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Federal plan against Asian invasion

9 February, 2010

As The New York Times reports, the U.S. government has presented a $78.5 million plan intended to block a hungry, huge, nonnative Asian population from invading the Great Lakes.

The Army Corps of Engineers is taking part in the operation against Asian carp, “known to take over entire ecosystems.” It includes “physical and sonar monitoring, faster testing, more nets, electric shocks and other measures.” But “Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan, a Democrat who attended the meeting, said the measures were inadequate. (…) ‘They just need to shut the locks down, at least temporarily.'”

It always strikes me how similar the language of animal nativism is to that of human xenophobia. Okay, so maybe diversity is good (though  it’s curious that this assumption is never discussed). But why are “natives” always privileged? And are immigrants really as dangerous as bioxenophobes portray them?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. adam r permalink
    9 February, 2010 11:12 pm

    Do a little more research. If illegal immigrants killed the natives, ate their kids, then moved into their homes, eventually wiping out the entire ecosystem, we would probably be a bit more proactive. The carp don’t exactly coexist in their new homes. They eat breed and spread like crazy.

  2. TwoLongYears permalink
    9 February, 2010 11:54 pm

    Given the ecological destruction that the Asian carp has wrought in rivers here in Illinois, and the damage it stands to do to the Great Lakes and the people whose livelihoods depend upon the resources that the lakes contain, it’s no small wonder people are scared about the species. Michigan stands to take the biggest hit in what’s left of its economy, hence the lawsuits. If this were the Chicago carp or the Detroit carp or the Peoria carp, I doubt people would be less concerned.

  3. 10 February, 2010 12:38 am

    You’re not alone in thinking about the invasive species-invasive people links. This isn’t my area of specialty, but I’ve happened to read a couple articles on the subject that might interest you:

    Robbins, P. 2004. Comparing invasive networks: cultural and political biographies of invasive species. Geographical Review 94 (2):139-156.

    Comaroff, J., and J. L. Comaroff. 2001. Naturing the nation: aliens, apocalypse, and the postcolonial state. Journal of Southern African Studies 27 (3):627-651.

  4. TWB permalink
    10 February, 2010 4:46 am

    You probably have a point regarding xenophobic language and the sorts of overt or subliminal connections between human/plant/animal language, but I’m not sure this is the best example. When you have a situation where a non-native species is introduced suddenly into an ecosystem, it can have devastating effects (e.g. zebra mussels in the US, cane toads in Australia, etc.)

  5. 10 February, 2010 5:49 am

    Thanks for the responses. My point is: what is a “devastating” effect? What is “ecological destruction”? The cane toad is of course a good case in point, as it was introduced to combat another “alien invading species.” (Like the Sikh policeman to combat Chinese gang warfare in Malaya?)

  6. 10 February, 2010 6:21 pm

    Interesting thoughts. I come from a family (on my father’s side at least) of “bioxenophobes” and I sometimes wonder about their privileging of the native over the foreign. What is considered “native” though is not always based on national categories. My father tries only to plant trees and raise fish which are indigenous to his part of southeast Gippsland.

    As for “devastating effects” and “ecological destruction”, I suppose how people define these will depend on their priorities. For some it will be concern about the potential extinction of existing species (e.g. the poisonous cane toads killing snakes, birds, lizards and other predators) because extinction is in itself a bad thing, while for others it will be concern about the destruction of industries and livelihoods which depend on those existing species. For a lot of people, I would guess, there is a psychological investment in maintaining a familiar environment in order to avoid “solastalgia”.

    I’d agree though that the nation is often treated as a pseudo-natural entity whose integrity must be protected and that the feeling of being overwhelmed by foreigners has a correlate in the perceived radical transformation of the natural world. However, this is not to say that there aren’t perfectly good reasons for limiting the spread of the carp.

    By the way, it’s not true that the notion that diversity is good is never questioned, though I agree it is very hegemonic in a lot of domains. I remember reading last year about a study which connected low levels of civic participation with high levels of cultural diversity, although I don’t remember the precise details of the reference.

