A provocative exploration of the “new ecology” and why most of what we think we know about alien species is wrong
For a long time, veteran environmental journalist Fred Pearce thought in stark terms about invasive species: they were the evil interlopers spoiling pristine “natural” ecosystems. Most conservationists and environmentalists share this view. But what if the traditional view of ecology is wrong—what if true environmentalists should be applauding the invaders?
In The New Wild, Pearce goes on a journey across six continents to rediscover what conservation in the twenty-first century should be about. Pearce explores ecosystems from remote Pacific islands to the United Kingdom, from San Francisco Bay to the Great Lakes, as he digs into questionable estimates of the cost of invader species and reveals the outdated intellectual sources of our ideas about the balance of nature. Pearce acknowledges that there are horror stories about alien species disrupting ecosystems, but most of the time, the tens of thousands of introduced species usually swiftly die out or settle down and become model eco-citizens. The case for keeping out alien species, he finds, looks increasingly flawed.
As Pearce argues, mainstream environmentalists are right that we need a rewilding of the earth, but they are wrong if they imagine that we can achieve that by reengineering ecosystems. Humans have changed the planet too much, and nature never goes backward. But a growing group of scientists is taking a fresh look at how species interact in the wild. According to these new ecologists, we should applaud the dynamism of alien species and the novel ecosystems they create.
In an era of climate change and widespread ecological damage, it is absolutely crucial that we find ways to help nature regenerate. Embracing the new ecology, Pearce shows us, is our best chance. To be an environmentalist in the twenty-first century means celebrating nature’s wildness and capacity for change.
This is a relatively short (190 pages) argument in favour of the idea that we should let nature do it's thing - and that it's thing is to grow and live, and not to maintain what we think of as "primal" ecoscapes. The author backs himself up with 25 pages of footnotes, so you could call it a fairly well researched missive. The book is divided into three parts.
Trying to keep out "invasive" species is, in Mr. Pearce's considered view, a difficult, expensive, and ultimately futile way to manage a wild space. And, he asks, how do we define an invasive species, anyway? Practically any species living on the land that was covered by ice during the last ice age could be considered an invasive species, for example. It all just depends on how far back you want to go. In North America, we generally try to manage our "wild" spaces to try and "restore" them to our understanding of how they were before European contact, but that ignores all the evidence that the people living here before also managed the land to better suit their purposes. So it's not really wild in the sense of "untouched by human hands," even if we manage to erase the impact of the last 600 years. And, it's not really possible, no matter how hard we try - or, in the essential argument of the book - desirable.
Mr. Pearce finds that in the majority of cases, so-called invasive species only become noticeable and a source of concern to people when the environment they "invade" has already been pushed out of balance, and the invasive are simply taking advantage of a new situation in that environment for which they are better suited then the natives. Cited are a number of examples with an invasion receding when the unbalancing force is removed - when pollution has been cleared away, perhaps, often with the help of the invasive species. In a healthy environment, there is usually room for invasive to move in alongside the natives, without causing their endangerment. There is acknowledgment that in certain cases (mostly small islands) an introduced species can and will wreck havoc on endemic species, but, globally, this book finds that the spread and sharing of species will ultimately increase biodiversity, and increased biodiversity strengthens all systems.
There are some interesting anecdotes included in this book - and some political beliefs expressed about the philosophy behind what is presented as a misguided desire to achieve "purity" in ecological preservation that I found a little challenging. And, hopefully, it's found that nature has already fooled us by presenting what we think of as wild untouched jungle, where recent archaeology turns over evidence of past civilizations being actively exploitative, and ultimately, it is presented, that nature can "rewild" areas that mankind abandons sometimes very quickly - not in hundreds of years, but decades. But she does it with invasives.
Despite this book being generally interesting, I did find my mind wandered at times, I didn't find it particularly engrossing as a reading experience. It was also unclear to me what Mr. Pearce intends for his converts to do with their newfound understanding of the invasive plant question - does he want conservationists to simply abandon all attempts to create wild spaces, since there is no true such thing? Or should they/we continue to try and set aside space for nature, but be more permissive as to what we let nature do with it? Or, as people are simply another species on the planet, do we expand our dominion and increase our mingling with the other life of the world with his blessing?
I'm reviewing this book with a giant headache, so I'm probably forgetting to comment on something vital. But you'll have to go read the book to find out.
I give this book 5 out of 10 acorns (for the good science it does contain, which I could simply balance against the good science it ignores).
