Our “Environment” — Part 1, Invasive Species

Green VisionThis will be the first in a series that will outline my thinking about the modern environmental movement, which is one I have come to view with deep suspicion and as yet another symptom of humankind’s unfortunate short-sightedness. To head off any salvos at Strawman Pass, let me say that at the root of it all, I believe that we have to conduct ourselves on this planet as we see fit. We need ethics and a belief framework, otherwise the psychological noise of daily life is too much to bear.

But the current “green” marketing efforts currently underway divorce us from any real solutions. We look to technology, to innovation, to something new and shiny that will deliver us from our evils, all in an effort to maintain the levels of comfort and control over our lives we’ve come to expect. It is, in fact, those expectations (most fewer than 100 years old!) that cause the very degradation around us that we all decry as evil. We’re all a part of it by virtue of being alive. No, your Prius isn’t helping jack squat. To this end, I can’t recommend enough the bittersweet, soul-crushing beauty of Dark Mountain‘s Manifesto.

I’ll let the American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, science historian, and writer Stephen Jay Gould sum up my feelings on this, because he did so brilliantly:

[N]ature is so massively indifferent to us and our suffering. Perhaps this indifference, this majesty of years in uncaring billions (before we made a belated appearance), marks her true glory…she exists neither for nor because of us, and possesses a staying power that all our nuclear arsenals cannot threaten…We should be so powerful! Nothing within our power can come close to conditions and catastrophes that the earth has often passed through and beyond…We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria…I doubt that we can wreak much permanent havoc upon insects…[b]ut we can surely eliminate our fragile selves—and our well-buffered earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness…[H]uman brainpower, for reasons quite unrelated to its evolutionary origin, has the damnedest capacity to discover the most fascinating things, and think the most peculiar thoughts. So why not keep this interesting experiment around, at least for another planetary second or two?


Now HERE'S an invasive species.

Now HERE’S an invasive species.

We’ve all seen the headlines about invasive species: Monster Goldfish Found in Lake Tahoe, Lionfish: Invasive Species Devastating Reefs, Invasion of the Giant Pythons. We love to talk about this and make regulations around it, such as forcing people to clean their boats and seaplanes in order to prevent introducing invasive species elsewhere.

Oh, and don’t forget the acetaminophen-laced mice to be dropped on Guam to kill their brown tree snake problem. Hmm…how did those brown tree snakes get there anyway? The best guess is cargo from US ships or planes, since the US tramples all over the island for military purposes. But they’re not suggesting that we cool our imperialism, they’d rather drop dead mice out of helicopters in order to hypothetically prevent the snakes from somehow invading Hawaii. Why are we more concerned about Hawaii? “The National Wildlife Research Center estimates that a Hawaiian brown tree snake infestation would inflict $593 million to $2.14 billion in economic damages each year, including widespread power outages and a significant decrease in tourism.” Oh, I see. But wait, won’t the acetaminophen be harmful to bird populations? “Scientists claim that most of the birds have already been wiped out by the snakes anyway.” Carry on then!

As depressing as this scenario is, unfortunately “invasive” species don’t exist. It’s a human construct. If we’re going to go there, then every mention of a human shall henceforth be termed “invasive”, since we refused to be boxed into Africa and emerged some 125,000 or so years ago. Seriously: “Teresa Sanderson, an invasive Homo sapiens sapiens, of Terre Haute found an intruder in her kitchen at 3am last night.”

Okay, okay. That’s silly. But at the very least, the term “invasive species” should be limited to mean a species that has been introduced due to human intervention, and the moral projection associated with it should be left out. Why? Because you cannot call yourself a serious student of evolution if you consider invasive species a “threat” to anything.

So a species was artificially moved to a different location and it thrives. Yay. This does not account for all the species that were also moved but did not take hold because they didn’t find the new location favorable. But that doesn’t make for a sensational headline, does it?: “Four Formerly Invasive Species No Longer Considered Invasive After They Fail to Thrive in New Environment.” That’s more of an Onion headline.

