Lessons from Nature: invasive aliens

Invasive species alert sign
Sign warning of the presence of zebra mussels, an invasive alien species.
Migrants throwing rocks at helicopter
Central American economic migrants throw rocks at a circling helicopter in Mexico, on their way to the United States (where they plan to illegally cross the border), November 2018.

I have spent a lot of years of my life teaching outdoor and environmental education, conservation education, and sustainable agriculture education. And one thing I have learned, as a guiding principle, is that the natural world can often serve as a lens through which to view human society with greater clarity and awareness.

Let me cite one example, which seems to be impinging itself upon us, here in the West, with greater and greater urgency:

It is now a commonplace, among the “talking heads” of the Western media, political, and academic elite, that “diversity is a strength.” Some even go so far as to say that diversity is “our” strength. The notion is not completely without merit: there is a type of diversity which can be a strength.

The biologist and ecologist E.O. Wilson, for example, has demonstrated how biodiversity can greatly enhance resilience: the ability of, for example, a natural forest ecosystem to resist the impacts of a changing climate, or infestation by pests or diseases, especially as compared to a monoculture tree plantation, or a grain farm.

But – and this is a big “but”! – this is true only of a certain type of diversity, the sort which comes about naturally, over centuries or even millennia. An example in the natural world might be a healthy forest, meadow, or wetland. And example in human society might be the tremendous diversity of cultures, customs, and tradition which make up the vibrant tapestry of Europe.

Ecologists have long recognized the existence of a category of organisms to which “human ecologists” appear oblivious (or, more accurately, feel socially and politically constrained to ignore or deny): invasive aliens, which often find fertile soil in a new ecosystem, in which are there few or no natural controls to limit their spread. Invasive aliens in their original locality are perfectly fine and non-disruptive, because there are natural controls that limit their spread, and prevent them from getting out of hand.

An example might be Starlings, which in Britain are quite charming and beloved (or so I understand). But when a lover of literature decided that America should have examples of every bird mentioned in Shakespeare, and released Starlings here, they became a problem: wondering aimlessly because their natural migration instincts were disrupted, in large flocks that can cause hygiene and even safety concerns for human communities, they also can out-compete native birds for resources: food and nesting sites.

Many other examples could be cited: English Sparrows, Nutria (an aquatic mammal), Northern Snakeheads (a voraciously predatory fish), and the above-mentioned zebra mussels; in the plant world, multiflora rose, Autumn (Russian) olive, kudzu, water hyacinth, tree of heaven (ailanthus), and the list goes on. The existence of these alien species may appear to increase the overall biodiversity of the ecosystem, but that is an illusion; their effects are actually to suppress that diversity in the long run, due to their impact on native species and the ecosystem itself.

It’s not that any of these are necessarily bad in and of themselves; but they’re in a place where they don’t belong; and as a consequence are causing disruption, ecological and sometimes economic damage, and so on. And – of perhaps critical importance – once they become established, they are very difficult to get rid of! I am reminded of the old Bedouin proverb, “don’t let the camel get his nose inside the tent.”

It seems to me that the situation with respect to human migrants, in Europe and indeed throughout the West (we’re dealing with “caravans” of Central American economic migrants on our Southwestern borders, here in the U.S.), is fairly precisely analogous to the situation in natural ecosystems, when facing the presence of invasive aliens.

The difference is that these particular “invasive aliens” are not being recognized as such; and that lack of recognition is being done willfully, knowingly, and for social and political (even economic) reasons. In fact, that they are a problem is often vigorously denied. That makes it even more difficult to prevent them from causing damage and disruption to the human “ecosystems” into which they are streaming.

As the saying goes, the first step toward solving a problem is admitting that the problem exists! Until that happens, you can’t even begin to think constructively about how to solve it.

Author: The Anglophilic Anglican

I am an ordained Anglican clergyman, published writer, former op-ed columnist, and experienced outdoor and informal educator. I am also a traditionalist: religiously, philosophically, politically, and socially. I seek to do my bit to promote and restore the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, in a world which has too-often lost touch with all three, and to help re-weave the connections between God, Nature, and humankind which our techno-industrial civilization has strained and broken.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s