April 2020

Nonhuman Nature Finds a Way: Rewilding the Iron Curtain by Decentering the Human

We should be creating landscapes of harmony between all living species as equal parts of nature in order to promote sustainable ways of living, development, consumption, and travel.

by Dr. Marcia Allison

It was in 1970 when it was first discovered that things were not as they seemed in the Iron Curtain—a 7,767 miles long and many miles wide barrier that divided Europe between the Soviet Union and its satellite countries with Western Europe. Routine satellite pictures taken along its most northerly and remote section at the Finnish-Soviet Union divide had revealed an unprecedented sight: a dark green belt of old-growth forest—a species thought to no longer be growing in Europe (Haapala et al., 2003)—somehow newly emerging. Such an unexpected finding begged an immediate question: why was this species suddenly re-growing in this forbidden zone? And yet, the answer came to be self-explanatory. The creation of the Iron Curtain as a no-man’s land to ordinary citizens since the end of World War II (WWII), with no human interference amongst the barrier, had consequently created room for life to flourish at the infamous deathzone (Allison & Bloomfield, 2020).[1] The inadvertent actions of humans had given nonhuman nature the agency to rewrite both geological and human history on the European continent.

The old-growth forests of Näränkä in Southern Kuusamo, Northern Ostrobothnia, Finland that began the EGB project. Situated at the border with the Russian Republic of Karelia. Photograph by the author.

The agency of nonhuman nature has always been contested in Western culture. Western conceptualizations of nonhuman nature have traditionally embodied a Cartesian binary of human culture/nonhuman nature,[2] where humans exist in a different, more dominant, and ultimately more valued sphere. Historical narratives of conflict have thus traditionally focused on human geopolitics with environmental impacts as a simple casualty of war. But as Rachel Carson ([1962]2002)—the pioneer of the modern environmental movement—would argue, any human story is also a natural one. The Cold War is no different.

The tale of nonhuman nature found in the most unexpected of places is intertwined with a human history that begins 75 years ago with the defeat of Hitler’s Reich at the end of WWII, and the resulting occupation standoff between Western Allies and the Soviet Union. In an attempt at peacemaking, both sides agreed to divide control of the continent between Eastern Soviet communism with Western democratic capitalism (Gaddis, 1997). But as this division ultimately turned tense, a 45 year “cold” war emerged, displacing and killing millions of people both on the Continent and through US/USSR proxy wars. Likewise, the Cold War exasperated the already exhaustive havoc wrought on flora and fauna since the Industrial Revolution, where capitalist development destroyed and consumed nonhuman nature as a never-ending resource (Sepp, 2011; Allison, 2019; Eckert, 2019). Both the Allies and Soviets destroyed ecosystems in their technological and arms race: from the Baltic Sea resulting from the Soviet nuclear powerplant at the Estonia Pakri Penninsula (2011) to the razing of entire habits throughout the continent in the building of the border.

Across the continent, this vista of a literal wilding green ribbon appeared along the Iron Curtain This is an aerial shot of this wilding section along the former inner-German border along the two German states, Bavaria and Thuringia, near Föritz-Mupperg. Photo via Creative Commons License 3.0.

Moreover, as the war advanced, so did its most notable infrastructure, the metaphorically-entitled Iron Curtain. Physically, the Curtain incorporated two separate border walls each maintained by their respective political sides in order to create a singular conceptual barrier between communism and capitalism. Initially beginning as a light wooden fence,[3] with the brain drain of Soviet Union citizens fleeing to the West, over time the East increasingly fortified their border wall with watchdogs, land mines, spring guns, barbed wire, metal fences, walls, and guard towers. The competing ideologies of communism and capitalism thus led to their material growth on the land against its nonhuman populations.

The Education Border Trail, documenting the development of the corporeal Iron Curtain in Germany. It begins as a wooden structure and through its four generations results in a fortified concrete wall. Located in Saxony-Anhalt. Photograph by the author.

The development of the Iron Curtain was an ideological-turned-material object of a war that was distinctly cold—a war without direct conflict on a battlefield. But the creation of a comparatively remote, restricted, and undisturbed border created an accidental hotspot for nonhuman nature in this human-less barrier. Without human interference in this human sacrifice zone—a geographical area in which human lives and livelihoods were sacrificed for the war—flora and fauna from all the biogeographical regions of Europe were able to return, regrow, and rewild the continent. From the 89-mile inner-German highly rich biodiverse forest that became a refuge for disappeared bird species, to the thriving of the endangered Balkan Lynx in the Yugoslav (now North Macedonia) border, the Iron Curtain was transforming from border to biome (Chapron, 2014; Allison, 2019). Nonhuman natures may have been initially reliant on humans to create this space, but it was now their time to show their disregard for human geopolitics.