Let’s say that a species does set up house somewhere and it wipes out the majority of life there. If given enough time—time that we humans are terrible at calculating and anticipating—some interesting things might happen. Perhaps another species will discover a taste for the new resident. Because it’s an abundant food source, it could lead to the success of that new-found predator. Or perhaps, given a lot of time, segments of the initial population move elsewhere or become isolated, leading to whole new species that bloom into a new era of life diversity. Don’t believe me? Check out the Permian event.

How else can you deprogram yourself from the farce that is “invasive species”?

  1. GlobeStop seeing the earth as distinct regions and territories. The earth is one big bioregion. It does not acknowledge our arbitrary lines, fences, and understandings. This is the very thinking that gets us into trouble, because we can’t possibly fathom how a little bit of pollution could be so bad. We don’t understand the downstream effects. We think if we can pollute just certain parts of the world, the others will remain pristine. We know this isn’t true, but it’s difficult to prove in any tangible way. It may have once been true when the world population stood at 250,000 and we were still so intimately connected to our surroundings that we would have to move if we sullied or abused any one location beyond carrying capacity. But today, we get huge, swirling masses of floating plastic in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific. In terms of invasive species, did you know that dust carries microbes over from China all the time? This must be stopped! *facepalm* Folks, birds and butterflies and caribou migrate. They carry things with them from place to place on their fur, in their poop, in their bodies. There has never been a perfect, unchanging ecosystem. Ever. Just try to stop ocean currents, the jet stream, and meteorite strikes. Humans are merely another vehicle, albeit a particularly malignant and reckless one, for this constant change.
  2. Think in geologic time. Before Earth had seven continents (another arbitrary designation), it had one—Pangaea. It was all the same thing, and truly still is. While populations have evolved in that time to be distinct species, there is no reason it can’t all intermingle and compete for resources again. Extinctions happened before humans and they will happen again with and without humans. A lifetime of 80 years on this planet isn’t even half a blink of an eye in geologic time and is a poor perspective from which to judge what the earth needs. Time is for humans, not nature. The small spot of earth we all inhabit right now, no matter how much you love it and the way it looks right now, has not always been this way and it will not always be this way. The area where I grew up was once under a vast sea millions of years ago.
  3. Stop seeing some species as “good” and others as “bad”. This one always gives me a chuckle. We’ve heard a lot lately about bird numbers being decimated by domestic cats. We’ve conveniently forgotten that cats have been used for centuries to help control mouse and rat populations on farms, on ships, and in cities. So they’re “good” when they’re useful to us, but “bad” when we decide they aren’t being sensitive enough to the needs of birds we like? That is some funny monkey thinking right there. Besides, have we forgotten our Darwin 101? The birds that outwit the cats will go on to have smarter offspring. If cats wish to continue catching birds, they’ll have to step up their game too. Or they may decide it’s too much effort and start leaving birds alone to go for mice instead. Which will lead to an uptick in bird populations and we’ll all complain that there’s too much bird poop on everything and the birds must be stopped! *facepalm* Besides, nature doesn’t care which ones you find palatable and which ones you don’t.
  4. Dear baby elephant, sorry we're so stupid.

    Dear baby elephant, sorry we’re so stupid.

    Understand that while some species will disappear, and that is very sad, other species do just fine in our presence. Using our bird example above, let’s say that all the black-capped vireos and marbled murrelets vanish. Oh no! No more birds! Wrong. Many species actually benefit from the presence of humans and others are figuring out ways to adapt to their changing surroundings. Just in my backyard, I can tell you the jay populations are doing just dandy. Crows do pretty darn good for themselves. Mallards love our parks and golf courses. Peregrine falcons have adapted to nest on skyscrapers (in lieu of the usual cliff faces) and feast on pigeons, who also appear to enjoy the company of humans. Even if we lose all the more “exotic” species of birds, the future world will be populated with these and more, and from that narrowing could come an explosion of diversity again as populations migrate and diversify. It has happened before and it will happen again. This future landscape will also potentially be populated with the descendants of raccoons, deer, squirrels, and rats. Don’t get me wrong, I think the disappearance of the Siberian tiger and the rhino is depressing and I intensely despise humankind’s role in all of it, but life will continue on even if we don’t see it as favorable or desirable.

