Saturday, March 06, 2010

Invasive species - rambling thoughts

Discussion today about invasive species are couched in reports, papers and research that stretch all the way back to the 1980s with roots reaching even to the late 1950s. Conflated with all the complexities inherent in invasive species is the idea that invasive species are somehow a new public policy issue. When combined with the inverse issue of endangered (native) species the perfect storm of suspended disbelief comes into focus as today’s ecologists find themselves continuously thwarted in every policy effort at the level of the disinterested, unengaged, fully uninformed voter. Amazingly no matter how dire the issue, how carefully the disaster and damage are described, the public is unmotivated and unconcerned, and unwilling to spend the funds to combat and mitigate the problem.

Buried deeply in the American psyche and to some extend Western Culture is the problem of nature. Defining nature, natural, naturalized, native, artifice and artificial, as well as art and international and cosmopolitan rises above the domain of science. Knowing the hardships of the European attempts to establish communities in North America such as the Norse colony of Vinland is crucial to understanding invasive species issues today. In current discussions there unspoken ideas surface that European settlement was a foregone condition and that nature therefore is something that was “losing” the contest from the beginning. This view however is hindsight of John Muir, expounded upon by Aldo Leopold and codified by Charles Elton, amplified by the modern students of ecology. Unremarked is the fact that at least until 1800 there was every reason to believe that the great experiment would fail; the experiment of surviving on this unrelenting, wild continent.

John Muir saw that technology was ‘winning’ the battle, and that at the present rate the last great “untouched” places could be gone if a new value system could not be created to delimited special places. Aldo Leopold refined what it could meant by the idea of a landscape and more importantly to create and manage one, and Elton among many achievements grabbed the idea of invasive species harm so that a new generation could begin to understand the critical importance of finding a away to control the aexotic, alien, newlydefined 'unnatural' invasions. In doing so the three seers of the ecological preservation movement led a revolution describing a new value system that taught a new generation how to see and understand the world. And this new world view seemed to its followers to overturn the basics of gardening and farming. The old ways must be at best uniformed and at worse lacking in scientific rigor.

However the early colonists were not scientific ignoramuses, and in fact were rather more well philosophically grounded, understanding that science was a tool to help with value system management. They were not part of the Age of Enlightenment for nothing; for concurrent with the efforts to survive in the wilderness went the debates as to what constituted a native, and under what conditions a non native could become naturalized, if ever. Participants in the community discussion included prominent Americans such as Jefferson and European thinkers such as Raynal as well other European and American natural philosophers who happened to be practitioners of the science of horticulture and therefore accomplished gardeners. In addition the conversations of native and naturalized were wrapped around the concept of resource appropriation and use as well as reconstitution, revitalization or as we now call the concepts and dynamics of sustainability. The first Europeans thought the idea of species included humans and therefore applied the labels native and naturalized both to themselves and to their surroundings. For them it was self-evident that if a person could become naturalized then so could a plant or animal. Early European settlers and thinkers did not see mankind as apart from nature but solidly in the middle of nature as a participant.

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