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The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation

[BY KRAG UNSOELD]

We are all familiar with invasive species. We know that they move in and force natives out fundamentally transforming pristine landscapes. We know that they can inundate lakes, choke outfall pipes and cause other forms of irreparable damage. I know that I myself have spent many, many hours uprooting and disposing of Scotch broom and feeling happy that I am doing the right thing.

In his new book, The New Wild, author Fred Pearce seriously calls into questions some of our most fundamental assumptions about native species.

The book is divided into three sections. The first looks at the reality behind some of the invasions of alien species that have made headlines. “In case after case,” the author writes, “I found that the supposedly malign invaders were simply taking advantage of ecosystems that had already been wrecked by humans. They were opportunists but also nature’s regenerators.”

The second section examines our misunderstanding of how aliens affect nature and how misguided we sometimes are in the way we do conservation. “Our efforts at ecological cleaning are rarely successful. They fail because conservationists have indulged ill-founded myths about aliens, pristine ecosystems and how nature works,” the author observes.


The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation
  • Fred Pearce; 2016
  • Beacon Press; Reprint edition

The final section examines how we can embrace the aliens and recognize them for what they are. So-called invasive species are actually the most recent expression of the dynamism that is what nature is all about.

The author, Fred Pearce, is based in London. He is fully qualified to address the subject he addresses in his book. He has been an environmental consultant at New Scientist since 1992. He has won many awards, including 2001 UK Environment Journalist of the Year, 2002 CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) agricultural research journalist of the year and the 2011 Association of British Science Writers lifetime achievement award.

Pearce describes the conflict between two ways of understanding the laws of nature. One view regards ecosystems as being in balance. Every species plays a particular key role and any intruder is going to upset this balance. This view is based on the work of George Perkins Marsh, the United States’ first conservationist, who wrote Man and Nature in 1864, and Frederic Clements, a Nebraska botanist.

Marsh wrote that nature in its natural state would exist in relative permanence as long as it did not get disturbed. Humankind was labeled as the “disturber of natural harmonies.”

Clements argued that there is a series of successive vegetative stages leading up to what he termed climax vegetation. According to Clements, there is a unique climax stage for each climate type. Climax will be reached unless there is an exogenous factor that sets the progression back.

Pearce writes, “If nature is, and should be, in balance, then there is no place for alien species. The carpetbaggers from different ecosystems should be sent home.” And this is, in fact, what many environmental and conservation efforts are devoted to accomplishing. This includes invasive species eradication and native plant restoration efforts. We are committing significant resources and money to either fighting to preserve what we think is nature in its pristine state, or to recover that state after it has been disrupted through human actions.

On the other side on this issue are the people who think that nature is nothing but dynamic. As Henry Gleason, a botanist who was a contemporary of Clements, wrote, “Every species of plant is a law unto itself, the distribution of which in space depends on its individual peculiarities of migration and environmental requirements.” In other words, ecosystems were open – all species were welcome.

Pearce builds upon Gleason and the work of other scientists to demonstrate that nature is not balanced. In fact, if anything, nature is constantly in flux. “(I)f there is no balance, no natural order … then aliens may have a place in the scheme of things. They are not, of themselves, bad things… They may…be worthy victors in the survival of the fittest.”

The fact of the matter is, we live in the Anthropocene, a time in which no part of the earth is untouched by humans. Humans are the primary shapers of the earth. Pearce states, “(W)hile one lesson of the Anthropocene is that nothing is pristine, another is that nature is resilient and resourceful.”

Pearce presents numerous examples of how nature can recover, but in so doing it often creates new, or novel, ecosystems. These systems generally have a mixture of plants that used to be there and others that have migrated in. Sometimes, what would have been considered a nonnative species becomes the primary habitat for other natives. For example, when agriculture was largely abandoned in Puerto Rico, the trees to reforest the barren, packed, and infertile soil left were not native trees. They were ones that had been brought to the island for forestry, agriculture, or ornamental garden plants. These included mangoes, grapefruits, avocados, rose apple and the African tulip tree.

These invader trees were essential for nature to reestablish a forest. They provided homes for birds that could help distribute seeds, both native and nonnative. They repaired the soil and restored biodiversity. The African tulip tree is now the most common species in Puerto Rico. It is also the new, adopted home of the coqui frog, the national frog for Puerto Rico.

The same restorative process of so-called invasive species is being played out in the United Kingdom. Here is where the industrial revolution started. This is also where many industrial sites were abandoned as manufacturing was moved elsewhere. These sites are generally viewed by planners and environmentalists as industrial wastelands that need to be mitigated and then developed into something else. But the new wild has other ideas.