In general, as long as we put up artificial definitions and preferences, it cannot be said that we truly and deeply appreciate life in all its messy, chaotic glory. Trust the trajectory. It is not for us to lord over it and control it. Be amazed, be amused, be utterly in awe of it all. But the short-sighted urge to “protect” and “save” privileges the species we find desirable and damns the ones we don’t. The inevitable conclusion to the Savior of the Animal Kingdom route is that we will put all the rhinos and elephants in a zoo when what is really required is habitat conservancy, which would require a massive reduction in human population to stop impinging on those places in the first place. So what’s your brilliant solution to that one?

And here is where I remind my dear readers that we must all conduct ourselves in such a way so we can all sleep soundly at night. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that because you recycle you are somehow virtuous and correct. Once that obstacle is in your mind, you cannot grasp the bigger picture and you will do more harm than good in the name of self-righteousness.

We, humans, are the only invasive species. Your Priuses pollute waterways full of fish, all the paper and wood in our lives came from trees that housed birds, and when our houses were built they destroyed animal habitats. Accept it. Unless you are able to unplug and live in a handmade mud hut off the grid (and even then…), it’s time to accept that we are part of this great cycle of creation and destruction that was set in motion eons ago before our species even existed. Be a good student of evolution and trust it in all its mystery.


21 Responses to “Our “Environment” — Part 1, Invasive Species”

  1. Bravo! Outstanding commentary (and SO TRUE!)…Good job.

  2. fani limberopoulos Reply 03/01/2013 at 5:17 pm

    Huh. This rock is going to continue to go around our sun…until it doesn’t. No carbon credits or taxes are going to make two craps worth of difference… The truth is a brave thing to brandish. Thanks for speaking the truth!

  3. Very compelling. Now on to the question of whether I should put the milk bottle top in recycling or trash.

  4. Your arrogance about a topic you clearly know nothing about just makes me shake my head when I read this. I currently conduct scientific research into invasive species and reading this post really outlines how little people know about the subject despite pretending they actually do know something. Firstly, the world is not one big biological medium it has plenty of natural barriers. Visual fish can’t cross into the deep sea where temperatures drop to -2 degrees, and there is no light. Mountains, currents, thermoclines, etc etc. Species are pretty much locked into their bioregions and when species do ‘invade’ due to natural causes it is not as sudden and dramatic as it is now. I can’t even think of the words to describe the rate at which invasions are occurring in the last 50-100 yrs and it is increasing exponentially.

    Your argument about competiton is flawed, as current research on invasive species indicates that the majority are invading, not because of some competitive advantage, but because that habitat has now dramatically altered. Species invading ecosystems is a sign that that ecosystem is highly disturbed, almost always through human impacts. To do this to an ecosystem, and then have your approach – oh fuck it let the strongest species survive – is extremely careless. It is not competition that is wiping them out it is changes, such as pollution, brought on by human activities, which you seem to be willing to excuse.

    In the ecosystems I have worked in invasive species have completely decimated native species there. If you believe in a paleo approach you would realise that hunter gatherers had systems in place to prevent local species from becoming threatened or wiping them out. What is happening is completely unnatural as many ecosystem don’t just have one but multiple invaders combined with a severely degraded habitat, something probably very different than what ecosystems have undergone in the past on such a rapid scale.

    Lastly, and down to some really rudimentary basics on evolution and ecology here…the more diverse an ecosystem the more robust it is to collapsing. Invasive species reduce this diversity, and thus are making our ecosystems more vulnerable. Yet another reason they are dangerous.

    Personally I believe that we need to protect species that we have been the cause of their demise. Clearly, you do not share this belief. But I would be very careful championing the idea of natural selection as an ideal rule for everything. Firstly, and as I stated earlier, many factors effect evolution and biodiversity changes, and competition by natural selection is one of those (an important one, but only one). If you read Gould I am very surprised you don’t know this since he was constantly trying to show natural selection isn’t the only factor in evolution. He had debates with Richard Dawkins on this. But if you are going to champion natural selection in all aspects of life then we should just let the sick die as they have proven they are no longer ‘fit’ to survive. We shouldn’t aid the poor anywhere, or help anyone or anything in need. It’s survival of the fittest right, yeah you might lose someone you care about, but it will eventually work itself out.

