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Thursday, June 30, 2022
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Are we an invasive species?

Decrying humankind as an invasive species ignores thousands of years of co-evolution between mankind and nature, not to mention indigenous cultures that have a deep love for the land.

It seems not a single undergraduate discussion of invasive species can pass without some philosophically-inclined baby biologist pondering aloud, “You know… maybe humans are the invasive species.” 

It’s worth noting that invasive is a negatively connotated description, which has the unfortunate effect of anthropomorphizing plants and animals that are not good or evil — they just are. There are beneficial invasive species; Wisconsin has not had native earthworms since its glaciation. The familiar friends wriggling in your yard were introduced by settlers. So were honeybees. 

Our burgeoning biologist’s grave pronouncement can quickly sweep a somber shadow over the group, as many intone their agreement. Humans are destructive. Humans are a plague upon the earth, which would — with the way things are going — thrive without us. Humans are the problem. 

Humans aren’t not the problem. But really, it’s just a handful of humans causing the problem while billions of other, poorer humans suffer the consequences – a 2021 report from Oxfam International found that the richest 1% of people use approximately 30 times more carbon than the poorest 50%. The average citizen of a poor, undeveloped country’s carbon footprint is nearly negligible, and that of an average American is just a very small fraction when compared to the billionaires and fossil fuel executives who actively profit from watching the world burn. 

The impacts of climate change are far-reaching – even if your experience with biology extends no further than 10th grade frog dissections, you’re probably familiar with the idea of invasive species — introduced organisms that, by means of novel weapons or defenses, wreak havoc on native ecosystems. 

As our mobility has increased, going from legs to wheels, horses to cars and boats and trains to planes, so have the opportunities for exotic species to be introduced to new niches. Many of Wisconsin’s most prolific invasives, such as garlic mustard, were introduced by white settlers as they colonized previously indigenous land. Humans often directly facilitate the introduction of invasive species. But decrying humankind as an invasive species ignores thousands of years of co-evolution between mankind and nature, not to mention indigenous cultures that have a deep, mutual relationship with the land. 

In Wisconsin, we face a large variety of invasive species, many of which you have probably seen. The aforementioned garlic mustard abounds in our forests, poisoning the soil and choking out native vegetation. Invasive carp swim our streams, muddying the water and increasing the incidence of harmful algae. Buckthorn, honeysuckle, rusty crayfish… the list goes on and on. 

These invasives arrived with settlers, and like settlers, they haven’t and won’t go home. The lack of widespread invasives before colonization demonstrates that humans are not the problem. 

But if not humans, what is the problem? At risk of sounding too much like a hippy-dippy ecologist (which I honestly am), it is the unchecked federal and private disregard for the environment in favor of profit. It is imperialism and greed. The emergence of the emerald ash borer in North America absolutely epitomizes this dismissal; the borer made its way to North America in untreated, unregulated wood imported from Asia, and it proliferated under a lack of decisive action against invasion. 

Humans are not an invasive species. Colonizers are, and this can be a difficult truth to parse, especially for those who may not be Native, but have grown up in Wisconsin – if you are, in some way, the problem, what’s next? What keeps you from being an invasive species?

The answer lies in responsibility and mutual respect; caring for the land and people in your ecosystem allows you to make an actively positive impact that works to counteract the negative effects of colonization. 

There is another popular witticism among undergraduates flexing their remarkable acumen: “Ecosystems are constantly in flux, perhaps we should let nature take its course. Survival of the fittest.” That’s definitely an option. We could completely give up attempts at restoration, abandon our ecosystems and wait for a new regime of species to take over. 

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It’s true that attempts to define exactly what constitutes an invasive species must conquer complicated questions — ecosystems are shifting poleward as global warming makes their prior habitats unsuitable. Are these ecosystems invasive in their new high-latitude homes? Should beneficial invasives, like our dear worms, be sent packing with little worm suitcases, back to Europe? 

The solution many biologists have reached is a case-by-case approach that fully considers the ecological effects of invasive species, positive and negative. Is an introduced species of bird perhaps decimating a local toad population, while also dispersing the seeds of a plant whose original disperser is now functionally extinct? Then perhaps the solution is to find ways to mediate predation on the toads, rather than fully excommunicating the birds. We can let nature take its course in an intentional, guided way – just like we’ve been doing for millennia! 

The problem with the just-let-it-happen ideology, then, is the apathy and lack of responsibility it instills. If we just let supposed-nature take its course, we remove any obligation to make personal efforts to protect native ecosystems, and we save ourselves the grief of a struggle that often feels pointless. We separate ourselves from nature, severing the millennia-long connection between humans and land. 

It’s understandable. But we need our native ecosystems. Humans are part of these ecosystems, like it or not, and the loss of our ecological communities would have catastrophic consequences on all our lives and livelihoods. Gone would be the joys of days spent fishing, or hunting, or smelling Wisconsin’s beautiful wildflowers – and beyond simple pleasures, gone would be the pollinators who help in crop production, the frogs who keep us from being even more surrounded by bugs than we already are, the wetlands that keep our cities from flooding. We rely on our ecosystems to protect us just as much as they rely on us to protect them. 

It’s understandable for our little baby biologists to feel rather put-upon, or guilty – human activities have done an almost unimaginable amount of ecological damage, and the road ahead will be difficult to navigate, but it won’t be impossible. Humans are not an invasive species, and yes, nature does turn on change; but we are not without responsibility – we too are nature, and have power to change our situation. We have the knowledge needed to save our ecosystems. We just need to put it into practice. 

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