Monday, February 10, 2014

On nonnative species (aka "invasive" species)

I am currently trying to finish an article on nonnative species. What follows is a small blog post about some of the issues around nonnative species. However, I have been provoked to write this article/post by conversations with (and resources shared), by Kevin C, Vasile S, and Matthew R (I didn't get their permission, so I am not including last names right now).

"Human beings shorten all food chains in the web, eliminate most intermediaries and focus all biomass flows on themselves. Whenever an outside species tries to insert itself into one of these chains, to start the process of complexification again, it is ruthlessly expunged as a 'weed' (a term that includes 'animal weeds' such as rats and mice)." --Manuel Delanda, A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, p.108. Emphasis in the original.

(1) Issues surrounding nonnative species (both plants and animals), is one of the perennial questions in environmental ethics, environmental studies, resource and animal management, and a variety of other fields concerned with the environment. I will also be the first to admit that the issue is complex. However, despite the complexity, it is also an issue that is often spoken of in the most apocalyptic tones and terminology. We can get this in the more common term of invasive species.  Tim Low has argued, "As any invasion biologist will tell you it’s a threat more ominous than the greenhouse effect, indus- trial pollution or ozone depletion" (Feral Futures, p. 295. Cited in Nigel Clark's "The Demon-Seed"). And as Chew and Carroll have pointed out in their op-ed in The Scientist, "invasion biology, like epidemiology, is a discipline explicitly devoted to destroying that which it studies.  This necessarily constrains its research program and colors its communications, both internal and external, in very particular ways." In other words, the hyperbolic communication around nonnative species allows us only hyperbolic reactions. We can have a relationship to nonnative species that is only permanent war or total eradication.

(2) A lot needs to be unpacked when we talk about nonnative species being a problem. What makes a nonnative species a problem? A lot of lip service gets paid to ecological balance, but that isn't really a thing (ecology not having much to do with balance, hippies be damned). Sometimes by problems we mean problems for humans -- that certain species eat our gardens, run onto our roads, or attack our pets. These are issues, but are they really issues of nonnative species? So, when we say that an animal species is negatively impacting the ecosystem, what does that mean? Are we complaining about, for example, a decrease in species richness?  Mark Sagoff does a good job on the complexity of talking about harm when we talk about nonnative species, especially with the question begging that certain definitions of harm are used.

(3) This is why the issue of nonnative speices is often overstated. For the most part what we see is the occasional issue of nonnative species being used to justify a vaster belief in the problem of nonnative species. It is a little like pointing to the European colonization of the Americas as reasons to oppose immigration. There are certainly studies exploring the broader question species richness and nonnative species. Which isn't to say this is a settled question in the environmental science literature, but at the same time these are not cranks, there are real debates around species richness and nonnative species.

(4) Also, just as we know that immigration does not usually hurt jobs and resources, it usually helps it (again, not universally), we are just now beginning to explore the ways that nonnative species can be used for conservation techniques, something that has been routinely ignored in most studies of nonnative species. For more on this, see this debate: "The Potential Conservation Value of Non-Native Species," "Revisiting, etc", and "Toward a More Balanced View of Non-Native Species."

(5) Why do we tend to focus on the destructive aspects of certain nonnative species, rather than the overall issue around nonnative species? It is here that I find Banu Subramaniam's work particularly on point: there really is something about the language and desire around nonnative species that is rooted in a broader xenophobia.  This isn't anti-realism, but the sort of basic situated knowledge questions that an early Donna Haraway raises. There are really good reasons to look at the ways that this stuff gets framed in order to understand research programs and policies, particularly to understand which ones get attention, funding, and support. On that last point in particular, see Helmreich's "How Scientists Think; About 'Natives,' for Example."

(6) If everything of 1-5 is correct, then I think we can agree with Paul Robbins that "It is not
species, but sociobiological networks that are invasive."  That is to say that nonnative species are not only questions of ethics, but also politics and policy. You know, constructivist political ecology. Not that ethics will not be a part of those issues, but we could in the short term engage in management systems that are not principally non-lethal, and in the long term target sociobiological networks as opposed to individual species. But, of course, that is not where we are in terms of political will. There is no real desire to discover, spend money on, and implement these sorts of management systems.

One of the reasons that we do not spend time on developing non-lethal management techniques, and one of the reasons we spend a lot of time publicizing the problems of nonnative species, is that people like hunting, they like killing, and they like eating meat. While Chamayou's work is horribly anthropocentric, I think his arguments about a cynegetic power (hunting power), is right on. Likewise, if you look into MacKenzie's The Nature of Empire, you see the strong connection that hunting has to conservation. Conservation has been stapled to hunting for a long time. And what we need now is not conservation. We need ecological or ecofeminist constructivism, not more natural conservationism. One that can honor and respond to what Lori Gruen has called the wild dignity of nonnative species.