The “Native” Question

No doubt each of us is familiar with the concept of native plants and animals. Nativism is by no means a new concept, but it is one that is often supported by fallacies and pseudoscience. It is probably one of the most misunderstood concepts in conservation policy. The problem is that the foundational values on which nativism rests is not clearly outlined in everyday thought because it is not a subject that is easily communicated since the value of native animals and plants has become so distorted through scientific understanding of ecology, the political and social perception of the “threat” of exotic species, and finally perhaps the most underappreciated source of value but perhaps mostly important to our appreciation of the concept of nativism which can be found in our rejection of the homogenisation of planetary ecology and the formation of mono-cultures resulting from invasive species.

It’s not uncommon to find arguments coming from ill-informed positions claiming that all introduced species have negative effects on the local ecosystems, nor is it uncommon to hear arguments claiming that introduced species tend to overtake local environments and become invasive. There are lots of other arguments like this that are overly simplistic and fallacious. Not all introduced species have negative effects on local ecosystems just as not all introduced species become invasive. Some certainly do on both counts, but a scientific argument for favouring native over introduced species in not something that can be easily justified absolutely. Yet it is all to common for politicians to cloud scientific information into political rhetoric that distorts the issue and misinforms the public as they push fallacious and poorly crafted ideology into conservation policy.

These quotes taken from Hettinger (2001) from a range of sources highlight the problems:

“invasive alien species… homogenize the diversity of creation… Weeds – slowly, silently, almost invisibly, but steadily – spread all around us until, literally encircled, we can no longer turn our backs. The invasion is now our problem, our battle, our enemy…” – Former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (1998)

“I just hate them. They are genetically deviant miscreants that have no rightful place on this planet. We all have to be a part of this war on weeds.”– Former Montana Governor Marc Racicot (1999)

These represent just a few examples of politicising an issue which for better or worse is becoming increasingly common throughout the world as humans travel more and more taking within their luggage unwitting passengers. This kind of rhetoric is deeply troubling, as it can and does lead to significant cruelty to so called “invasive alien species”. By labelling animals that are simply surviving as “enemies” in a “war” we create an us verses them dichotomy which plays into a kind of thinking which is deeply troubling – the idea that “natural” is the same as morally good or right. One reason for the concern with this kind of rhetoric also is that it resembles very closely the kind of rhetoric used prior to world war two by Nazi inspired botanists and biologists that helped seed the idea in the masses that certain people just like invasive species were to be dealt with:

“As with the fights against Bolshevism, our entire Occidental culture is at stake, so with the fight against this Mongolian invader, an essential element of this culture, namely, the beauty of our home forest, is at stake.”– Groning and Wolschke-Bulmahn, “Native Plants” (1939)

So easily does the idea that native species as best suited to a local environment does it become, my native species is best as we commonly conflate the idea that native species are “natural” and that “natural” is always right and good.

What else can we say about native plants that makes biodiversity and preserved local ecology so important to us? After all, nature itself has not desire or stake in this discussion – we do. Nature is ever changing with species ever moving to gain a new foothold in another local environment. Ecology and landscapes move and reshape through geological time such that they would be unrecognisable in just a few millennia if left to themselves. So why this ecosystem present today in the thousands of National Parks in existence and not an ecosystem as it was 500 or 5000 or even 50000 years ago? This is not a question that is easy to answer except to say that the kind of nature that we value and preserve depends on that kinds of value we place on it and the kinds of things we value in nature – of which native plants and animals are usually more highly regarded. It is our judgements and our perception on the local ecosystem that determines what we value and the state we wish to keep it in.

“The defence against all these misuses, from mild to virulent, lies in a profoundly humanistic notion as old as Plato, one that we often advance in sheepish apology but should rather honor and cherist: the idea that “art” must be defined as the caring, tasteful, and intelligent modification of nature for respectful human utility. If we can practice this art in partnership with nature, rather than by exploitation (and if we also set aside large areas for rigidly minimal disturbance, so that we never forget, and may continue to enjoy, what nature accomplished during nearly all of her history without us), then we may achieve optimal balance.

People of goodwill may differ on the best botanical way to capture the “spirit of democracy” – from one end of maximal “respect” for nature by using only her unadorned and locally indigenous (“native”) products, to the other of maximal use of human intelligence and aesthetic feeling in sensitive and “respectful” mixing of natives and exotics, just as our human populations have so benefited from imported diversity.” – Gould (1998, p9).

This discourse does not mean that the concept of native is void or useless, only that the knee-jerk response to the term seems to be irrational. Especially when politically the idea of “native” seems to fit so easily with what is “morally best” – we must instead reflect on the idea of value, and consider what it is that excites our imagination and creativity. Biodiversity can sometimes mean that exotic species add to the overall balance of a local ecosystem and “Native” species cannot be deemed in all cases to be ecologically best in any justifiable way. But this does not mean that we should find the idea of “homogenisation” of biology or the creation of “mono-cultures” as undesirable. Because, (1) this will invariably mean that many native species will become extinct, and (2) reduce the variety and diversity of life on this planet will reduce the overall aesthetic experiences (and subsequently value) available to us. These objections tie into two main concerns, one with that morally questionable notion of allowing yet more lifeforms to permanently disappear from existence adding yet more ecological devastation at the feet of humans, and that less variety means less aesthetic possibility and reduced value. Such devastation would no doubt be considered aesthetically and morally repugnant. The greatest response one can take from the idea of “native” plants is not that they are superior or right, but that it is respectful, and considerate of the local ecosystem. That it allows that local character of a region to form and be distinct while allowing the best opportunity for nature and the local ecosystem to go on existing, changing and reshaping itself for centuries to come.

“I would certainly be horrified to watch the botanical equivalent of McDonalds’ uniform architecture and cuisine wiping out every local diner… Cherishing native plants does allow us to defend and preserve a maximal amount of local variety.

But we must also acknowledge that strict “nativism” has an ethical downside inherent in the notion that “natural” must be right and best, for such an attitude easily slides to the Philistinism of denying and role to human intelligence and good taste, thence to the foolish romanticism of viewing all that humans might accomplish in nature as ‘bad’.” Gould (1998, p9)

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