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Fred Pearce - Four Way Interview

Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in London.  A former news editor of the UK-based New Scientist magazine, he has been its environment consultant since 1992, reporting from 86 countries.  He also writes regularly for the Yale e360 web site in the US, and the Guardian and other newspapers in the UK, as well as irregularly for many other outlets, including the Washington Post.  His most recent book is The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature's salvation.  Others include: The Land Grabbers, Confessions of an Eco Sinner and When the Rivers Run Dry, which was listed among the all-time Top 50 Sustainability Books by the University of Cambridge’s Programme for Sustainable Leadership.  His books have been translated into 23 languages. 

Why science?

I was a geographer way back.  I'm never sure if that is true science, but it certainly led me to environmental reporting.  I have been doing that for upwards of 30 years now, initially writing about toxic tips and such like for local government magazines, then moving to New Scientist, for whom I still work regularly as a freelance.  I write about science for environmentalists and about the environment for scientists.  I have (I hope) been kept honest and rigorous by New Scientist's editors and readers - though I must admit to shock at discovering the laxness sometimes exhibited in research into invasive species, which many scientists seem to view through blinkers as bad as those of many journalists!

I like to keep people at the centre of what I write.  I am as interested in development issues as in the environment per se.  I sometimes say I write about everything from micro-credit to the ozone layer.  I am not a tree-hugger or people-hater.  And I like to be heretical, exploring the truth or otherwise of many environment nostrums.  In particular, I have taken on the doomsday wing of environmentalism - those who believe that the 'population bomb' will doom us all (the bomb is fast being defused) or that technology is a false solution (it is probably the only solution).

Why this book?

I have written my share of scare stories about alien species.  But I have increasingly felt they are just that - scare stories sustained by some dodgy science and unthinking environmentalism. I also came to realise two other things.  First there is little pristine out there any more.  Even rainforests are mostly regrowth.  In the Anthropocene, pretending there is pristine nature to be protected is a bit silly.  Second, there is a revolution going on in ecology.  It is become clear that conventional ideas about 'climax' ecosystems that have evolved to some kind of perfected state, where each species has a defined niche, is largely nonsense.  Most ecosystems are dynamic, constantly changing and adapting - and that was the case long before humans came on the scene.  Darwin never said evolution was producing perfection, and there is no evidence it does.  That is a myth of conservation ecology.

The real genesis for the book was the thought that, if the new ecologists are right, then that completely changes how we should think about alien species.  If ecosystems are perfected then of course they can only be disruptive; but if they are constantly changing, with new species coming and going, then there is nothing intrinsically bad about aliens.  And with the discovery that aliens rarely cause extinctions and mostly add to biodiversity, I began to conclude that these colonist, go-getter species were often part of nature's adaptive response to the ecological destruction caused by humans, rather than being part of the problem.  I guess that is the take-home message.

What’s next?

I don't know.  Journalism is the day job.  So I will keep reporting on the things that interest me until something jumps out that I think is worth a year or so of detailed exploration.  My big fear is that I commit to a book and then get bored half way through.  My big hope is that if I don't get bored, then my readers won't either.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Climate change is the big story.  It is not the only thing going on to concern us in the environment, but it is the over-arching backdrop to everything else.  Nothing is unchanged by what we are doing to the climate.  But that leads me to think more about the great Earth systems - the ocean currents and cycles of key elements like carbon and nitrogen, that sustain our planet for life.  What the climate change story shows is that we are influencing this life-support system in fundamental ways.  We are pulling at some of the basic Gaian levers of the planet's machinery.  The carbon cycle is the planet's thermostat.  It's scary.  But, became I am a journalist, I will at any moment be onto something else.  I just wrote a story about the role of crabs in mangrove swamps.  Completely new to me, and fascinating.

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