After the initial discoveries of these novel ecologies in the 1970s, the blossoming of the nonhuman within a region destroyed by—and denied to—humans citizens, resulted in conservationists being concerned with the actions of the former over the latter. Conservationists wanted to make sure these ecologies would be preserved if and when the division of Europe would end. By the mid 1980s, this appeared imminent.

The arms race between the United States and the Soviets had caused the latter’s economy to reach zero growth (Allison, 2019, p. 82). The election of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 brought a diplomatic revolution influenced by Western social democracy and encouraged reform across the Bloc (Rotter, 2003), and in 1989 the bloc began to rebel from Hungary to Poland and ultimately to East Germany. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 after travel concessions saw millions of East Germans flee to the West, and outnumbering the guards, their exodus signalled the fall of Soviet rule. As the Union fell apart, the Iron Curtain was abandoned, and on Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

The former Iron Curtain relics at Border Memorial Hötensleben showcasing the concrete wall on the right, the wire fence with barbed wire in the middle, the other concrete wall on the left, and the overshadowing border defense tower in the background.

Whilst citizens initially began to tear down their walls of oppression, conservationists lobbied to conserve these Iron Curtain ecologies amongst the Cold War ruins. Germany acted first by decreeing the preservation of Iron Curtain infrastructures for historical memory, followed by the conservation of as many natural sites and Iron Curtain infrastructures as possible in the former inner-German border (Sepp, 2011, p. 8). The beginnings of a transboundary cultural memory project devoted to the division and resulting unification of Europe was developing with a transnational biodiversity conservation initiative and its resulting sustainable development, conservation, and climate mitigation policies. Over the 1990s, other countries followed suit, as initial grassroot organizations and NGOs came together to discuss a way to collaborate on their conservation efforts. Gorbachev’s significant involvement drove interest, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) eventually stepping in.

National efforts thus turned transnational at the turn of the 21st century as all 24 former Iron Curtain countries came together to unify their individual efforts into a pan European biodiversity conservation project. Hence, in September 2003 at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Johannesburg, South Africa, a round table with representatives from different Iron Curtain countries officially inaugurated this transnational conservation under the title of the “European Green Belt” (EGB), with the by-line “Borders Separate. Nature Unites!” The Curtain had officially turned from a divisive border into an ecology network of unity. 

The EGB route through 24 countries (as of 2018), following the former Iron Curtain border. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The history of the Iron Curtain and its transformation into the EGB is a unique tale of transboundary cooperation, biodiversity conservation, and public memory. In particular, the EGB offers a new version of Western human–nonhuman nature relations where the nonhuman is of equal footing to the human. This shift in relations has never been more urgent than today in the era of the Anthropocene—the name for our new geological epoch where human impact upon the Earth System is so destructive as to be akin to geological force of nature (Crutzen, 2000; Zalasiewicz, Williams, Haywood, & Ellis, 2011).

Beginning with the Great Acceleration of the 1950s—the simultaneous increase of human activities across the globe from the production of carbon dioxide to the consumption of fertilizer, the Anthropocene has reframed the urgency for action against anthropogenic climate change. For instance, only nine years after the infamous first use of the term Anthropocene by atmospheric Paul Crutzen in 2000, twenty-eight international scientists named “nine planetary boundaries” that cannot be crossed without the extinction of our current way of life (Rockström, Steffen, Noone, et al., 2009).

One such planetary boundary is biodiversity. Biodiversity conservation acts as a climate change strategy in part through the “insurance hypothesis”: that high levels of genetic variability among species increases the likelihood that at least part of the population will adapt if one species is lost (Küchler-Krischun & Maria Walter, 2007, p. 11). Moreover, in order to engage in effective combat against climate change, transboundary environmental governance over these boundaries is needed (Heritier, 2002; Hocking, 2006). Thus, the Great Acceleration and the Anthropocene as two stretches in time have come to symbolize how a human disregard for the nonhuman has enabled an era of uncertainty and risk for all.