  7. 10 February, 2010 7:09 pm

    And as a counterpoint, I just saw this article in The Australian which shows something of the complexity involved in returning ecosystems to their “original” state. In this case, some scientists are suggesting that introduced species such as camels can be used to fill an ecosystem niche left empty by extinct megafauna tens of thousands of years ago. So in this case, paradoxically, foreigners can be used to make a system “more native”. Also interesting is that some “natives”, e.g. Australian Aborigines, are deemed to be not native enough in these sense that their influence on the environment is deemed by some to have thrown it out of balance.

  8. 10 February, 2010 8:16 pm

    The study that suggests that “civic participation” is lower in places “with high levels of cultural diversity” is Putnam’s. And of course, there is a lot of people (probably even a large majority) who think diversity is bad, but the opposite is generally taken as a given by liberals and literati (like us). In Seeing Culture Everywhere we look at why human diversity (within liberal/left thought) is considered to be in need of protection — generally either because it is seen as an inherent good (as in the indigenist movement) or in order to make up for past injustices (as in multiculturalism), and express our view that it is in fact good only if it increases choice.

    Okay, the parallels with the carp here are limited. But the fact that animal nativists are often quite open to human immigration has interesting implications for the transcendent position that the notion of an “ecosystem” increasingly occupies. For, indeed, it is often as difficult to define “native” plants or animals as native peoples; as Wolf writes in Europe and the People without History, not only social formations but also the flora and fauna of “native” North America changed quite radically under human influence just prior to or at the very beginning of the colonial encounter. And “outbreeding the natives” is, in fact, an accusation people make about undesirable human varieties (blacks in the US in the 19th century, Gypsies in Eastern Europe and Muslims in Western Europe today).

  9. 10 February, 2010 9:30 pm

    Thanks for the info on the Putnam reference AAW. I wonder then if the goodness of diversity is never challenged by us liberal literati or if offering such a challenge immediately excludes one from this category. I’m interested in your argument that diversity is only good if it improves choice. Maybe you could elaborate in a future post (here or on Savage Minds). The first questions that springs to mind are, ” what sort of choice?” and “choice for whom?”

    I think the article from the Australian that I linked above supports your point that it’s hard to define what “native” is, and who or what is native enough. Also, the notion that there are niches in the ecosystem which remain even when that niche is no longer filled, and then can be refilled at a later date in order to reestablish some sort of balance – as in the argument about using camels as ersatz megafauna – does also seem to suggest a certain transcendental quality to the ecosystem.

    And it’s also interesting how the “outbreeding the natives” kind of arguments can be used both to defend against migration and justify colonial domination: on the one hand migrants feature as a kind of pest that needs to be kept under control, on the other hand colonialists (who are not migrants) are deemed to be “fitter” than those they dominate and therefore perfectly justified in their actions.

  10. 10 February, 2010 10:07 pm

    Good points, Jovan. Of course the argument about choice is itself a choice — our personal moral choice. And of course maximising a person’s choices may reduce the choices of others. The approach we articulated in the book was that cultural protection is good if it maximises choices not only for members of a particular group but also for others. But we realise that it’s a far more complex issue.

  11. Billy permalink
    12 February, 2010 4:21 am

    I appreciate your observation that the language between the two situations can be similar, but that’s about as far as it goes.

    The natives in an ecosystem are afforded “privilege” because the complicated
    workings of the ecosystem depends on the way they have evolved to interact with each other. One invasive species can really mess up some certain native species that another native species depends on, and it propagates upwards. An invasive plant coming in might not be appetizing to the local herbivore population, for example, and so it covers up the ground that usually the native species count on being bare (due to herbivores) for germinating. Soon, native plants that are important to herbivores are nearly gone, and the fungus that spreads via those animals’ poop goes away, and so the soil becomes less nutritious, etc., and the end result is that:
    1. Species can go extinct, which I think most people would agree is undesirable., especially if we are responsible (which, as the ones who brought a plant across an ocean, we are).
    2. Subjectively speaking, local nature can become boringly un-diverse.
    3. For the more anthropocentric among us: The organisms we unknowingly benefit from every day are disturbed and maybe gone, which could negatively impact anyone from a lumber worker to a farmer to a pharmaceutical researcher.

    I don’t think it’s very comparable to human xenophobia, since human beings are one species with the same ecological niche no matter where they come from. This is especially true because of technology basically homogenizing our place among predators and prey (and putting us in a pretty strange place in that chain, as well). But even without that techno homogenization, you’re still comparing this:
    a human immigrating to an area where there are already humans and have been for a while
    to this:
    a species coming to a place where that species never existed through eons of coevolution of the native species there.

