crucially a story of human loss and how we have depleted resources from the natural world. Human interference in the form of draining the seas of fish and aquatic prey has resulted in a change in the psyche of animals around us, notably the otter who has been transformed into a frantic animal, desperately trying to survive in an ever-degrading ecosystem. 

The stories of the gannet, eel and human all also portray a particular narrative including the consequences of pollution and the way human degradation works at a molecular level – from the average sludge dumped into our rivers to the very genetics of the earth’s inhabitants. 

Foster’s book also arguably has strong anti-capitalist themes running through its core message, with the idea of “continuous economic growth” both impossible and also “undesirable” for him. The author underlined how more revolutionary and seismic change is needed to solve the climate issues we face, with growth “killing everything that makes life worth living”.

Quoting Gilbert Chesterton, an English writer and poet, Foster described how “capitalism is the monster that grows in the desert”, likening the idea of uncontrolled growth to that of the cancer cell, destroying what it inhabits and leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. 

For Foster, we humans are more than just economic units, and we should break away from this dominant idea that has been told to us, and instead restore our more symbiotic and sustainable relationship with the natural world akin to our previous hunter-gatherer lifestyle which has been followed for the majority of our existence on planet earth. 

During the talk, Foster also commentated on how the current political structures have failed to deal with the current ecological crisis, with the jury no longer out on their lack of ability and desire to respond effectively to the climate challenges we currently face. Instead, Foster calls for governance at a local level, with political organisation being formed through tight-knit communities rather than the monolithic and ever-incapable structures we have today. 

Why stories? 

At the beginning of the talk, Foster underlined how stories have an essential role to play in our ability to confront the reality of climate change and reignite our passion for the natural world. For Foster, the power of narratives is undeniable and can change people and their views, far more than any data set or graph. 

Stories contain authenticity, with humans themselves having stories defined by a beginning, a middle and an end. It is for this reason that stories hold so much power – stories transform because we, ourselves, are stories. 

Foster describes how it is vital that to confront the reality of climate change we need to remove the statistics and hard facts and go back to the basics: we are the planet. For Foster, stories are related to and contrived from the way we perceive the world. 

Foster describes how this perception of the world should have two types of attention – one narrow and most importantly, another broader kind of attention. The writer documents how the narrow and short-minded vision alone has resulted in the exploitation and degradation of the natural world, with humans acting in a short-minded way when using this vision. 

Foster wants us to have a broader and more holistic view of the world, to attempt to understand the relationships between things rather than seeing everything through a black-and-white lens. For Foster, stories take a much more holistic stance, perceived as a synergy between these two types of attention. 

As we can note, the human story is not over yet and is still being written. Ultimately Foster describes his optimism. The writer points to the youth of today, but also to the fact that our way of life cannot continue – there is not enough energy in the ground, wind or sea to power our consumer-led societies. 

Foster describes how this will result in a necessary change of life, one that is more sustainable in every sense and in harmony with the other inhabitants of our planet Earth. 

The ambiguity lies in the question of whether the cry of the wild will be heard before it is too late.

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