There is an ongoing debate among biologists, ecologists, gardeners and so about the pros and cons of planting native and non-native species, and opportunistic (also called alien, invasive, migrant, interloping and other pejorative terms) and more “well-behaved” species that are generally safe to plant. These categories are not clearly defined: the boundary between native and non-native is shaky at best (A species present before the last glaciation? One present before human (Homo sapiens stultus-materfututor) or European colonisation? One that made it without human intervention?) and even a native species may be highly opportunistic under favourable circumstances. I've done my share of rhodi bashing, but very few of the food plants in my garden can be considered in any way native (the imperial powers shifted thousands of species around the world), and many of those can produce volunteers readily, while (native) creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius) are an ongoing pain in the arse (not to mention fingers). In my local woodlands native (notably ivy (Hedera helix)) thugs tend to be more of a tendency towards monoculture than introduced species, but ivy is also important habitat – and food – for invertebrates, provided it doesn't choke out everything else.
One of the biggest problems with this debate is that it exists in a space occupied by biology, ecology, culture, economics and politics, some of it dangerously right wing. Even up until relatively recently I would juxtapose the (native) Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) against the (introduced, bullying, disease-carrying) North American tree rat (S. carolinensis). There are issues with grey squirrels in Scotland, but it's possible to go too far. It can turn into a level of xenophobia that I abhor when directed at my fellow humans. The UK's Environment Agency even uses the same language to talk about signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus) which has “taken advantage of Britain's welcoming living conditions” and “overstayed their environmental visa”, as that used by the xenophobes and racists at the Border Agency and in the gutter tabloids.
Pearce's thesis is that exotics are an answer to the problem of the changes in land use that humans have been responsible for. There is a strong case for arguing that there is no going back: too many species are gone for ever, and this is a problem that is worsening all the time as we enter the Sixth Great Extinction, a prospect that fills me with existential horror in no way ameliorated by the fact that I understand I'm partially responsible for it.
Part 1 talks about islands, starting with on Ascension Island, where Green Mountain has become an artificial ecosystem to replace the “naked hideousness” that Darwin complained of. To the Permie, Ascension is an example of how a barren site can be converted to a functioning, diverse ecosystem in an exercise in Victorian terra-forming under Darwin's friend Joseph Hooker. It's also a warning: the rats (Rattus rattus) wiped out endemic birds, and the cats (Felis silvestris catus) introduced to control the rats caused more havoc. Equally, the ad-hoc nature of the ecosystem means that many animal species now consume plants unfamiliar in their native habitats. This is juxtaposed, however, with the notorious cataclysm on nearby Gough Island where mice (Mus musculus) have turned carnivorous and seriously damaged an important bird colony in a fashion not to be contemplated before dinner.
It's when he turned to Hawaii that I first became suspicious. He points out that there has been a loss of 66 bird species against 53 gains, with most of the losses hunted to extinction before Europeans arrived. What he doesn't mention is the proportion of these that were endemics: the same applies to the 71 known plant extinctions: the thousand new arrivals exist elsewhere. This, ultimately, is one of the problems. How does one define diversity? The number of species in an area, or the number of species in a wider area, even globally. By Pearce's metric, non-native species have resulted in greater diversity in some places (and he glosses over the examples where this is not the case); by the latter metric, there may be a large number of arrivals, but it's a tendency towards homogeneity, not diversity.
It is possible to make a case that many non-native species, such as rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in Australia, simply exploit an ecological niche created for them by human activity (in this case in association with sheep (Ovis aries), a woolly maggot also infesting much of Scotland, and bearing partial responsibility for this country's wet desert ecosystems). The same applies, in some places, to water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes). The thing about both species is that their massive opportunism may be partly a feature of already disrupted ecosystems, but they would still not be a problem if they weren't there. Non-native species are often scapegoated when the actual problem is more nuanced, but that doesn't change the fact that they are part of that nuance. Pearce tends to gloss over this. Similarly the mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) fiasco in Africa resulted in winners (such as those selling the wood) and losers (mostly pastoralists). Pearce wants us to forgive the mesquite, and this may be fair, but this struck me as another example of where an introduction favoured those best able to exploit it to the detriment of the already poor.
As I read it became clear that, in order to prove his thesis, Pearce was selecting examples to prove a point: that the problem is not the species itself, but other (typically anthropogenic) influences, or that previously problem species go through a boom and bust. The kind of thing he glosses over is that even if the jellyfish (Mnemiopsis leidyi) in the Black Sea finally do die off, the species they wiped out, that might have otherwise survived, have gone for ever.
Like any good journalist, he's good at pointing out bad science, but like any tabloid hack he's less good at pointing out contrary evidence that counters his thesis. Indeed, he ignores thousands of papers on novel and degraded ecosystems to prove his point. There is certainly a case to make that estimates of extinctions caused by opportunistic species may be based on poor science, or by misinterpretation of good science, but that is not a reason to gloss over very real cases of some opportunistic species being a problem for endemic species. Where there are winners and losers, Pearce ignores the losers, almost as if they didn't matter.