    • I believe I stated that humans are reckless and ridiculous, but to believe that we are apart from Nature is a grave mistake. We are still subject to the same forces that brought us here, we play them out everyday. The fact that you said, “What is happening is clearly unnatural” leads me to think you don’t agree with me that humans and our activities are merely other means for species to take advantage and find new niches.

      I appreciate your perspective and respect your knowledge on this topic. My concern would be that in studying something, a narrowing happens, and we lose the bigger picture. I’d be interested to know what you really think is possible in the face of 7 billion (and counting…) on this planet and a world where it is nearly impossible to experience a square mile on this planet that hasn’t been seen or altered by humans. It’s game over, folks.

      Your whole last paragraph is in contention for the Mayor of Strawmanville. Nowhere did I say that. I said we must conduct ourselves ethically and as we see fit in this world. For some that will be helping the poor or futilely trying to stave off invasive species. Good on you. And then we all die, geological time doesn’t even blink, Nature goes on not caring about our opinions, and in a few billion years, the sun will swallow the earth. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t do what we feel is necessary, more that we should understand the folly of it all.

      • A highly intelligent and poised response, Karen. Good job. Oh, the unbearable smugness of the environmental elitists!

      • I’m not going to dicuss this further as I feel that you just want to rock the boat. But anyone reading your post, at least, can see where your flawed logic is now.

      • Actually, I’m interested in dialogue. But for that to happen, one has to step outside their comfort zone and their neurobiology that convinces them they are right.

      • One would also need to have a basic understanding of the subject, which you don’t, so I won’t waste my time.

      • Actually, I will expand on what I just said. I would be happy to discuss this with you if you were interested in learning. I am not trying to be arrogant here but when make arguments that ‘the earth is one big bioregion’, and that invasive species arn’t dangerous because other species (technically not invasive) get introduced but don’t establish, this really shows that you have not read anything on the subject. You seem to have a very basic understanding of biology in regards to evolution and ecology, and when you couple that with you telling other people that they surly don’t know anything about evolution if they don’t agree with you…I just can’t be bothered. You clearly have no desire to learn about a subject you don’t understand, and I know if we have dialogue you won’t have an open mind and you will simply try to have a contrary point of view.

        I hate to break it to you but your argument about accepting invasive species as a part of nature has already been proposed by scientists in the field. There are publications on this. So it’s nothing new. What is different is they come up with arguments based on solid ecological information and so conversations can be had. But none of these scientists would agree with your arguments as they are inherently flawed. I am not arguing your position per se I am arguing the logic you used to back this up. Again, you havn’t bothered to do the research so why should I waste my time discussing it with you when I am going to have to spend most of my time explaining to you how evolution actually works and how ecosystems actually function.

        Now when you say I diagree with you about invasive species finding a natural niche within human impacted ecosystems, I don’t. But you are merely arguing semantics. My argument is that what species face now is something they would never have encountered before humans became what we are today. I term this as unnatural, I get your point that it’s still a part of nature in that we are all a part of nature, but it does nothing to change the fact that species are becoming extinct because they are under pressure due to changes they would never have experienced in the past through all it’s evolution. I think it is our responsibility to help rectify that situation and in many cases we can…but we choose not too. You are basically saying that we should just let nature take it’s course and accept it. Well then fine but don’t go to a hospital if you get sick since thats nature taking its course. You are basically making the same arguments as fundamentalist christians that argue we shouldn’t change stuff because it’s Gods way.

        You may say that by studying something you become narrow minded. Well to me someone who makes bold statements about a subject based off false information, that just a little reading would have cured, is narrow-minded. I’m not opposed to people who challenge current paradigms and in many cases I am doing that right now with my current research. But the difference is I have a broad knowledge on the subject, and I use actual field research and evidence to back up my argument.

