The New Wild by Fred Pearce
Beacon Press | 2015 | 245 pages
What do Eurasian watermilfoil, Scotch broom, cheatgrass, knapweed, purple loosestrife and hawkweed have in common? Easy question, if you live in British Columbia. They are all officially classified as invasive plants in the province, and they cost the province upwards of $140 million annually in [attempted] eradication and management.
What about Asian carp, European green crabs, zebra mussels, sea lampreys, emerald ash borers, gypsy moths, Asian long-horned beetles and/or the round goby? If you’re Canadian and you care, then you should know about them too. They are all non-native plants or animals that are disrupting ecosystems in Canada, and are costing the country millions to control and monitor. Just keeping Asian carp from spreading throughout the Great Lakes costs Canada and the US something of the order of $75-100 million annually.
According to Environment and Climate Change Canada invasive species that damage the agricultural and forestry industries result in an estimated $7.5 billion lost revenue annually. The estimated annual loss to our national cumulative lost revenue caused by just 16 invasive species is between $13 and $35 billion.
Economic impacts aside, there are other ecological charges laid against exotic and invasive flora and fauna. The principal one is that invasive alien species are contributing in large measure to the Sixth Extinction. Also known as the Holocene or Anthropocene extinction, this refers to the ongoing global extinction of species following human-induced degradation of habitats such as coral reefs, rainforests and grasslands.
Now, with a very different take on the subject, comes Fred Pearce, a London-based author and journalist with more than 20 years’ experience in writing on international issues pertaining to environment, science and development for the likes of the Guardian and the New Scientist.
He is of the opinion that we have for too long viewed alien species as interlopers causing environmental destruction but have not considered the good they do and could do. “Should our efforts to eradicate them not be tempered by their values?” is the central theme of his book. Eliminate them when it seems absolutely necessary, writes he, but accept them when they are doing some good and welcome them when they have something to offer.
The message of The New Wild is that we need to dump the idea that pristine nature (a mythological concept?) is the only true wild, and that nature invaded by alien species is something lesser that needs to be fixed. Pearce points out that nature has always been in a continual state of flux and is itself unconcerned about the provenance of the species that compose it. Incidentally, this is also the view of many current biogeographers.
Humans have been moving species of all kinds around the planet for thousands of years. Only in the latter half of the 20th century have we displayed an awareness of the ecological damage this can do. Pearce writes that we make great efforts to eradicate exotic species and try to “put things back the way we found them”. However, he thinks the zeal with which we try to fix things isn’t always justified or effective, and he feels that an all-out war against “foreigners” has created a profound sense of animosity and suspicion towards anything non-native in our psyche. He hopes to mitigate these feelings and get us to reconsider some of our actions.
The book calls into question the distinction between alien and native species. Looked at over a broad time horizon, it says, there is no such thing as a native species. All lodgings are temporary, and all ecosystems exist in a state of continual flux, the victims of circumstance and geological accident. Indeed, many alien species are so well integrated that they are assumed to be native. An example of the latter is the solitary “sweat bee” (Lasioglossum leucozonium), widespread across North America and an important pollinator of blueberries and apples. Long assumed to be native, genetic analysis has now shown it to be an immigrant from Europe. Pearce’s central tenet is that species come and go so much as a result of human and natural forces that conventional hard distinctions about what belongs where have long become all but meaningless.
Instead of judging a species by its provenance, writes Pearce, we should treat species on their merits and learn a little tolerance and respect for “foreigners.” He concedes that “being alien can sometimes be problematic”, but points out that it can equally well result in the renewal of “flagging ecosystems, creating new space for natives and providing new ecosystem services.”
The author has a great eye for detail and brings out some fascinating information on the interplay of ecology, human nature and politics in our relationship to exotic species. Who knew, for example, that Sir Charles Elton, the doyen of British ecologists, had a hand in all this? During World War 2 Elton reported for the British government on reducing food loss from the depredations of alien rats, mice and rabbits from continental Europe. He maintained this thread through the fifties with his classic The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, writing of the close parallels between “foreign invaders” and noxious weeds spreading from the continent.
Pearce is in agreement with many mainstream environmentalists that the Earth’s depleted ecosystems urgently need “rewilding”, but says that they are flat out wrong if they imagine that we can achieve that by re-engineering ecosystems. We humans have changed the planet too much, and nature never goes backward.
This is a book which requires careful reading and a great deal of intellectual and philosophical pondering. No easy answers here.
Reviewed by Stan Hirst, 2019