This overgrown watchtower, once a tool of surveillance and death, now forms part of the wilding along the European Green Belt that brings life. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The development of the Anthropocene typically frames human actions front and center against a nonhuman nature conceptualized as the passive environment (Plumwood, 1993). However, the EGB offers a new account of history that demonstrates the agency of nonhuman nature when the human is decentered from the narrative. Whilst decentering the human does not negate the human, rather, it allows nonhuman nature to become part of the discourse. Geological and human histories thus become part of the same conceptual sphere in the Anthropocene.

Such an argument was foreshadowed by the green movements of the Green Revolution of the 1970s (Robin and Steffen, 2007, p. 1695) that developed in response to the Great Acceleration. Once again, Carson set the seeds of a green revolution that acknowledged human hubris and financial self-interest as the crux of environmental problems. This includes the technical and industrial revolutions of the late 20th century that are often lauded by governments, Silicon Valley giants, and neoliberal capitalist society in general as the solution to climate change, rather than rethinking the lifestyles and demands on nonhuman nature that drove us here in the first place.

A decentered approach resembles that of the Deep Ecologists that argues for a return to a more provincial way of living with the land that is ethically and ecologically sustainable (Næss, Drengson, & Devall, 2010). The EGB demonstrates an approach where foregrounding nonhuman nature becomes key in our new geological epoch. An agentic nonhuman nature promotes more ecological and materially sustainable modes of production and consumption (Plumwood, 1993). Moreover, such equality ultimately creates a discourse that gives power to local cultures and pre-modern societies that live locally on the land who are deemed more ethically responsible.[4] Thus, in replicating and engaging in such human–nonhuman nature relations, we move away from the subject-object proposition of power relations and become equal agentic living subjects in the overarching framework of “nature.”

A replica/remnant of the Berlin Wall at the Berlin Wall Memorial, which documents the two concrete border walls, the border tower defense, barbed wire, spotlights, and room for dog patrols. Photograph by the author.

The agency of nonhuman nature is key in these times of environmental trouble. The Iron Curtain was an exemplar of the wastefulness, foolishness, and arrogance of the Anthropocene that centered the human. With its transformation into the EGB, its border structures of division became a transformative presence as a unifying, material act of reparations for both human and geological histories. Left to its own devices, nonhuman nature flourished and rewilded the continent, and even brought species back from the brink of regional extinction. The EGB thus not only offers a counter narrative of human–nonhuman nature relations in the Anthropocene, but encourages humans to consider themselves responsible for, and part of, the holistic Earth System.

And yet, truly decentering the human in the Anthropocene is tricky. As a specifically anthropogenically-caused epoch, it is humans who need to make reparations: an action itself foregrounding the human. Often this results in a narrative of stewardship, in which human actions are foregrounded as the saviors of a non-agentic nonhuman nature. William Cronon (1996) argued that this posed a serious threat to responsible environmentalism where we are encouraged to preserve peopleless landscapes that have not existed in such places for millennia (p. 18). Rather, we should be creating landscapes of harmony between all living species as equal parts of nature in order to promote sustainable ways of living, development, consumption, and travel. Giving nonhumans a dynamic agency creates a new set of power relations that offer nonhuman nature and humans equal resonance—that depict the human’s ecological embeddedness (Plumwood, 1993, p. 3) and promote a greener forms of human culture. Ultimately, this decentering of human narratives coincidently offers a useful narrative for societal narratives. In this era of climate devastation—a looming sixth extinction of species—the EGB has created a new narrative tactic to push back against the increasing neoliberal nationalist populism that often denies the extent of the climate emergency. By decentering the human, we instead center equality, peace, and hope.

Dr. Marcia Allison is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Earth Sciences Communication Initiative (ESCI), where she received her Ph.D. at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2019. As an award-winning author and 2017 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar, Marcia blends academic research on the communicative labor of social change with public outreach and strategic communications. Her work at ESCI focuses on environmental and science communication, where she is curating an open-access climate change and public controversies archive in conjunction with the Los Angeles Times, to be launched in August 2020. She is also a member and communications strategist with Extinction Rebellion’s Worthing, UK chapter. You can find more about her here.

Further Reading

Allison, M. & Bloomfield, E. F. (In Press). Rhetorical Imaginings and Multimodal Arguments at the European Green Belt: Juxtaposing Nonhuman Nature and Technology in our Collective Memory of the Cold War. Journal of Argumentation in Context, 8(3), pp. 355–383. https://doi.org/10.1075/jaic.18005.all.