That, needless to say, really pissed me off.
There is another problem with this book. Pearce has a tendency to compare conservation biologists with the worst racists. It's true there is racist language, and some very egregious comparisons, in the whole debate, but sometimes it seems like he's setting up a straw man in order to knock it down. His views on the excesses of the Environment Agency, paid by a succession of more or less right-wing governments, are fair comment, but there is a difference between this and the very real ecological science surrounding opportunistic species. There is some very nasty language being used, but it seems more relevant to separate the very real issues of a minority of opportunistic species from the benefits of an innocuous majority, and that from the racist bollocks of right-wing politicians, gutter tabloids and the gullible people whose fears they stir up. It's very rare that it's the conservation biologists using the derogatory language, but Pearce fails to make that clear. He observes “Many conservationists of the first half of the twentieth century were prominent proponents of eugenics”. True, but the same is true of most journalists of the time. It's true of not a few today, but they tend to be more guarded about it.
The whole book is based on a simple fallacy. He starts from the premise that there are no “natural” ecosystems and conservation is complicated and difficult, and jumps to the conclusion that the solution is that exotics are inherently positive. I'm happy to accept the former, and I'm happy enough to question conservation goals (some aspects of conservation here are highly questionable, perpetuating as they do recently heavily degraded landscapes such as sheep grazing and grouse moor), but I'm not convinced of the validity of the conclusion.
There is some good science behind it. In some circumstances one organism can replace a lost or even extinct one, and this may prove to be an important skill when creating certain types of permaculture habitats, not least forest gardens. Such “ecological fitting” may be just as important as co-evolution. It does not follow that indiscriminate introduction is necessarily always appropriate.
I found this book incredibly frustrating. There are many genuinely important points made by the author. There are some interesting ways of thinking about ecosystems that most people won't have thought of. Many of these have important implications for the way we think about and implement permaculture, in particular forest garden, ecosystems. It's worth reading for that alone. You do need to remember that the law of unintended consequences applies, and be prepared for very thoughtful intervention.
The fact that the author is trying to prove a point rather than present all sides of a complicated discussion badly lets it down. In the final chapter in particular it seems like he's trying to write a rebuttal to George Monbiot (see Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding (2013)). Important evidence is deliberately ignored or obfuscated. It's riddled with shoddy logic. This could have been a good book, and Pearce is more than capable of the level of reasoning it would have required. As it stands, it reads like the work of a hack.
The Permie therefore needs to be cautious in what is taken away from this book. It is possible to create a diverse, novel ecosystem that includes many non-native species. The deep flaws in this book gloss over the fact that it's vital that opportunistic species (which should not be confused as synonymous with non-native species) need to be closely monitored and managed. Outside your habitat they can be of ecological benefit, replacing species that are no longer there, or they can do very real damage. In the event of the latter it may be straightforward to trace the culprit, and risk further generalisation, which is to say that permaculture, and not shoddy management, will get the blame.
I just finished this book. I give it 7 out of 10 acorns
I know many people here and elsewhere have pointed out the flaws in the book. I just want to point out a couple of positive things.
1. It makes a good case that novel ecosystems preserve many native species. This is an important point.
2. It makes the point that sometimes it will be impossible to bring the natives back. In other words, the choice in Denver is not a stream lined with Russian Olive and Siberian elm or a stream lined with Cottonwoods and Willows. The choice MAY be between a stream lined with Russian Olive and Siberian elm, and a Denuded and dead stream.
3. It makes the point that removing invasive plants or animals is very difficult, sometimes impossible.
4. It makes the point that sometimes, removing invasive species damages native ones, or the environment as a whole.
5. It makes the point that most invasive caused extinctions are caused by invasive animals, generally rats or snakes, and generally on small islands.
6. It makes the point that if a "restored native area" needs constant spraying and trapping, it is not really wild, but a human park or preserve.
I think the take away from this is that our permaculture "novel ecosystems" on degraded urban or farm land will probably host many rare and native species, just like the gardens and brownfields he mentions in the book. I don't think even the author recommends removing truly wild native areas and replanting them to invasive plants.
Now, are there a lot of downsides to this book? Yes, but I think they have already been covered.
Location: Denver, CO
posted 2 years ago
Moving on to read "Tending the Wild" the next in my series of books on the related topics of invasive species, and the role of Humans in eocystems. I'm trying to read lots of different books from different perspectives on this "thorny" problem.