Sunday, October 25, 2009

Invasive species move with us as reflections of our actions

Humans like to categorize things; to put things into boxes of like items. This seemingly hard-wired activity helps to sort through the conflicting chaos of perceived reality. The decision function is a simple yes it belongs or no it does not. The categories or boxes are tagged with additional dualistic labels: good or bad (evil), us or them, black or white, native or alien, nature or artifice, art or junk, profit or loss. Once categorized and tagged the grouped collection of information is used to create value assumptions, to set personal market preferences and to address policy choices.

The impulse to label surrounds invasive species questions. From questions of garden choices to forestry management and agricultural production we place organisms into redefined categories. As a first step, we create a classification system for species identification. We then identify the species with specific ecosystems and add a time tag that tells us when and where on a timeline a species is to be found. The time tag is important because we need to reduce the cosmic scale to a more manageable human scale. Next we add as many meta-value-tags as can be handled.

In the invasive species world we wind up with pathogens and diseases, insects, plants and animals, broadly speaking. The further away from everyday, easily accessible human interactions the fewer meta-tags get assigned in general. That pathogens are bad is an initial major label with the very word pathogen as a category having a pre-assigned, pejorative sense. The result is that policy ideas that include prevention as a first line of defense are usually not too controversial. In other words, very few stakeholders appear loudly opposed to pathogen detection and interdiction. If we pick a more complicated category such as insects, the meta-tagging gets somewhat more complicated as there is a greater recognition of insect interaction with the environment and thus contending constituencies strive to limit absolute prevention and interdiction. There are good bugs and bad bugs and some bugs that just are, and the framing of the problem is highly specialized based on pre-decided outcomes.

By the time we get to the categories of plants and animals other than insects the meta-tags fly with such abandon that we create super categories to contain fuzzily framed issues. We use semantic bins such as environmental, ecological, natural, traditional, necessary, sustainable, practical and other terms to nudge and re-aim first level meta-tags such as good or bad, beneficial (to what?) or bad (for whom?). The invasive species category is usually applied at this supra-meta level. The application of the designation comes after the assignment of a value. Invasive species come pre-assigned with a negative value. This creates a dynamism that disallows the addition of, for example, feral cats into the invasive species category because of negative key stakeholder reaction. The idea of cat as a category has massive positive meta-tags while the idea of invasive species is ladened with mountains of negative tags. The two concepts become mutually exclusive and contentious.

When climate dynamics are added to the invasive species discussion the implications of an a prior value tagging grow. Because invasive species questions are framed or tagged with automatic negative connotations, we focus on the impact on and to yesterday’s ecological systems, impacts that are substantial and sometimes overwhelming, and on the other hand we overlook research on the novel systems that are, in part, the result of invasion. In someway this is a reflection of human desire to choose control about which something is known over prevention which at the surface is filled with uncontrollable, intangibles and assorted unknowns. Invasive species are symptoms of climate change and human activity. Any attempt to find a one size fits all solution for invasive species will result in unexpected and unintended consequences. Finding solutions without integrating climate and human activity will not be productive. If there were no species with invasive potential ecosystem collapse would be more catastrophic than we currently imagine. What we are doing when we try to protect an existing historic ecosystem from invasion is akin to gardening (weeding, species selection and pest control).

The longing for a time when there were unexplored spaces on the planet that leads some to advocate for a return to nature allows for policies that produce the unexpected. Unfortunately almost 7 billion humans have already terra-formed the earth. We have geo-engineered the ecosystem services already. Mankind is not a static organism but is influenced and changed by all the species with which it comes into contact, just as the human contact is changing and influencing the other species of the world. We can neither stand nor let nature do not run its course nor ignore our impact upon it for we are nature part and parcel. Invasive species move with us reflections of our actions.

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