Monday, October 11, 2010
Invasive species are all around us. They are so ubiquitous that they are accepted as part of the fabric of daily life with little to no consideration given until they reach out and bite us. Then, they become personal, and we reach for the quickest most toxic solution which fixes the symptom, fills the individual which caused the immediate problem, and does nothing at all about the problem. The spread of invasive species is like a global oil spill, so large that we cannot absorb the slow alteration of the landscapes around us. Because the problem pervades our world, our community and our person we integrate it into the background of our lives. P. ramorum, commonly known as sudden oak death, check; 15 plus foot Burmese pythons, check; 80 pound Asian carp, fish that fling themselves into the air, check; vines that cover 8 million acres of the country, check; Asian fish that walks from ponds into our rivers, the northern snakehead well on its way to becoming a naturalized resident of the United States, check; millions of dead 100 foot tall ash trees from which we might have made baseball bats, killed by the Emerald ash borer, check; the European corn borer taking out a staple of our food supply, check; purple loosestrife, a beautiful garden flowers creating acres of monotony, check; non native brown marmorated stink bugs that devour our crops and then move inside our homes for the winter; and the list goes on and on, too large to be kept in the forefront of our day to day plans.
One might expect a robust national policy to address and manage this invasion of our environment, and, indeed, there is a management plan with no funding, a council with no teeth, and a government with no will. The Department of Energy for example is not even a member of the National Invasive Species Council and has no intention so far of becoming a member. The Department of Energy does have intentions of funding biofuel programs that use invasive species such as Arundo donax with plans to intentionally introduce the species under the usual understanding that impacts to the general good is acceptable cost of producing energy. While considerable thought has been put into what a robust national policy might look like, the lack of political will and funding support has crippled any effectiveness. This lack of national will results in a patch-work of local efforts each struggling to contain the dramatic affects of invasive species. With little support, "weed warriors" valiantly try to contain their own invasive species of the moment. Even though study after study, and common sense, suggests that any reduction of introduction is the most cost effective approach, the lack of a national policy makes this hard to do. However, local action and determination are beginning to propose state laws and regulations to address the movement and introduction of invasive species. Each state will have its own system and specifications addressing the local needs. Because of the lack of national funding, the policies of the several states will be loosely coordinated at best.
And so, the optimization of our local ecological systems proceeds in the hope that our local actions will stabilize the overall environment. Unfortunately, the lack of national coordination almost certainly guarantees unintended and unsuspected outcomes. In addition, optimizing the outcome of a subsystem by trying to mitigate the damage of invasive species on a local level will in general not optimize the outcome for the larger system as a whole. The result can even become the "tragedy of the commons": the exhaustion of shared resources because of competition among local ecosystem stakeholders. And worse, the optimized ecosystems may not actually preserve the larger environmental picture as wished or planned, or further the general sense of human societal well-being.
In short when we try to achieve the "greatest good for the greatest number", we soon find that the greatest good (optimal outcome) for the individual in general differs from the greatest group good for the larger system of individuals or society as a whole. Protecting our local park from invasive species may benefit us locally, but restricting global trade may impact our larger system dynamics. The only way to "manage" the process is to establish both local and national activities linked by intensive feedback loops. We seem to be creating the local system; we are dismantling any semblance of a national decision making platform through inattention and distraction.
Invasive species are a wicked inconvenience that alter the environment around us in ways we cannot imagine. We need a national policy that is backed by funding for research, outreach and support for grass root and state efforts. We need to be continuously reexamining our national focus in light of local conditions, and we need to coordinate information in a timely manner. We need to fund Early Detection and Rapid Response efforts, and we need to continue fine tuning our risk assessment tools. Mostly, we need to wake up and notice there is a problem, before all we can smell are the stink bugs.