Environmentalism & Nativism
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August 04, 2011, 04:39 AM
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For some time, environmentalists have been aggressively nativist when it comes to plants and animals. Environmentalists don’t like, say, foreign transplants, such as rats driving extinct all the native birds on remote islands. They don’t like kudzu covering up much of the Southeast.

But that increasingly raises feeling of psychological unease and impurity in the minds of 21st Century environmentalists. If, as we all know, nativism is the worst thing in the history of the world when it comes to people, how can nativism be good when it comes to plants and animals?

After all, conservation in America was largely invented by people who were nativists about flora, fauna, and people, such as Madison Grant. Back in the 1990s, the wealthy couple of David Gelbaum and Monica Chavez Gelbaum bought the Sierra Club’s soul for $100,000,000 on the condition that they drop their immigration restrictionist stance and thus their stance against population growth in the U.S. and in the Sierra Club’s home state of California. This epochal switch has largely disappeared down the memory hole. Today, everybody assumes that plant nativists are, by the nature of their superior morality, human antinativists. But there are psychological tensions in this inherent contradiction.

Now, the easiest thing to do is to simply ignore the contradiction. But it gnaws away at some.
From the Boston Globe:

The invasive species war

Do we protect native plants because they’re better for the earth, or because we hate strangers? A cherished principle of environmentalism comes under attack

… The reasons to fight invasive species may be economic, or conservationist, or just practical, but underneath all these efforts is a potent and galvanizing idea: that if we work hard enough to keep foreign species from infiltrating habitats where they might do harm, we can help nature heal from the damage we humans have done to it as a civilization.

In the past several months, however, that idea has come under blistering attack. In a polemical essay that appeared in the leading science journal Nature in June, a biologist from Macalester College in Minnesota named Mark Davis led 18 other academics in charging that the movement to protect ecosystems from non-native species stems from a “biological bias” against arbitrarily defined outsiders that ultimately does more harm than good. According to Davis and his co-authors, the fight against invaders amounts to an impossible quest to restore the world to some imaginary, pristine state. The world changes, they argue, and in some cases, the arrival of a new plant or animal can actually help, rather than hurt, an ecosystem.

The whole idea of dividing the world into native and non-native species is flawed, the article says, because what seems non-native to one generation might be thought of as a local treasure by the next. Instead we should embrace “novel ecosystems” as they form, and assess species based on what they do rather than where they’re from.

“Newcomers are viewed as a threat because the world that you remember is being displaced by this new world,” Davis said recently. “I think that’s a perfectly normal and understandable human reaction, but as scientists we need to be careful that those ideas don’t shape and frame our scientific research.”

The article in Nature joined similar arguments that had recently appeared in the journal Science as well as the op-ed page of The New York Times, where an anthropologist who had recently become a naturalized US citizen likened the control of invasive species to the anti-immigration movement. These critiques of so-called “ecological nativism” inspired equally spirited responses by scientists, including a letter in Nature signed by 141 scientists arguing that Davis and his cohort had downplayed the dangers of non-native species while distorting the work of ecologists and conservationists.

For environmentalists and anyone worried about a local lake or forest, trying to keep the potential carnage at bay seems like a no-brainer: if non-native species might destroy an ecosystem we cherish, then of course we should do what we can to suppress them. …
One of the first people to publicly make this “anti-nativist” argument was, somewhat surprisingly, the journalist Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and hero to locavores everywhere. He wrote an essay about it in the New York Times Magazine in 1994, focusing on the native gardening movement that was sweeping the United States at the time. Proponents of natural gardening had been calling on their fellow green thumbs to stop planting exotic species in their backyards; Pollan did not mince words in communicating his distaste for the practice, suggesting it came out of an impulse that was “antihumanist” and “xenophobic,” and even tracing its history back to a “mania for natural gardening” in Nazi-era Germany.

While Pollan said in an interview that he now regrets resorting to the Hitler button to make his point, he maintains that there is something worrying about the zeal with which some environmentalists seek to keep foreigners out of places where they think they don’t belong.
“We should always be alert that even those of us who think they’re practicing pure science or pure environmental policy are sometimes influenced by other ideas, other feelings,” Pollan said. “And we should interrogate ourselves to see if that’s what’s going on.”