      • While I am ranting. The the thing that irks me the most is you seem like a nice smart person, which I am probably not sounding like right now. But it irks me to see someone who, despite your lack of knowledge in the area, at least thought about the subject and came to some conclusions. But what I would have hoped is you actually read about those conclusions to just make sure if they were based off solid information. I’m not saying you have to agree with everything authorities say, but if you think of something at least back it up with some evidence to prove your point. And especially don’t tell people they don’t know about that subject!!I mean evolution is so incredibly complex it’s not as simple as natural selection. Gould wrote so many books about this and it was his major theme to all this books.. and you quoted him!!!!!!!

        I am sorry if I got a bit offensive though. If I could change the tone of my posts I would. I will delete the last half of my post now since I can change that.

      • Thank you for that, but editing isn’t necessary. As a writer, I’m quite comfortable with process. And your returning clued me into something else underlying your comments. This post may have irritated you, but it’s also interested you somehow.

        I am, of course, not an invasive species researcher. I make no claims as such. I’m a writer who is interested in the intersection between humans and the world. I study the blind spots we all have to understanding. I’ve been a student of Eastern philosophies (Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism) for 15 years, and everything in my life is underscored with that. In the last two years, I had a major life shift in discovering a diet that saved me from the ills currently plaguing untold millions, and that turned my interest toward figuring out what is biologically appropriate for humans. That interest sparked a curiosity in the ways our lives are framed everyday by evolutionary mismatch of humans and our current environment. I have recently turned my interest to the environmental movement because it emerges from current social, political, and philosophical that are at the root of the very problem.

        We currently have a very loud culture with bizarre notions that make zero sense in terms of evolution and human history. Culture, this beautiful thing that once contributed to our startling success as a species, has now turned toxic. We believe advertising over our own grandmothers.

        When you follow the thread of any concern you can study in this world, if you keep going, keep pushing, you eventually arrive at the fact that the problem is because we exist and there are too many of us. There is no solution to this short of calamity. There is no place in the world pristine and untouched. You cannot go where a plane, satellite, or drone can’t find you. Nature is something that exists for us only in “reserves” or “conservancies.” And those will fall to the highest bidder when it becomes necessary.

        But there were mass extinctions before a human ever laid eyes on this world. This is important, and Gould makes this point as well. So just because we’re the agent of this one doesn’t change the thusness of it. I wish humans were capable of making a large conscientious consensus to do what is “right,” but I will not hold my breath.

        Answer me this: Do you drive a car? Do you eat CAFO meat or monocrops like wheat, soy, or corn? Do you wear clothing from major retailers made in China? Do you use plastics? Do you live in a home plugged into the grid? Then we cannot call ourselves environmentalists.

        I come to this from a heart-broken philosophical point of view. I understand that we won’t see eye to eye on this, and that’s okay. I wish you well in your work. Maybe you will do some good out there. I hope for our sakes that you do. But I am too well versed in the Law of Unintended Consequences and I know too much about human blindspots to believe that we know better, that we can fix it, that if only we could wake up it would all be better. We are merely doing what humans do.

      • No I doubt we will see eye to eye. I feel you have slightly gone astray from your post. I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you said in this last comment. I guess we can agree that humans have screwed things up. Maybe your sadness over this has made you try to have some cognitive dissonance on the matter and knowing that nature will carry on regardless makes you feel better. I think that inherently this is where our opinions differ as I still believe we need to try to change things even if it is an uphill battle. I believe that it is our responsibility to clean up our mess. That is why I reacted to your post because its as if you just have given up and are promoting that mindset and I find that sad and dangerous. But this is an opinion and I can’t make you believe it if you choose not to. My only other issue was that you were giving your view credence by basing your arguments off a limited understanding of ecology/evolution.

  5. Great article. Those goldfish are, unfortunately, invading the bellies of my niece and nephew far too often.

    When I write about riding my bike to work year round, including through our frigid, snowy winters here in the Rockies, I usually end with: You’re welcome. It’s my quirky way of saying: I ain’t doing this for the planet, the planet is going to be just fine long after we’re gone … I’m doing it so that perhaps we humans can spend a tad bit longer enjoying our blip on the radar.

  6. Actually, as a researcher into invasive species, I decided to write a response to your post here. It is in the later half of the blog post but hopefully for anyone reading this (if it gets accepted past moderation) these statements are flawed. Here is the link:



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