This radio interview hopped into queue one morning as I made coffee. It's a discussion about a book release from environmental reporter Fred Pearce. From what I gather, his thesis in the book is that invasive species can actually be instrumental in our adaptation to environmental changes.
I have not read this book nor do I know the author so this is in no way an endorsement of the work or thesis (see Update at bottom). Still, the questions he asks are thought provoking and I appreciated his answers as fodder for city-building philosophy.
Consider a few lines from his radio interview:
On what he believes is a misguided attitude toward invasive species:
We're just very negative about them. We seem to think that they are destroying nature, that they are causing mass extinctions around the world [...] I think that the opposite is true. I think they are part of the solution...
There's a presumption that they're only going to do harm and we sort of look for the harm.
There are really very few pristine places on the planet. [...] We need to look at the dynamism of nature, look at how it can adapt and revive itself, and encourage those processes rather than - as I think many ecologists try to do these days - just trying to preserve ancient ecosystems or what we imagine to be pristine ecosystems.
I think we need to recognize that nature doesn't work in the neat, ordered kind of way we may quite like sometimes. Nature does its own thing.
On brownfield contaminated sites in the city:
It's kind of a made up ecosystem. It's just the species that showed up and could get by there.
We've done a huge amount of damage on this planet. There are huge areas of the planet that we've poisoned and ripped up and done terrible things to. And if we find species that are really good at moving in there, can handle disturbed soils, can handle polluted soils, [...] can sink their roots down really deep to find water or whatever their issues is in deserts, then these kind of species are, I would say, really rather useful. [...] They may be inconvenient. Sometimes they may just do their job too well. But I think this is part of nature's recovery, not some sort of sign that nature has been fatally damaged.
And a concluding thought:
If we're obsessed about the badness of alien species [...] then that leads us into some really very strange places. Places that have nothing to do with, I think, the value of nature or protecting biodiversity or being good for woodlands or any species. They have to do with our own obsessions about alien species. I think we have to get over those and get a bit more adult about some of these things.
In the words of a reviewer:
For the most part, the author brings the balanced perspective of a seasoned, freethinking environmental reporter, pushing points that need to be made—nature is a hothouse of change, an often temporary arrangement, and open to being remade—and what we think of as invasive is mostly hardiness and lack of competition that in many instances finds a new equilibrium, the incomers becoming “model eco-citizens." - Kirkus Reviews
Invasive Species in the city
While listening to his interview, the language felt so familiar. It's not unusual to hear urban activists of all stripes talk about "invaders" in cities with the same panic, fear, and disgust. We're all guilty of it.
Metaphorically speaking, we've all heard reference to vehicles, building types and materials, business sectors, tourists, social groups, etc as though they are invasive species. There are also literal invasive species that thrive in urban environments. Are there any cases where "We're just very negative about them" when they are simply filling a void through "hardiness and lack of competition"? What are the "pristine ecosystems" that we try to conserve in the urban landscape?
Of course, I understand that this comparison only goes so far. As mentioned in my fire post, to model nature, especially given how messed up/unnatural our starting position is, could be to consent to a completely unjust society, blind to power, history, and moral accountability. When human societies get involved, I believe it's a lot more complicated than letting "nature (ie society) do its own thing" and irresponsible to simplify it. But I'll be the first to admit that I don't know what the right balance is, of letting systems evolve and adapt on one hand, and minimizing harm and sharing surplus on the other.
We deal with these massive questions of governance and ethics on a micro-scale every day in the city. The huge influx of young people to urban centres is an example. The changing nature of the stores (mom & pop vs. corporate franchise) on mainstreet is another. The ongoing parking battle, the boom of freelance/contract work, the debate over food trucks downtown, all have elements of this conversation. Every context is different with its own history, characters, and positive and negative outcomes. The questions raised in this radio piece serve as a reminder that in our taxonomy of urban trends, it does no good to demonize something as "invasive" across the board. In some situations, despite our prejudices, unwelcome additions to the city will help us adapt to changing circumstances. In other situations, we may find that the same "species" do more harm than good.
Thriving in a barren landscape
There used to be a couple old buildings that were torn down here two years ago. You can see their footprint outlined with the concrete barriers. Apparently there's a bylaw here that says you can't replace a historic building downtown with parking or something (I should really know the details on this stuff but our city ordinances are near impenetrable to find, search, and read). So the property owners paved the whole thing and then cordoned off the building footprints to say you can't park on this asphalt inside these barriers. Immediately, the site became a hang-out for skateboarders. Many, many years ago Ryan was a skateboarder too, so he and I occasionally like to see what the young kids are up to with their tricks and flips. We talked to a group of young guys one night who had rearranged a number of the concrete barriers to their liking. They were just kids who needed something to do and somewhere to go. Personally, I always felt more comfortable walking around there after nightfall if the skateboarders were out covering that turf. The security cameras were far less effective in this regard. In my opinion, skateboarding was a huge improvement to the space.
I didn't see them there once this summer. The concrete pieces they were using had been removed and the parking lot was painted with "No Parking Zone" instead. I wonder what happened.
Update: October 31
After hearing that radio show, I was both skeptical and curious about the rosy picture author Fred Pearce painted regarding zebra mussels. I ended up doing some more reading and listening, including reaching out to an ecologist friend which has highlighted for me what a controversial topic this is. One thing was made clear that I wish I had know when first writing this: scientists distinguish between non-native and invasive, whereas Fred Pearce seems to be combining the two and calling both invasive. Non-native species are regularly incorporated into changing ecosystems. Invasive denotes some sort of negative disruption due to introduction to a new environment without natural predators.
Apologies for not having known and made that distinction myself. I would have written a different piece with that information.
For more critical response to the ecological veracity of Pearce's interview, refer to the 4 minute mark of the clip below.
Cover photo by Ryan Brideau.