Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The New Wild (and crazy ideas about nature)

In this post-2016 election world, many of us are seeking ways to break out of our bubbles and help others to do the same. I have a suggestion. If you have an area of knowledge and experience, seek out the books being written on that subject, particularly those you're likely to disagree with. Amazon.com and Goodreads.com offer a convenient way to do this without necessarily buying the book. You may well find some wild and crazy ideas being peddled, and even more disturbing, large choirs of adherents giving those books high marks in the review section. Perhaps your own views will be challenged in the process, or maybe you will be astonished by how biased, arrogant, and misleading the books are, and how gullible the readers. If the latter, then go ahead, break their bubble. Write a review that will help people think more critically about what they are reading, or about to read. It's better than just preaching to the choir on facebook, and you're impact could extend beyond the bookreading world. Misleading books beget misleading articles by misled journalists, spreading the misinformation far and wide.

Below is my latest contribution to the genre, a critique of The New Wild, by Fred Pearce. The book is described by Beacon Press as "A provocative exploration of the “new ecology” and why most of what we think we know about alien species is wrong." It was "Named one of the best books of 2015 by The Economist." Impressive, engagingly written, and yet it is one of the most skewed books I've ever encountered.

Upsetting the applecart is a great way to sell a book. We cheer for the underdog, the David who slays the scleroticized, conformist, institutional Goliath who wouldn't know the truth if it hit him square between the eyes. What a rush to think ourselves smarter than all those scientists isolated in their ivory towers. Whether denying human-caused climate change or the threat posed by invasive species, the polemics against both of these share many of the same techniques even as they arise from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

Yes, we should question authority. But the appetite for contrarianism for its own sake has undermined the nation's capacity to respond to proven threats. Now, in part due to the resulting paralysis, we have an authoritarian occupying the White House.

The critique below draws primarily from The New Wild's Introduction, which is reckless and deeply flawed in logic. Other portions read suggest the Introduction is typical.

(Click below on "Read more" to access the critique.)



In tone, Fred Pearce's The New Wild is a highly biased book with an axe to grind. The intro has the classic characteristics of a polemic against conservationists and invasion biology. Pearce wants to have it both ways. He claims that he is “not accusing environmentalists of being closet xenophobes”, then later says that “Conservationists...are the ethnic cleansers of nature.” Beyond the dishonesty, this is a false analogy. If anything, we tend to be drawn to, and place greater value on, plants and animals that come from distant lands. Witness the popularity of zoos and arboretums. If anything, native plant advocates have had to work against that bias for the exotic, and help people see the value of plant species that may not always be as showy as the imports. Historically, this or that species has been maligned not for its origin but for its behavior. Wolves and coyotes are native, yet became targets when they preyed on ranchers' (exotic) livestock. A native cockroach is no more beloved than those that hitchhiked here from other continents. This is why it’s so important, in discussing invasive species, to distinguish between nonnative (place of origin) and invasive (behavior). The book confuses readers by blurring that important distinction.

Pearce claims to go beyond the simplistic notion of “good guys and bad guys”, but uniformly maligns people who are concerned about invasive species. Sometimes he contradicts himself in consecutive sentences: “...true environmentalists should be applauding the invaders.” (which is followed by) “I do not want to suggest that we should always welcome every alien species.”

A common technique in these polemics is to exaggerate the opinions and goals of those who do habitat restoration, the better to then declare them impractical. Few of us land managers are “trying to keep out all foreign invaders”, or setting our sights on the “pristine” or “virgin”, or seeking “perfection”. Nor do we say, in Pearce’s caricature, that “Native is good and foreign is bad.” Instead, we look at whether a given species is behaving invasively. That species may be native cattail or nonnative Phragmitis. It’s the behavior, not the place of origin, that matters. Plant species that behave invasively tend to be nonnative, given that in most cases the local wildlife have not evolved a taste for eating their leaves and thus do not discourage their rampancy. Herbivory, critical to limiting invasiveness, doesn’t show up in Pearce’s index, nor in any of the sections of the book I have read.

Another technique used by apologists for invasive species is to ignore the rate of change. Pearce claims that the Everglades has always been in flux, and that therefore we should not be concerned about the comparatively radical pace of species introduction in recent times. Rate of change, as with the speed of a car accident, greatly influences the potential for ecological disruption.

It’s taken awhile for me, in reading books, opeds, and articles that claim invasive species aren’t really a problem, to notice just how odd it is to judge the destructiveness of invasive species by whether they have caused native species to go extinct. Pearce says, “There have been extinctions among the natives, but remarkably few.” Are we really going to defend invasive species by saying they haven’t killed every last one of this or that native? What I’ve seen in the field is that a native species may still exist here and there, but has become so rare and isolated as to be functionally extinct.

Another technique used by Pearce is to portray views opposed to his as based on emotion rather than evidence, e.g. “fear of change”, “hatred of the foreign”, “dread of the alien”, or sentimentally “going backward”. He portrays himself flatteringly as a convert who is now bucking the conformity he left behind. He says, “...we have bought into some dangerous mythology about how nature works.”

How does nature work? Pearce claims to know better than the majority of ecologists. He believes that nature’s resilience is expressed through rampancy, that “nature is a kaleidoscope of species”--random assemblies. The current condition of nature is described in grim terms as “...the ecological mess that humans leave behind them”, ravaged by “..chain saws and plows, pollution and climate change.” “There is very little that is truly natural in nature anymore.” The convenient conclusion is that nature is broken, and the robust rampancy of invasive species is “...the shot in the arm that real nature needs.”

What we find in the field is instead a gradation, with some habitats greatly altered and others much more intact. There are opportunities to heal without a radical shot in the arm. While suggesting that protecting habitats and species is “for ourselves and not for nature”, Pearce’s alternative prescription seems remarkably anthropocentric. He isn’t, as far as I know, suggesting we should let imported organisms run rampant in our own bodies or lay waste our crops, and he would likely join the resistance if a species from another planet arrived on earth and began kicking us out of our homes. Yet he advocates for invasive species to have their way with the forests and fields, wetlands and rivers. Claiming to know nature’s true needs, he seems instead to be providing a convenient excuse to abandon it.

One last quote, whose political overtones I find highly disturbing:
“... conservationists need to stop spending all their time backing loser species--the endangered and reclusive. They must start backing some winners. For winners are sorely needed if nature is to regroup and revive in the twenty first century--if the new wild is to prosper.”

Winners, losers, nature portrayed as down and out, needing to regroup and revive--doesn’t this sound like Donald Trump’s portrayal of America as broken and destitute, as having lost its greatness, and needing to back a winner? I’ve seen a lot of what Pearce might call “loser native species” begin to thrive once deer browsing has been curtailed and the invasive species competition has been diminished. More often than not, by protecting those “loser” species, we also protect habitats and a web of life of which that species is a part.

1 comment:

Deborah Bush said...

Good idea. Very constructive.