Saturday, November 18, 2006

Fuzzy Invasive Defintions

From the excellent article, ”Global Warming: Life as We’ll Know It”, by Matt Chew, a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University in the School of Life Sciences the following idea is offered:

“Humans desire and facilitate changes in the environment that seem likely to be advantageous. But purely fortuitous change is uncomfortable, even alarming. Surprised by the arrival of new species in familiar landscapes, we speak of “invasions” or “infestations.” But invasion is in the eye of the beholder. Few people are inclined to describe the occupation of vast areas of North America by maize, wheat, soybeans and other field crops as “infestation,” even though it occurred at the expense of the prairies and woodlands formerly in residence. And hardly anyone worries about transoceanic invasions by tigers, even though there are apparently now more tigers in the United States than in all of Asia. What about zebra mussels in the Great Lakes? That was nobody’s plan. It’s an invasion.”

At a certain level of understanding, this statement resonates with me; however, I am compelled to refer back the premise and promises of definition, which I discussed in my essay, “Invasive property rights”. Depending on how one defines invasive will color the possibility of agreement with Mr. Chew. As the federal defintion is currently written, agricultural crops are, by definition, not invasive. What Mr. Chew is playing on is a (the?) popular, broadly-defined defintion, which is closely related, at least in horticulture to the word weed.

What I read in Mr. Chew’s essay and reply to in “Invasive Border Wars”, is a matter of temporal horizons. In the short run, the current invasive species discussions may be described as an attempt to create a snapshot of a particular time and place in the natural succession, which is a short and narrow term horizon. In other words, at some level, we seem to be trying to create gardens of self sustaining ecosystems, and using horticulural practices such as weeding, to maintain the garden outside the normal sequence of natural selection. What Mr. Chew is describing is a long or wide term horizon. Thus we get a collision of goals and expectations, a budding argument, built into a fuzzy, shifting definition.

And in deed he does describe the very same wilderness as garden of sorts towards the end of his essay:

“Glib schemes to farm ever higher latitudes tell only part of the story. If anthropogenic climate change accelerates habitat shifting to a pace that other “chories” cannot match, we might even find ourselves moving “wild’ plants and animals to new locations, getting them established, and tending them. Going beyond “restoration” and growing wilderness to order could become another branch of agriculture."

This imbalance of defintion and expectation, imbedded within the general and specific discussion creates opportunity for slippage in agreement. As Mr. Chew notes, and as I thought I was making clear, ulimate control of our environmental destinies is beyond our scientic grasp currently. I submit that the current lack of knowledge creates a sequence of best guesses, or variables which make future forecasts of environmental states inexact at best. However, lack of specific knowledge does not in itself mean that we need adopt an existential approach to this issue. Doing nothing to ameliorate the present condition, as currently defined, is at the heart of one side of the questions surrounding ecosystem health. Society can decide to make only short term day to day assessments, or it can adopt a blend of immediate self preseravtion with long term investment based on best scientific knowledge at hand, realizing that the assumptions may have to change radically as new information comes to light.

This is not to say that Mr. Chew does not understand these horozons and their associated heirarchies of understandings; for involved within the temporal issues are also economic issues.

So Mr. Chew writes (cf. “Land values: Environment and Development”)

“All this smacks of an economics lesson. And like many economics lessons today, it involves overseas outsourcing. The very commercial and transportation infrastructure that brings goods and materials in vast quantities from low-cost producers on one continent to consumers on another is also bearing disease organisms, fungi, seeds, eggs and spores, spiders and insects, rats and other small mammals, and sometimes reptiles and amphibians.”

In essence, I suspect that we agree on more issues than we disagree though the use of differing definitions, which shift internally within the present discussion, would seem to put us on a collision course at first reading.

1 comment:

Matt Chew said...

My general position on biological invasions is that they are not invasions in any meaningful sense. Invasion both denotes and connotes meanings that cannot be discarded or ignored at whim. As a rhetorical figure, the term biological invasions illuminates our reactions to neobiota but simultaneously obfuscates the phenomena of concern. Until we discard the invasion trope, our ability to comprehend and thoughtfully react to neobiota will remain negligible.