Accidental Ecosystems

The New Wild / Fred Pearce
After Preservation / B. Minteer and S. Pyne
Invasive Species in a Globalized World / R. Keller, M. Cadotte and G. Sanford

Accidental Ecosystems

Three books that connect invasive species, preservation and human interference with natural selection.

The Belarus government created the Polesie State Radiation Ecological Reserve in Belarus in the aftermath of humanity’s worst nuclear power calamity at Chernobyl. After a massive radioactive cloud descended on the forests, farmlands and villages dotting the landscape, almost 2,200 square kilometres were set aside in 1988 to protect wildlife. The idea of “wildlife protection” within a radioactive zone is darkly humorous: preservation of an ecosystem denuded of life by humanity’s most cataclysmic technology. The public’s prevailing view of Polesie is as a “post-apocalyptic wilderness,” populated by irradiated monsters or devoid entirely of life. One wagers that few would bother defending such a defiled landscape as if it were the natural equal of Yosemite or Banff.

Enter Fred Pearce. The New Wild, the latest offering from the veteran British journalist, shows Pearce turning a sympathetic eye to species and places where he believes nature is putting on a clinic of resiliency. Occasionally, this leaves him a lonely defender of detested invasive species – the brown tree snake in Guam, for example, or zebra mussels in the Great Lakes. This cheerleading is also scaled up for refashioned ecosystems like Polesie. “Radioactive wolves patrol the streets,” he writes optimistically, while “wild boars root in the cesium-soaked soils” past “strontium-stuffed mushrooms” lining cooling ponds of the Chernobyl plant, now suffused with contaminated catfish. Yet far from the post-apocalyptic hellscape many imagine, species not dependent on humans for survival have rebounded in the zone to levels greater than when humans were around. Our abandoned infrastructure, absent of people, has created suitable homes for badgers in cellars, wild boars in sheds, owls and kestrels nesting in empty apartment towers. Bears have arrived, Pearce writes, co-existing alongside Belarus’s largest lynx population. Uniquely, this microworld without us, a novel ecosystem if there ever was one, has become an ideal 21st century habitat.

Don’t misunderstand – “nobody in their right mind would want more such places,” Pearce writes of Polesie – but its recovery, without human intervention, points a way toward what he (all too often) calls “the new wild.” Hence the book’s title. Traditional notions of conservation encourage a rigid, doctrinaire adherence to old customs of little use when dealing with modern environmental challenges from climate change, rapid urbanization, pollution, agricultural intensification and invasive species. “Dynamism and change are the norm in nature,” Pearce writes. “Ecosystems that are unchanging may be in trouble.” When he surveys conservation’s current state, Pearce is struck by how tightly the established guard clings to “old certainties” and “mythical pristine ecosystems” that no longer exist, if they ever did. Wake up, he implores: We define nature too narrowly and must let ecosystems rewild in their own way.

In many ways, The New Wild is the latest in a growing body of non-fiction attempting to reprogram our collective brains, often hard-wired to demonize novel ecosystems and discredit the potential benefits of invasives. American environmental writer Emma Marris’ 2013 book Rambunctious Garden took mainstream the idea that “exotic-dominated ecosystems [that] still look like trash to most ecologists” are worthwhile natural spaces. She spoke for a small but vocal sector of invasion biologists who believe that invasives can be vital to their new homes – stabilizing eroding soil or providing food and habitat for native fauna. Alien species often take the blame for larger problems caused by pollution and environmental decline: Tamarisk in California or Nile perch in East Africa’s Lake Victoria took advantage of existing environmental crises, Pearce writes. Less instigator and more opportunist, if we care to assign human motives.

Conservationist thinking is shifting, Marris believes. She’s not alone. After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans is a dialogue from celebrated environmental writers on what, exactly, preservationists are vigilantly trying to preserve. Can the American preservationist ideal survive American desires for suburban, two-car families? Should it survive in its current form? Preservation today is caught in the crossfire, attacked for the unacceptable economic sacrifices it may engender and by “post-preservationist” environmentalists who want humans to embrace our world-shaping powers. Environmental ethicist Ben A. Minteer and historian Stephen J. Pyne, who edited the volume from their positions at Arizona State University, brought together an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary thinkers to debate the Anthropocene and what it means for nature preservation.