    The former just can’t have the same impact, unless he brings with him some kind of cultural knowledge on avoiding a certain predator or something (you could call that technology?). But that sort of thing is irrelevant in this age because of the technological homogenization.

    The only legitimate comparison I could imagine is if a bunch of people came from far away to an area and they really really liked eating dandelions or something, but the present residents did not, and suddenly dandelions are dwindling where they were thriving before. But that seems pretty unlikely, and if it did happen its impact would be controllable (you can outlaw eating dandelions, but you can’t pass a law telling Asian carp to hold off on their eating).

  12. 14 February, 2010 7:12 am

    Billy, thanks for reminding me of the limitations of the analogy, but I would still like to push it (in an allegorical sense, but perhaps more than that). Your points 1 to 3 of course cannot be replicated by a human in a biological sense, but what I am suggesting is that “an ecosystem” and “a culture” (or “a society”) both seem so valuable because we are used to them. If a sufficiently large immigrant (human or animal) population comes, the ecosystem/society is likely to change; perhaps not to the same extent predicted (because these things are just very hard to predict, in zoology as well as in politics; they are just too complex), but nonetheless enough to make us feel uncomfortable because things no longer work in the same way.

  13. Claire Law permalink
    20 November, 2010 5:04 pm

    I’m entering this discussion rather late, but in any case… I wrote an undergrad essay a couple of years back on the biases of scientists against invasive (or towards native) species. I didn’t engage so much between links of xenophobia and invasive species science, but instead argued that Australian scientists are prejudiced against invasive species to fulfil fantasies of ecological purity and redeem the environmental mistakes of a colonial society. I cite Mary Douglas’ “Purity and Danger” to explain invasive species as polluting forces in light of scientific biases through the literature and from my own observations as (at that time) an environmental scientist working in a catchment group and engaging with invasive species discourses. What I found in the data (invasive species lit and in my obs) was that military-esque metaphors proliferate, so perhaps a xenophobic line is fine to dabble with, but I personally don’t believe scientists intend to use it in this way.

    Anyhow, if you/anyone is still interested in this topic, I’ve dug through my reference list and here are a bunch of articles/books you may enjoy:

    Armstrong, P. 2002, ‘The Postcolonial Animal’, Society and Animals, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 413-149

    Colautti, R.I. and MacIsaac, H.J. 2004, ‘A Neutral Terminology to Define ‘Invasive’ Species’, Diversity and Distributions, Vol. 10, pp. 135-141

    Clark, N. 1999, ‘Wildlife: Ferality and the frontier with chaos’, in Neumann, K. Thomas, N. and Ericksen, H. 1999, Quicksands: Foundational Histories in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, UNSW Press, Sydney, Australia.

    Clark, N. 2002, ‘The Demon-Seed: Bioinvasion as the unsettling of environmental cosmopolitanism’, Theory, Culture and Society, Vol. 19, No. 1-2, pp. 101-125

    Franklin, A. 2006, Animal Nation: The true story of animals and Australia, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, Australia.

    Helmreich, S. 2005, ‘How Scientists Think; About ‘Natives’ for Example. A problem of taxonomy among biologists of alien species in Hawaii’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 11, pp. 107-128

    O’Brien, W. 2006, ‘Exotic Invasions, Nativism, and Ecological Restoration: On the persistence of a contentious debate’, Ethics, Place and Environment, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 63-77

    Simberloff, D. 2003, ‘Confronting Introduced Species: A form of xenophobia?’, Biological Invasions, Vol. 5, pp. 179-192

    Smith, N. 1999, ‘The Howl and the Pussy: Feral cats and wild dogs in the Australian imagination’, The Australian Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 288-305

    Smith, N. 2006, ‘Thank your Mother for the Rabbits: Bilbies, bunnies and redemptive ecology’, Australian Zoologist, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 369-378

    Toussaint, Y. 2005, ‘Debating Biodiversity: Threatened species conservation and scientific values’, The Australian Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 382-393

    Trigger, D. Mulcock, J. Gaynor, Andrea, Toussaint, Y. 2008, ‘Ecological Restoration, Cultural Preferences and the Negotiation of ‘Nativeness’ in Australia’, Geoforum, Vol. 39, pp, 1273-1283

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