Allison, M. (2019). An anthropocene rhetoric of ecological networking: The biomic politics of nonhuman nature, culture, and politics at the European Green belt. [Docotral dissertation, University of Southern California]. Proquest.

Carson, R. ([1962]2002). Silent spring (40th anniversary ed., 1st Mariner Books ed). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Crutzen, P. & Stoermer, E. (2000). The “Anthropocene”. IGBP Global Change Newsletter, 17-18.

Chapron, G., Kaczensky, P., Linnell, J. D. C., von Arx, M., Huber, D., Andrén, H., López-Bao, J. V., Adamec, M., Álvares, F., Anders, O., Balčiauskas, L., Balys, V., Bedő, P., Bego, F., Blanco, J. C., Breitenmoser, U., Brøseth, H., Bufka, L., Bunikyte, R., … Boitani, L. (2014). Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes. Science, 346(6216), 1517–1519. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1257553.

Eckert, A. M. (2019). West Germany and the iron curtain: Environment, economy, and culture in the borderlands. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Haapala, H., Riitta, H., Keinonen, E., Lindholm, T. and Telknranta, H. (2003). Finnish-Russian nature conservation cooperation. Finnish Ministry of the Environment and FinnishEnvironment Institute.

Heritier, A. (2002) (Eds.). Common Goods: Reinventing European and International Governance. Rowman & Littlefield.

Hocking, B. (2006). Multistakeholder Diplomacy: Forms, Functions, and Frustrations”, in Jovan Kurbalija and Valentin Katrandjiev (eds.), Multistakeholder Diplomacy: Challenges and Opportunities. Malta and Geneva: DiploFoundation.

Gaddis, J. L. (1998). We now know: Rethinking Cold War history. Clarendon Press.

Geidezes, L. & Kreutz, M. (2004). Green Belt Europe – Nature knows no boundaries. From Iron Curtain to Europe’s lifeline Urbani izziv, 15(2), 135-138. doi:10.5379/urbani-izziv-en-2004-15-02-007.

Küchler-Krischun, J. & Maria Walter, A. (Eds.). National Strategy on Biological Diversity. Niestetal, Germany: Silber Druck oHG. Retrieved from https://www.bfn.de/fileadmin/BfN/landschaftsundbiotopschutz/Dokumente/NBS_english.pdf.

Næss, A., Drengson, A. R., & Devall, B. (2010). Ecology of wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess. Counterpoint : Distributed by Publishers Group West.

Plumwood, V. (2003). Feminism and the mastery of nature. Routledge.

Robin, L., & Steffen, W. (2007). History for the Anthropocene. History Compass, 5(5), 1694–1719. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1478-0542.2007.00459.x.

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å, Chapin, F.S., Lambin, E.F., et al. (2009). A Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Nature 461, 472–475.

Rotter, A. J. (2003). Cold War. Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cold-war-3.

Sepp, K. (Ed.). (2011). The Estonian Green Belt. Tallinn, Estonia: The Estonian University of Life Sciences.

Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Haywood, A., & Ellis, M. (2011). The Anthropocene: A new epoch of geological time? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 369(1938), 835–841. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2010.0339.

[1] During the division of Europe, the physical border underwent a variety of nicknames to describe the metaphorical Iron Curtain. The two most commonly used—the death strip and deathzone—both referred to the loss of human life escaping East to West both at the literal border as well as those killed by the Eastern regimes.  

[2] The Cartesian binary (or divide) of nonhuman/culture refers to a Western philosophical divide of human culture as seperate and apart from nonhuman nature – a viewpoint that modern science and philosophers alike deny as humans and their culture are necessarily apart of the natural world order. This division stems from philosopher René Descartes’ (1596 – 1650) theory of a divide in humans between their mind and bodies, which has now also been refuted. 

[3] Whilst certain regions, such as the sparse areas of the Nordic countries, used natural features as a preventative barrier, more populated regions such as central Europe and the Balkans engaged in increasing border fortifications escaping to the West.

[4] One example is Europe’s only indigenous peoples – the nomadic Sámi in the Arctic Circle – who traditionally defy nation-state borders in order to work with, rather than against, nonhuman nature’s seasons. For the Sámi, nonhuman nature has already had an agency to which humans must shape their lives around.

1 comment on “Nonhuman Nature Finds a Way: Rewilding the Iron Curtain by Decentering the Human

  1. Hilary Corr

    This article is very on point at this time I feel, and helps set an agenda to work with nature, rather against it. Surely this must be the way forward for the future.


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