In After Preservation, Marris argues that “messy nature,” which welcomes “invasive” species, is gaining acceptability among ecologists, conservationists and the general public. Railway ditches, parking lots, traffic islands, post-industrial sites – all can be wild in their own way. If that means that ecosystems and the species in them aren’t as pretty or “wild” as we’d like? Too bad. That is a cultural problem, not an ecological one. Another cultural problem with the Anthropocene is our arrogance in assuming humanity can effectively control nature, Marris writes. We try, but that doesn’t mean we’re especially good at it. Besides, “people … running around talking about how humans ‘control’ and ‘dominate’ the planet can sound like assholes,” Marris writes. It’s a stark moment of humour in a book on ecological restoration, but the point is well taken. We do, as she rightly contends, lack humility. Yet this hubris doesn’t absolve humanity of responsibility to improve how we manage the Earth, immodest as it seems. Humans have harmed more ecosystems than we’ve helped, and, in Marris’ reckoning, “we owe it to them to improve our scientific understanding … so we can ensure their continued persistence.”

It’s obvious not all agree. In a separate chapter, Dave Foreman, author of Take Back Conservation, lashes out at Marris and others whom he derisively calls “Anthropoceniacs.” Their support of humankind’s control of nature will leave the Earth as little more than Frankenstein’s lab. Humans aren’t meant to be so much as we merely happened to be, Foreman argues. So what gives us the right to continue our whole Earth-altering ways? The very need for wilderness areas – like the Polesie Reserve – is our “meek acknowledgement” that our dominion over Earth is wanting.

While After Preservation occasionally sticks its head in the clouds of environmental philosophy, Invasive Species in a Globalized World, from Loyola University ecologist Reuben P. Keller and University of Toronto biologist Marc W. Cadotte, has sewn deep roots in policy and invasive species management. Cane toads in Australia, Asian carp in America and grey squirrels in England – Keller and Cadotte’s book, edited with environmental writer Glenn Sandiford, helps bridge the gap between ecologists, economists and legal scholars sharing similar anxieties over invasive species regulation and its absence. These professional cross-purposes have stymied effective administration of challenges that, as the book’s title suggests, are worsening in a globalized world. While the 1988 zebra mussel invasion of the Great Lakes and the attendant media coverage brought greater public awareness to the ecological risks of globalization, it has not resulted in a transformation of policy. We know prevention is cheaper and more effective than eradication and yet, around the world, there are few regulations on ballast water, and no stringent port inspections, international standards or penalties to deter the intentional (or unwitting) spread of aliens.

While Pearce and many authors in After Preservation believe the crusade against invasives is more noise than science, Invasive Species in a Globalized World lends policy making and scientific heft to the “rhetorical contest” between Pearce and those who believe humans must protect native species and ecosystems from invasives at any cost. “Invasive-species policy needs unifying,” Keller et al. argue, suggesting a triage system to assess which species pose the greatest global risk in order to act before problems surpass existing meagre controls.

Human activity has profoundly shaped every corner of the globe. In a warming climate, whole ecosystems are shifting in search of familiar climes, taking countless species with them. Can we undo the harm we’ve caused? Is there value to the changes we’ve wrought? These books add to the ongoing conversation about if and how humanity should mould our planet. Yet we live in a time when previously unaccounted-for drivers of ecosystem change are shifting environmental realities faster than we can measure them. We’re left stumbling to “save” natural spaces existing nowhere but in our minds. Perhaps invasive-species policy does need unifying, but around a new model embracing the best of the preservationist ideal along with the cold pragmatism of modern conservationist thought. There’s a place for Fred Pearce in that debate.

The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation by Fred Pearce, Boston: Beacon Press, July 2015, 272 pages.

After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans edited by B. Minteer and S. Pyne, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 240 pages.

Invasive Species in a Globalized World: Ecological, Social & Legal Perspectives on Policy edited by R. Keller, M. Cadotte and G. Sandiford, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 416 pages.


Reviewer Information

Andrew Reeves is the Editor-in-Chief of Alternatives Journal. Overrun, his book about Asian carp in North America, will be published in Spring 2019 by ECW Press. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights. Follow him on Twitter.