Have you ever noticed how much the left loves the word “interrogate?” Ve haf veys of making you talk!

This point was echoed this past spring by Hugh Raffles, an anthropologist at the New School who wrote the essay comparing invasive species to immigrants. “We choose to designate some plants and animals as native because they fit with the way that we want the landscape to look,” said Raffles in an interview. If you call something native, he added, “you should realize you’re just making certain claims about what you want to see and what you think is important to preserve.”

THE SCIENTISTS WHO study non-native species and try to control them are called invasion ecologists, and they’re used to feeling embattled. But their opponents usually come from the political right, and can be counted on to dismiss most any effort at conservation as an expensive nuisance or an impediment to industry. This other contingent, though - the one that includes Davis, Pollan, and Raffles - comes from a less obvious place. Suddenly, these environmentalists who have always identified with progressive ideals are themselves being accused of being conservative, backwards - even intolerant.

Their reply is that, as scientists, their job is to save plants and animals from extinction, protect their habitats, and make sure that subsequent generations get to enjoy as much of the earth as possible. To suggest that the work has xenophobic connotations, they say, amounts to little more than academic noodling - a philosophical stance at best, and a harmful distraction at worst.

… Is the debate simply over rhetoric, then? If it is, its fierceness has highlighted just how important rhetoric is to the environmentalist movement, and how valuable the distinction between native and non-native is in terms of rallying people to the cause of conservation. Psychologically, it’s not hard to see why the anti-nativist position holds an appeal, and why it would worry environmentalists.

One of my readers comments:

The Left finds a psychologically worrying element in environmentalism. Environmentalism’s defense of native species against invasive species that may decimate or marginalize the natives could have psychologically ‘racist’ ramifications. (After all, some racial ideologues have said if species of animals and plants deserve to be protected, so should the races and cultures of man.)

Environmentalism, associated with the Left, is now suspected of harboring subconscious ‘racist’, ‘nativist’, and ‘xenophobic’ tendencies, which though applied to animals and plants, may contaminate our view of races, cultures, and nations as well.

Again, it goes to show that the Leftist war on the West isn’t only ideological but psychological. It doesn’t only oppose ‘racism’ but all forms of thoughts and feelings that may be psychologically connected to ‘racism’ and ‘nationism’.

Sierra Club gave up on immigration-control, and it may now even have to give up on saving native species. I suppose it was great tht cats and rats introduced to the Galapagos ate up all the eggs of tortoises. And what did American Indians have to worry about when the white man came? Those damned racists! And what did Palestinians have to worry from the massive inflow of Jews in the 1940s? Terrorist scum.

I increasingly find myself as The Last Moderate. Consider the question of native plants in my native land, Southern California. Before the white man arrived, Southern California was remarkably lacking in food crops. The Indians gathered acorns, which is a last resort food, because it takes a fair amount of work to make them edible. You’ll notice how nobody bothers eating acorns these days.
Americans quickly noticed that, given enough irrigation, practically any plant from anywhere in the world will grow in Southern California. For much of the first half of the 20th Century, Los Angeles County was the number one agricultural producer in the country.
Moreover, in ornamental plants, this welcoming climate led to comic levels of diversity in landscaping, with one street having 150-foot tall fan palms (the iconic plant that makes a good logo for L.A. in silhouette, but looks like a hyperextended mop in reality), next to giant, dusty eucalyptuses from Australia, next to large but not quite thriving redwoods from northern California.
Growing up, I found the L.A. residents’ penchant for decorative diversity, self-expression, and phoniness amusing. More aesthetically sensitive souls, however, did not. For example, Nathanael West raged apocalyptically in Day of the Locust against L.A.’s diversity of architecture: ”But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses … Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon.”
Over tiem, I increasingly have come to appreciate the native environment, or at least it’s better aspects. Let’s prioritize, however, what we want to preserve. In Southern California, southern-facing slopes are blasted by the sun, and thus tended to be covered by impenetrable, gray-green-brown sage brush. We’ve got plenty of sage brush, so, go ahead, pave it over. I don’t care enough to pay much to save some marginal sage brush. In contrast, cooler north-facing slopes tend to be forested with a small variety of native oaks, sycamores, and a few other trees. Thus, north facing slopes should be higher up on the conservation priority list than south facing slopes.