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The New Wild - Fred Pearce *****

If you are interested in the environment, a new book by Fred Pearce is always a red letter day, and never more so than with his new title on the bizarre portrayal of invasive species and how we need a very different picture of the 'balance of nature' and the environment.

I was a little worried when I first saw the book as it seemed to be treading very similar ground to Ken Thomson's Where Do Camels Belong? and there was certainly an overlap, as both cover the way that 'alien' species that come into a country from elsewhere are treated hysterically by some conservationists and ecologists, with very little scientific backing for their arguments. But Camels concentrates primarily on the species themselves, how transfers from place to place are perfectly normal, and just how difficult it is to define what is a native or an alien species, while The New Wild is more about the politics and big picture aspects.

You know this is going to be special when Pearce opens with the fascinating story of Ascension Island's Green Mountain, which provides a powerful illustration of the odd nature of purist, anti-immigration ecological thinking. This volcanic structure was pretty much devoid of life when Darwin saw it in the 1830s, but now it is a thriving ecostructure, with a host of non-native plants, that provides an environment that has also enabled native plants and wildlife to flourish, thanks to the 'artificial' invaders. Some ecologists think it is an abomination - and yet it supports diverse wildlife, is deeply biodiverse and provides a far richer environment than the previous wasteland.

As Pearce reveals, though some ecologists are coming around to the new way of thinking, plenty of large bodies including governments, the UN and the WWF have a peculiar idea that any particular environment has a unique and singular 'balance of nature' and allowing invaders in ruins this, resulting in devastation and destruction. Yet as the book reveals time and time again, in the vast majority of cases nature is far more robust than this suggests, and not only welcomes invaders but becomes a more diverse ecological environment as a result. There seems to be an old school of environmentalism, driven by evangelical fervour rather than science, that wants everything to return to an Eden-like original perfection that is imaginary, impossible to achieve and ludicrous as a goal.

As the book unfolds, Pearce demonstrates many times the use of bad science. There's cherry picking of data - only selecting examples where a particular 'alien' species has caused damage and never looking at the far more frequent situations where they provide benefits. There's more cherry picking when, for instance, the damage cats do to birds is costed, but there is no mention of the benefit from them catching mice. What's more, the costing doesn't make much sense. Each bird kill in the US is costed at $30, but as Pearce points out, how does a cat killing a bird have this impact on the US economy? There's poor sourcing of data - scary numbers for costs and damages that when Pearce traces them back to the source were guesses, off the cuff remarks or numbers that bear no resemblance to reality. And there's even cheating. For instance, rats are one of the few invasive species it's hard to say anything good about, so they rightly have an environmental cost. But when they are said to produce a cost of $25 billion in India alone, it isn't pointed out that the main culprit is the native black rat, not an invader at all. 

In the end, Pearce points out the apparently obvious that there is no such thing as a perfect 'balance of nature' in a particular habitat. Things have always changed and always will. Apart from anything else, there is hardly any habitat in the world that hasn't already been significantly modified by humans - including both the Amazon rain forest and apparently pristine African animal reserves - both vastly different from the way they were a few hundred years ago. The hysteria about keeping invasive species out and protecting an imaginary perfect past is totally ridiculous.

If I have one criticism of the book, there are quite long sections where Pearce just throws one example after another at us. I felt a slight urge to say 'Okay, we've got the point, move on.' But I presume the author wanted to underline how prevalent (and silly) this 'preserve in aspic' approach is. I also think he could have made a little more of the difficulty of establishing what is a native species. Pearce goes along with the conventional conservationist view that the rabbit is an alien to the UK, because it was introduced from Spain about 1,000 years ago. But he misses the point Thompson makes that it was only non-native because it was wiped out by earlier climate change. It was just a re-introduction, not an invasion by an alien. Oh and a very small whinge - the hardback has a transparent plastic cover that is very pretty, but made it slightly unpleasant to hold.

Overall an excellent book that every government minister, civil servant and NGO person involved in the control of invasive species (we spend many millions on this!) should be forced to study, and then to seriously re-evaluate their policies. And the rest of us should read it too. Fascinating.


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Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. As a native-plants grower and on-the-ground restorationists for many years, I'm mystified at how full of apparent "hate" and contempt the Neo-Greens (or "new environmentalists" as they like to call themselves) are against those who "hate" invasive species. It seems obvious there's a chip-on-the-shoulder factor here that is not being examined by unhelpful book reviews like the above. But there's also a much deeper question that journalists covering the "environmentalist" beat need to pursue with much more vigor than they do. We "old-school environmentalists" (a silly notion if there ever was one) have never suggested going back to "eden". Most of us, in fact, don't believe in biblical nature gardens of all. What we have been devoting our working lives to is the empirically-driven proposition that if we humans can't learn to be humble enough to quit screwing up every ecosystem we come across we will soon cease to be part of nature's resilient capacity to change, as will a lot of other innocent species who, if we look deep into our mere human hearts that come up with such verbose debates as the neo-greens seem to generate an endless supply of, deserve a break. It's no coincidence that the neo-greens' talking points are in step with the corporatists of the world who make good money destroying the planet. "Conservation" and "Environmental" non-profit or career-track professionals (both academics and writers) need, or at least desire, grant money these days, and any university system still telling the truth can testify what kind of corporate strings are attached to the big bucks. Finally, to equate somebody who sees the value of native ecosystems with anti-immigration bigotry is beyond bizarre and a sure sign of that chip on the shoulder. Racism is about people hating people. We're talking about different species here. There's the english language to consider, n'est pas?

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