Thursday, July 09, 2009

An either/or of Invasive species

As with many difficult problems in life, the issues invasive species are usually framed in a yes/no - either/or framework. War or peace, life or death, feast or famine, farms or forests, sustainable ecosystems or economic development highlight and delimit the choices which we debate and discuss. The suspension of a restoration plan in favor of farming crops, prompted by increasing concerns over feeding world's largest population is presented as an either/or choice. (China suspends reforestation project over food shortage fears. Guardian, June 23, 2009) “The sacrifice of a key environmental restoration project for crop production highlights the growing problem of feeding the world's biggest population as cities expand into farmland and urban residents consume more meat and vegetables.” Most urban centers for historic reasons developed and grew on the best farm land compounding the problem.

Invasive species’ issues are framed similarly. The casually involved stakeholder finds the options that may be applied to invasive species policies described in terms of two diametrically opposed choices. Save the earth by planting non natives or contribute to the destruction of the universe by gardening with alien exotics. In actuality, a continuum of possibilities exists. From complete eradication through partial control, to slowing the invasion’s spread, to even doing nothing. The fuzzy rainbow of possible solutions is rendered even more complex by the problems of scale that are associated both with the ecological considerations as well as economic calculations. A new book investigates this dual partnership between economics and ecology in depth. (Bioeconomics of Invasive Species; Integrating Ecology, Economics, Policy, and Management Edited by Reuben P. Keller, David M. Lodge, Mark A. Lewis and Jason F. Shogren. 2009. Oxford University Press)

Invasive species’ partisans operate in related but different arenas of interest. Aesthetic discussions on matters of taste arouse considerable emotions. Questions of beauty and personal subjective interest spill over into political considerations. Property rights and ownership color the conversations about species restriction and market regulations surrounding gardening options and pet choices. Many have heard the claim that there is no authority that can dictate what animal may be kept as a companion or what flower may be proscribed from a landscape. The beauty aesthetic drives a market in new species introductions.

Another arena of disagreement is the use of natural resources. For some, there is a deeply held belief that resources are for all practical reasons, infinite. Ludwig von Mises explains in Liberalism: The Classical Tradition that “[h]uman labor by itself is not capable of increasing our well-being. In order to be fruitful, it must be applied to the materials and resources of the earth that Nature has placed at our disposal.” This sometimes religious imperative coupled with the foundational concept of resources beyond measurement makes possible technological advances that in turn deplete the available resources at an ever faster rate. The entire system is dependent upon technology accessing more difficult to reach resources ever faster. On the other side are the naturalists supported by many ecologists who warn of a spiraling increase in the decline of ecosystem services, or at the very least an accelerated change that is outpacing humanities ability to adapt.

Assessments of harm either to one’s personal subjective senses or to the resources supplied by ecosystems and the environment are stumbling blocks to finding consensus. Dr. Milton Friedman sums up the concerns of same constituencies by saying that “there's nothing that does so much harm as good intentions.” Aphorisms explain in part the reluctance to action on the part of those who would be financially or aesthetically restrained.

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