Biological Xenophobia Threatens Environmental Diversity

What makes a so-called "invasive" species unworthy of environmentalists' compassion?
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    A coypu, also known as a nutria, rests. The South American-native animal has been deemed a so-called "invasive" species in parts of the U.S. where it now thrives after having been introduced by breeders who valued the animal for its fur. (Photo/Allie Caulfield/Flickr)

    A coypu, also known as a nutria, rests. The South American-native animal has been deemed a so-called “invasive” species in parts of the U.S. where it now thrives after having been introduced by breeders who valued the animal for its fur. (Photo/Allie Caulfield/Flickr)

    “In San Francisco, on the Channel Islands, all across the United States, plants and animals are being trapped, poisoned, hunted, burned and destroyed by people who claim the mantle of environmentalism; by groups like the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the Sierra Club. When Illinois spent $3,000,000 dumping tons of chemicals into Lake Michigan to kill one fish (and ended up killing hundreds of thousands of others), the Natural Resources Defense Council cheered,” says Nathan J. Winograd, Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center.

    Winograd is speaking about a disturbing recent phenomenon being referred to as biological xenophobia, a trend in which so-called environmentalists are resorting to extreme, potentially damaging means in an effort to solve environmental problems.

    Species of both plants and animal life which are not native to a certain region are being termed “invasive species” and some environmentalists are urging that they be destroyed.

    Winograd points out that such extreme measures like “mass killing and the eating of animals that do not pass the arbitrary litmus test of worthiness by environmentalists” is on the table with this trend.

    However, environmentalists and ecologists argue that there are many practical reasons why people should work to limit an “invasion” of foreign species. Specifically they argue that these species may proliferate wildly in a new region, which can do damage to the entire ecosystem.

    This brand of environmental protection begs a careful examination by environmentalists and ethicists alike.


    Questions of ethics and tactics

    Is it ethically correct to kill in order to protect the greater good? This question permeates the debate between invasion biologists and those who are opposed to their actions. At the heart of this issue is the idea of protecting both plant and animal life.

    So-called Invasion Biologists in the U.S. believe that certain plants and animals should be valued more than others if they were at a particular location “first”– although the exact starting point varies, is difficult to ascertain and in many cases, is wholly arbitrary.

    While all species compete to survive, environmentalists believe that invasive species appear to have specific traits or specific combinations of traits that sometimes allow them to outcompete native species. In some cases the competition is about rates of growth and reproduction. In other cases species interact with each other more directly.

    “Invasive species are most commonly defined as a non-native plant, animal or other organism that dominates the encountered ecosystem and impairs its function and structure,” says Dr. Anna Szyniszewska in an article at, “Invasive species displace or damage native fauna and flora, often posing serious threats to local biodiversity and causing adverse environmental, economic or public health effects.”

    Those in opposition to doing away with such species say Invasion Biologists ultimately make unethical assertions that “introduced” or “non-native” species do not have value and are not worthy of compassion, those opposed to the killing of species say. Winograd argues these biologists then conclude that these species should therefore be eradicated “in order to return an area to some ill-defined, nostalgic past.”

    Indeed, all plants and animals were “introduced” (by wind, humans, migration, or other animals) at some point in time.

    So the question asked by those opposed to killing species is, why is it right to choose to destroy certain species at a particular location at one point in history?


    Environmentalists vs. “invasive species”

    Some recent examples of environmentalists trying to get rid of invasive species include the Audubon Society’s work with Congress to eradicate what they call “alien” species. “These aliens aren’t from outer space — they’re Earth-born and bred, and they’re infesting more than 100 million acres of American landscape,” the group’s website warns.

    The group lists such species as Chesapeake Bay’s northern snakehead fish, Burmese pythons — released by pet owners in southern Florida and now thriving in the Everglades — and the South American-native rodent called nutria, which now finds itself in the middle of the marsh in coastal Maryland.

    Because these species are not “native” to these areas, the group recommends they be targeted for extermination.

    “Audubon is working with Congress to develop and pass legislation that will curb the invasive threat,” the group says.

    In another example, an article in the New York Times takes up the topic of marine species labeled as invasive such as Asian carp, which have been working their way north from the Mississippi Delta since the 1990s, and the Nomura’s jellyfish inhabiting areas around the Yangtze River, near the Three Gorges Dam. According to the Times,

    Diners in Asia, where sesame-oil-drenched jellyfish salad has long been considered a delicious, wholesome dish, are way ahead of us. The citizens of Fukui, a northern Japanese island, coped by marketing souvenir cookies flavored with powdered jellyfish. Returning from a fact-finding mission to China, a professor from Japan’s National Fisheries University offered up 10 different recipes for preparing Nomura’s jellyfish. “Making them a popular food,” he told a Japanese newspaper, “is the best way to solve the problem.”

    Those who oppose these measures say it’s because the entire ideology has some troubling implications.

    “The idea that some animals have more value than others comes from a troubling belief that lineage determines the value of an individual animal. This belief is part of a growing and disturbing movement called Invasion Biology. The notion that “native” species have more value than “non-native” ones finds its roots historically in Nazi Germany, where the notion of a garden with native plants was founded on nationalistic and racist ideas cloaked in scientific jargon. This is not surprising. The types of arguments made for biological purity of people are exactly the same as those made for purity among animals and plants, “ Winograd says.

    In extending the analogy one is reminded of current and historical conflicts, not only in Nazi Germany but also in other areas of the world. Conflicts such as those which arose when swathes of Africa and the U.S. were colonized by Europeans, or when Palestinians were displaced by political Zionists seeking land in what is now Israel and Palestine could be examples of this.

    But as Szyniszewska argues, “It is important to remember that biological invasions are a fundamental and integral aspect of nature and have always been present in the history of life on Earth. What is of concern however, is the extraordinary rate at which the invasions are now taking place. This requires global attention and action.”

    Another looming question relating to this topic is the question of how we decide what an invasive species is.


    Moving forward together

    One may argue that this type of logic — that only “native” plants and animals have value — could point to another thought, and that is that human beings are also a non-native species in many corners of the world.

    Of course, wherever humans go they alter the environment and are responsible for the destruction of environmental and species degradation through habitat destruction and pollution.

    If environmentalists believe this, shouldn’t Invasion Biologists demand that non-native people leave areas they are harming?

    “If animals and insects are competitive and adapted to the environment they are in, they will thrive. If they can’t make a living, they will move on. If you call a species invasive because it moves to new areas, then our species, humans, are probably the most invasive species on the planet. Certainly, we have done as much or more damage in some areas as all the other species combined,” Wingrad surmises.

    We humans need to find a way to live peacefully with all species, and try to restore balance to our environment in non-violent ways.

    The ultimate goal of the environmental movement is supposed to be creating a peaceful and harmonious relationship between humans and the environment. How, then, is this accomplished by attempting to wipe out certain plant and animal species?

    We must learn to have respect for other species — be they human, flora or fauna, if we wish to avoid great harm, suffering and environmental degradation.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.

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