What if we were to look at invasive species with fresh eyes? Traditionally we have viewed them as interlopers hellbent on environmental destruction, but have we considered the good they can do? Should our efforts to eradicate them be tempered – eliminating them when it seems absolutely necessary, but accepting them when they are doing some good; welcoming them when they have something to offer. What does their presence mean anyway? What does it say about the ecosystems they inhabit and about us? Invasive species are convenient scapegoats, taking the blame for much of the ecological devastation that we started in the first place. Is that justified?
This is, essentially, the theme of The New Wild, a book by Fred Pearce that urges us to reconsider the ways we think, talk, and act towards invasive species. More than that, it is about dumping the idea that pristine nature (a mythological concept anyway, and one that is not all that useful) is the only true wild, and that nature invaded by alien species is a lesser thing that needs to be fixed. The truth is, nature is and always has been in a constant state of flux, and it is unconcerned about the provenance of the species that compose it. As Pearce puts it, if it’s doing “a useful job,” “it matters not a jot where a species comes from.”
Invasion biology is a relatively new field of study, stemming from the publishing of Charles Elton’s book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, in 1958. For thousands of years, humans have had a hand in moving species of all kinds around the planet, but it was in the latter half of the 20th century that our awareness of the ecological damage that some of these species can do really developed. Since then we have made great efforts to remove such species and put things back the way we found them. The zeal with which we have done so hasn’t always been justified or effective, and throughout what at times has felt like an all out war against foreigners, a profound sense of animosity and suspicion towards anything non-native has taken root in our psyche.
Pearce hopes to mitigate these feelings and get us to reconsider some of our actions. To start with, he calls into question the distinction between aliens and natives: “A broad time horizon shows there is no such thing as a native species. All lodgings are temporary and all ecosystems in a constant flux, the victims of circumstance and geological accident.” Also, “many aliens are so well integrated that they are assumed to be native,” and “species come and go so much, as a result of both human and natural forces, that conventional hard distinctions about what belongs where have long been all but meaningless.”
Instead of judging a species by its provenance, “we should treat species on their merits and learn a little tolerance and respect for foreigners.” While “being alien can sometimes be problematic,” it can equally result in the renewal of “flagging ecosystems, creating new space for natives and providing ecosystem services.” Seeing that those services are in place is what should really matter, and “[ecological services] are best done by the species on hand that do it best.” After all, nature is not a system of “preordained perfection,” but instead “a workable mishmash of species, constantly reorganized by the throw of the dice.”
In his criticisms of the field of invasion biology, Pearce investigates some of the “constantly recycled ‘facts’ about alien species.” He finds many of the claims to be unfounded and oft-repeated statistics to be blatant misrepresentations of the original studies. He concludes that “some of the most widely used statistics in the canon of invasion biology do not stand up.” To support his point, he offers several examples of how alien species have added to the biodiversity in certain ecosystems and he shares stories that “show how we instinctively blame aliens for ecological problems that may have a lot more to do with our own treatment of nature.”
In so many words, Pearce’s stance is that the classic “aliens are bad, and natives are good” approach is outdated – “nature doesn’t care about conservationists’ artificial divide between urban and rural or between native and alien species,” which means that our perception of aliens should shift from being “part of the problem to part of the solution.” Abandoned farmlands, secondary forests, recolonized waste places, urban sprawl, and other novel ecosystems across the globe offer explicit examples of species from all backgrounds coming together to create functional habitats. This is the new wild.
Pearce is not advocating that we throw in the towel and let invasive species run rampant: “It would be foolish to claim that alien species never do any harm or that efforts to uproot them are always doomed to fail.” His support for the new wild is “not a call to let it rip.” Instead, “conservation in the twenty-first century requires an open-minded assessment of what might work – not a sullen retreat into blinkered orthodoxy.” So, rather than try to stop the flux of nature (an act that is decidedly “anti-nature”), let’s see where it goes, alien species and all; and when we do decide to beat back invasives and intervene “to preserve what we like,” we should be mindful that nature may be “traveling in a different direction.” As Pearce writes, “the new wild is flourishing, and it will do better if we allow it to have its head.”
Obviously this is a controversial topic, but the ideas in this book are worth exploring further. Pearce’s notes are extensive, and I intend to read through many of his resources. Stay tuned for more posts. Meanwhile, you can listen to an interview with Pearce on this episode of Talking Plants. For a more critical veiw of Pearce’s book, check out these reviews by Los Angeles Review of Books and The EEB & Flow.
Of course I haven’t read it yet. And I am not one to think that every “invasive” species is an evil thing. Not at all, though I do love “native” plants. I hope the book addresses the the rapid and unprecedented land degradation – perpetrated by humans alone – since the beginning of the industrial revolution; land that has been compromised and made susceptible to invasion; the changes in global temperatures, and the interdependent ecosystems that can never keep up with the these rapid changes; and of course the loss of species diversity that follows changes of that speed and magnitude. No, it’s not the “invasives” that are the problem. Its our pollution, endless development and egregious neglect that are the problem. How are these factored into the authors position? Guess I’ll have to read it.
While the focus of the book is invasive species, Pearce acknowledges all the ways that humans have altered the landscape. As you mentioned, invasives are often a response to already highly disturbed and/or fragmented landscapes. They become a problem because of the “damage” that has already been caused by human activity. This is one of Pearce’s main points.
Having not read this book on invasive species, I have no right too comment, and yet I will. I spent over 10 years working for the New York City Dept. of Parks Natural Resources Group and spent a lot of time looking at fields of mugwort, Microstegium grass and Ailanthus trees that had, at one time had been inhabited by “native” wild flowers, grasses and trees. It is a sad sight and very difficult to remedy. Saving the remnants native flora and fauna is still a big job that will never be finished. Of course, the biggest invasive, weedy species of all is humankind. We are no longer a few million strong, living with the landscape. We have taken over and there is no end in sight.
Thanks for your comment! I want to reiterate that neither Pearce nor I believe that invasive species are not causing harm and don’t need to be managed. In fact, I think at times the distinction between alien species and invasive species gets a bit lost in Pearce’s argument (and beyond). Alien species don’t always do harm. It is when they do that we must decide what to do about it. The tough question is – what is the best approach, and how can we be sure we are doing the right thing in the long run? Questions like this are why I am so fascinated with this subject.
“As Pearce writes, “the new wild is flourishing, and it will do better if we allow it to have its head.”” Lucky for Pearce that’s what’s going to happen anyways. Have fun watching the world burn!
I’m no scientist and I haven’t read the book but it seems nature isn’t really the argument. How do we humans keep from destroying ourselves is more on target. Regardless, I’m still going to pull up the English ivy that hasn’t yet taken over my garden.
Here is another well written review of the the book. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/is-there-need-for-the-new-wild-the-new-ecological-quarrels/
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I’m only partway through the book but the level of falsehood and outright lies suggest that I will not finish reading it. This is a book that would have benefited from the oversight of a skilled editor. Had editorial oversight happened, the book would have become a slim pamphlet. Pearce has taken an interesting idea and completely trashed it .