In desolate, abandoned industrial sites a plethora of rare species of birds, reptiles, insects and mammals have found themselves homes. Some of these are indigenous and others have come from elsewhere. It is a phenomenon that both scientists and environmentalists tend to dismiss or not even recognize since it is so backwards to what we are taught and believe. And yet it is going on all around us.

One notable example that is offered in The New Wild is the Chernobyl nuclear accident site Ukraine. This is an area the size of Luxembourg that was cleared after the disaster and no people inhabit it. But plants and animals are doing very well. Wildlife is more diverse than before the accident. It doesn’t matter that scientists have found animal species to contain radioactivity at levels never recorded before, they go about their lives just fine. They love the abandoned buildings and structures within which to make their homes and perches.

Beginning in 1963 and lasting into 1964, a new volcanic island was created 20 miles south of Iceland. It was named Surtsey, a mythical Norse fire-eating giant, and set aside by scientists to restrict access and observe how nature populated it. The species that arrived were not exclusively native to Iceland or surrounding islands. And moss and lichen were not the first to arrive. Flowering plants and grasses were the first to arrive.

Pearce describes the Surtsey experience this way:

 

“This was an ecosystem created largely by accident. ‘One thing led to another and we now have a fully functioning ecosystem on Surtsey,’ says Borgthor Magnusson of the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, a regular visitor. The plants support insects that attract birds that bring more plants. There is no complex evolutionary adaptation to the surroundings or even a replication of ecosystems on neigh boring islands. What came, came. Alien or native? Who knows or cares? This was nature doing its thing – ecological fitting in action.”

 

The New Wild closes with a challenge to all environmentalists and scientists on the planet today. Pearce makes a compelling case that we need to completely reframe the way that we are approaching nature. He quotes Christoph Kueffer of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich as saying that novel ecosystems “represent the wild lands of the future, the self-organized response of nature to anthropogenic impacts… There is no point in debating what is natural and what is novel. It is all novel.” The traditional idea that biodiversity was “conserved most effectively by protecting nature from human influence does not work any longer. Humans and their impacts are omnipresent; a new paradigm is needed for guiding conservation actions.”

Nature has seen major ecosystem shifts before. Research shows that after ice sheets retreated from New England, trees came back but they were different from what had been there before. This is an indication of how novelty is the norm in nature. There is no preordained climax stage that an ecosystem is evolving toward. Individual species move into an area and they become the biological building blocks of the new wild.

The new wild that replaces the ecosystems that we know now will exhibit nature’s inherent transience, dynamism and contingency, rather than the stability, permanence and predictability that we have come to believe in as natural. There will be remnants of the old ecosystems, particularly as part of our National Park System. But these will have to be increasingly protected and preserved. They will bear no semblance of being natural.

The species that will become more prevalent will be ones that do well in “continually disturbed human-dominated environments.” These will be generalists that are versatile and able to take advantage of opportunities. Think dandelions, cockroaches and coyotes! Pearce says:

 

“We have to embrace them. We must, along the way, give up some of our romantic ideas about nature being passive and fragile. We should take heart from the growing realization that nature is actually dynamic and can-do. This should change our approach to nature conservation. In fact, conservation as currently practiced becomes the enemy. By seeking only to conserve and protect the endangered and weak, it becomes a brake on evolution and a douser of adaptation. If we want to assist nature to regenerate, we need to promote change, rather than hold it back.”

 

The New Wild is totally worth reading. The insights that it offers need to become accepted as the new approach to the way that environmentalists work to help nature develop and prosper.

Remember the Scotch broom that I mentioned at the beginning of this book review? It grows in areas that we have disturbed. It does crowd out other species. But there is another side to this plant. Just like red alder, it is a nitrogen-fixing plant. That means that it is fertilizing the disturbed areas and in so doing opening the door to who knows what other species might come along?

Just like any major shift in consciousness, this approach to the new wild is going to require a lot of work!


Krag Unsoeld is a former president and current board member of the South Puget Environmental Education Clearinghouse.

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1 Comment on The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation

  1. “Every species of plant is a law unto itself” the difficulty in this is seeing just what the new-law implies. In the case of English ivy is implies a heavy impact on the forest ecology. Trees are killed over the medium term. Destruction of the critical, though invisible, mycorrhizal networks happens in the short term with heavy impacts for the understory and for the trees themselves, not to mention the critical ecosystem service of breaking down our toxins before they reach the Sound. It is true that invasive like ivy get a toehold in man-wreaked landscapes but they do not stay put. We have found that within the urban environment at least these invasive can be controlled and the regenerated populations of natives maintained with little effort. More needs to be done. In Oregon there are laws against selling ivasives. Not so in Washington and so our introduction of ivy into our environment continues.

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