How Not to ‘Save the World’

Some months ago, a senior academic and I talked as we drove the many hours to the project site. He was informing me on his views regarding invasive species, some of which I thought were questionable.

To clarify, I bluntly asked, “What do you think we should do with weeds?”

He replied, with all the authority that he could muster, “Get rid of them.”

I didn’t pursue the conversation any further at that point. I knew from experience that the tone was one baiting me into a debate. I’m usually all for a debate, where I see value. In this case however, the individual is one who likes the fight more than a resolution and I’m not really one for that.

It’s a nice idea to remove weeds and certainly not impossible… as long as you throw enough money at the problem. This is where the environmental debate fails all the time.

It could be in discussions regarding invasive species management, limiting the impact of pollution or even climate change. Whatever the subject, for the most part, we can eventually achieve the currently unthinkable if only we wish to drain enough resources into it.

Those who fall prey to sci-fi resolution to problems, starting the discussion not unlike an Arthur C. Clark story, imagining the problem is soon to be resolve and the discussion should be about what this means for us, just like the environmental romantic, are victims to the results, without object rational on how to reach them.

An excellent example in Australia is the olive. How much money should we spend on managing olives in natural landscapes when the recruitment of these comes from dedicated plantation? I once refused to buy Australian olives for this reason, but is such a protest of any value?

Am I giving up?

This isn’t to be confused with environmental defeatism that Bjørn Lomborg tries to pass off as realism.

Let’s put it this way; it’s not impossible to rebuild your house to correct all the problems, but can you really afford to do so, or does it make more sense to allocate some of your money to repair what you have?

The olive is an assimilated immigrant to Australia. It has its place now in the local culture and environment (is that cringing I hear?).

To this realisation we have two general options that have their relative expenses; we could “get rid of it”, which would close down the industry and outlaw all trees in backyards and public parks as well; or, we give it a citizenship, acknowledging it as a productive food source well suited to Australia in a warming climate.

The former would require a major PR campaign and many years of eradication and monitoring. The latter would likely see us not managing it as a weed, but rather as new competition to endemic species with the aim of promoting biodiversity which would include this new “local”. This would require effort and research.

Paved in good intentions

Environmental discourse has been plagued with romanticism or an unrealistic impression of “indestructibility” ever since the notion that it was a topic worth discussing became established.

The worst part is not that those who discuss environmental management most passionately are the most likely to fall into such a trap while those least likely will typically reject concern altogether, but rather that there is this line drawn in the sand between both extremes.

Either your hopelessly infatuated with a resilient (or fragile) Earth or concede that such musings are little more than a “liberal conspiracy”.

Where is the possibility to even start to discuss the place of the “Australian olive” for instance, in such an absurd and naïve situation?

To Get rid of it?

Over the last century, the Australian government and landholders has spent countless hours and dollars in management of the rabbit. This has included a 1700km rabbit-proof fence (build between 1901-07), two different viruses, warren destruction, chemical control and even explosives (read more here). Even while the most recent virus was having its greatest impact (1998-2003) the management cost for feral rabbits was estimated to be around $1 million (more here).

Yet, I see bunnies throughout Melbourne and right up to central NSW on a daily basis.

Yes, something must be done and our efforts have had an impact, but how much really? We can’t rebuild the house, but equally, electrical tape over the tap isn’t going to stop the leak.

Out with the old

The olive and the rabbit are not good comparisons. Olives will forever spread while they are being farmed where ol’ bugs just has a thing for breeding prolifically.

The point is that the current attitudes and strategies do not reflect the realistic capacities of management options and beneficial outcomes. I’m tired of the blanket eradication message where the reality continually fails to meet the target. I’m just as tired of the dismissal scoffs of the other side of the discussion.

We need approach species management with fresh eyes and very likely, different goals. The promotion of biodiversity would be an excellent target. The promotion of productive ecosystems which thrive while providing services to urban landscapes would be another one.

In short, there is nothing ignoble in rethinking our relationship with other life and in designing ecosystems with which our landscapes actively interact. To be absolutely frank, there is no other multi-cellular organism as invasive as ourselves, but at least we have the capacity to promote ecosystems, rather than out compete all else until we are the last one standing should we choose to.

We need a new dialogue willing to step back, compromise or actively engage where it is needed, without unrealistic ideation or denial. This will start with an internal look on ourselves and our place within ecosystems.


About Moth
Situated in Victoria, Australia, I have a background in ecology, atmospheric / meteorological monitoring and analysis as well as web / graphic design. On New Anthropocene, my main interest is scientific accuracy and arguing for sound policies so that we can hope to obtain the best quality lives for our species. My work is entirely my own and does not reflect that of my employer nor does it endorse a particular political party. Please read my full statement for further information.

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4 responses to “How Not to ‘Save the World’

  1. Your post makes me think of the effort required to prevent the extinction of the New Zealand Kiwi. They are currently going to great lengths in New Zealand to keep this species alive and it involves things like searching for eggs in the wild, trucking them across the country to a sanctuary where they get hatched and where the birds must grow and reach a certain weight before being trucked back across the country and released. I do wonder whether anybody has bothered to ask whether this is worth it? I think we should try to prevent species extinction wherever possible but if it means the creature is forever dependent on us for their very survival then I’m not so sure. Of course I fully acknowledge that we are the reason they now have this struggle and if possums and rats and stoats had not been introduced to New Zealand then the Kiwis would be fine, but alas, these predators are there now and it is seemingly impossible to change that.

    • I agree. There’s little point in our activities pretty much being an ongoing life support function. The whole discussion is far too limited.

  2. Some invasive species pose a problem. Some not so much. Im thrilled with the palm trees in Vancouver and the north shore of Lake Erie. As climate changes vegetation will change whether we encourage it on no.
    Itès not your grandfather’s world.
    Terry

    • I’ve got an article you’ll probably like that will appear in a journal later this month. I’ll report on it once it’s live.

      The funny thing about your grandfather’s landscape through much of the New World, especially Australia, is.that it was already heavily modified by the Western cultures

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