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Invasive species

rokojo's picture

Rose Kooper-Johnson

Nov 20 2014

Paper #11

Elizabeth Kolbert discusses the effects of “the new pangea” in her book The Sixth Extinction. This refers to the end of isolated species as humans carry organisms all over the world from their native locations to new ones. Occasionally, these species aggressively take over, destroying the environment they are transported to. As humans, our way of life depends on the results of this New Pangea. We consume very little that is truly native. As we moved and traveled, settled and colonized, so too did our organisms. This hasn’t come without a cost. Although there is some benefit to this transport of organisms, globalization has caused an extreme amount of harm in the world, ecologically as well as socially.

Globalization has had an obviously irreparable effect on the world’s ecology. One of the strongest examples of this is the existence of invasive species. These are species that have been brought to a new place where they hadn’t been seen before. A species can become invasive when it has no predators and is able to reproduce and thrive. If is introduced to a place it hasn’t been seen before, it has the potential to be too powerful. In the case of invasive species, this often means they overpower the native species. Elizabeth Kolbert describes this, saying, “The corollary to leaving old antagonists behind is finding new, naive organisms to take advantage of.” (Kolbert, 203) The columbian exchange brought food and livestock across oceans, leading to an increase of the types of food available. It also brought viruses and bacteria the natives had no immunity to. These viruses were too powerful in this situation therefore wiped out a large number of the native population. Of course, in this case, the settlers themselves were more powerful than the natives and they used this power to further diminish the native population. There is a clear parallel in this situation between humans using their power to take advantage of other humans and invasive species that take advantage of lack of predators to thrive at the expense of other species. In Ozeki’s novel All Over Creation, one of the characters, a farmer named Lloyd, makes this comparison to defend the globalization of different plants. He says, “There is an idea in circulation that these so-called “aggressive” non-native plants are harmful, invasive, and will displace “native” species. How ironic to hear these theories propounded by people of european ancestry in america! Just consider this: Not a single one of the food crops that make the U.S. an agricultural power today is native to North America. Our plants are as immigrant as we are!” (Ozeki, 67). The irony this character is talking about is that anyone who is non-native in America is an immigrant and the majority of cash crops in America are also “immigrants”. Our way of life is dependant on our history of our immigration as well as the immigration of our plants and bacteria and viruses. However, what he fails to mention is the fact that as immigrants, we were harmful, invasive, and displaced natives.

This immigration of humans and their organisms has led to the increase in different types of people and plants in one area. Ecologically, the introduction of a new species means there is more variety. However, over time, as mentioned earlier, these species find themselves at odds with the natives. “The immediate effect of all this reshuffling is a rise in what might be called local diversity...for the same reasons that local diversity has, as a general rule, been increasing, global diversity-the total number of different species that can be found worldwide-has dropped.” (Kolbert, 212). As organisms spread, compete, and become extinct, overall, there is a loss of diversity. Kolbert warns, “If we look far enough ahead, the eventual state of the biological world will become not more complex, but simpler-and poorer.” (Kolbert, 213). What happens then, when we examine Lloyd’s point of view? If the ecology of our planet is becoming less diverse, are we as humans also becoming less diverse? Interacting with different cultures and seeing different ways of life is an integral part of the human experience. It allows us to consider a different viewpoint, to imagine others complexely. However, what happens as globalization increases even further? At first, there is a greater interaction of people of different cultures, an increase in diversity. But over time, will diversity decrease? Is this a bad thing? We have seen the results of this in some ways. A common experience of immigration is the balance between maintaining one’s home culture/roots and trying to fit in with the culture of one’s new home. I think it’s safe to guess that over time as cultures continue to mix and move there will be an overall loss of human diversity as there has been ecologically. But the difference between loss of culture and loss of species is we as humans have a say in what we lose. We can fight back, form communities, keep traditions alive. Native species facing extinction can’t fight back against the forces that threaten their existence.

The results of human migration have led powerful organisms to take advantage of and destroy those at a disadvantage and the result has been an overall lack of biodiversity. The comparisons between this ecologial effect and the effects of human immigration are easy to make, however they are imperfect. The loss of biodiversity has serious life threatening effects on human life as we know it. Despite this, human movement isn't something that is likely to slow down or stop in the future. 


Anne Dalke's picture

I’m glad that you decided to dig into the “ironic” denunciation, by immigrant humans, of exotic plants, which Lloyd highlights in All Over Creation—and also that you decided to see how far you could push this analogy: how robust is it? You could push it further: our human travels are the cause of the loss of ecological diversity—but what are the (multiple) causes of our travels? Some of us choose to leave our homes, others of us are forced out…does this distinguish us from plants and animals? Does “choice” apply to (some of) them?

What actually interests me most here are your final questions: “over time, will diversity decrease? Is this a bad thing?” My 360° went to the Mütter Museum two weeks ago. This is an absolutely astonishing Philadelphia institution, which preserves a “pre-bacterial, pre-genetic conception of disease and pathology,” a “unique record of conditions now rare, due to nutrition, sanitation, therapy, medical practice….” Among the shockingly out-of-date descriptions of racial characteristics I saw the notation that these are harder to track “as the human race has migrated and melded.”

Such “migration and melding” is also taking place @ BMC. And so I’m thinking now of the recent-and-ongoing debate about the display of the Confederate Flag here. During last week’s Teach-In on “race and responsibility,” a historian and BMC faculty member asked, in a diverse community, “who gets to decide when a symbol changes its meaning?” During the same teach-in, an alum and lawyer observed that diverse, intentional communities like this one have the right to limit free speech. And in Lessons of a Flag Flap, a BMC alum, now a professor of the Africana Diaspora @ UTexas Austin, speaks of the value, for communities such as this one, of difficult-but-necessary dialogue.

Such are the dimensions of recovering “ecological intelligence” that Bowers guided us toward last week, transitioning from a conception of the autonomous individual to that of a cultural commons, as we come to understand how language carries forward misconceptions and values, and we thus try to  “escape from linguistic colonization of present by the past.”