The Economist: “You can garden in a garden. You cannot garden nature.”

For those who may not be familiar with The Economist magazine, let us introduce this venerable publication to you.  The Economist is a weekly news magazine published in Britain continuously since 1843.  It has a readership of over 1.5 million and about half of its readers are in America.  Its viewpoint is fiscally and politically moderate (it endorsed Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton) and socially liberal (it supports same-sex marriage and immigration).  It is widely read by the business community and public policy makers.  In other words, it is an influential, mainstream source of information.

Therefore, The Economist’s recent articles about invasion biology represent a significant step forward in the effort to stop the pointless and damaging crusade against harmless non-native plants and animals.  The following is an excerpt from the editorial version of a longer article in the December 5, 2015 edition of The Economist.  We have added emphasis and a few photos.

“In Defense of Invaders”

“EVERYBODY loves to hate invasive species. Americans battle rampant plants such as kudzu, a Japanese vine; Europeans accuse the American grey squirrel of spreading disease and damaging forests. As The Economist went to press, a scientific committee was expected to sign off on Europe’s first invasive-species blacklist. Cross-border trade in 37 species will be banned (the list is bound to grow longer as conservationists add more troublemakers). Where it is not already too late to wipe out these alien invaders, EU member states will be required to do so.

“Europeans are restrained in comparison with other countries. The international list of invasive species—defined as those that were introduced by humans to new places, and then multiplied—runs to over 4,000. In Australia and New Zealand hot war is waged against introduced creatures like cane toads and rats. In 2013 New Zealand used helicopters to drop a poison known as 1080 on 448,000 hectares of land—an area about the size of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks put together. Just four public objections were recorded.

“Some things that are uncontroversial are nonetheless foolish. With a few important exceptions, campaigns to eradicate invasive species are an utter waste of money and effort—for reasons that are partly practical and partly philosophical.

Rhodedenron ponticum, one of only a dozen plants considered invasive in Britain. Wikimedia Commons
Rhodedenron ponticum, one of only a dozen plants considered invasive in Britain. Wikimedia Commons

“Start with the practical arguments. Most invasive species are neither terribly successful nor very harmful. Britons think themselves under siege by foreign plants like Japanese knotweed, Rhododendron ponticum and Himalayan balsam. In fact Britain’s invasive plants are not widespread (see article), not spreading especially quickly, and often less of a nuisance than vigorous natives such as bracken. The arrival of new species almost always increases biological diversity in a region; in many cases, a flood of newcomers drives no native species to extinction. One reason is that invaders tend to colonise disturbed habitats like polluted lakes and post-industrial wasteland, where little else lives. They are nature’s opportunists.

Honeybee in non-native wild mustard
Honeybee in non-native wild mustard

New arrivals often turn out to be useful, even lovely. Americans fret about the decline of a vital crop-pollinator known as the American honey bee. Apis mellifera is actually an invader from the Old World: having buzzed from Africa to Europe, it was brought to America by colonists and went wild. Invasive plants provide food and nests for vulnerable natives; invasive animals can help native species by killing their predators, as the poisonous cane toad has done in Australia.

Another practical objection to the war on invasive species is that they are fiendishly hard to eradicate. New Zealand will not get rid of its rats any more than Britain could wipe out its grey squirrels. Culls tend to have a short-term effect at best. It is, however, sometimes possible to get rid of troublesome immigrants on tiny oceanic islands. Because the chances of success are higher, and because remote islands often contain rare species, efforts there are more worthwhile.

“The philosophical rationale for waging war on the invaders is also flawed. Eradication campaigns tend to be fuelled by the belief that it is possible to restore balance to nature—to return woods and lakes to the prelapsarian idyll that prevailed before human interference. That is misguided. Nature is a perpetual riot, with species constantly surging, retreating and hybridising. Humans have only accelerated these processes. Going back to ancient habitats is becoming impossible in any case, because of man-made climate change. Taking on the invaders is a futile gesture, not a means to an achievable end.

“No return to Eden”

“A rational attitude to invaders need not imply passivity. A few foreign species are truly damaging and should be fought… It makes sense to keep out pathogens… Fencing off wildlife sanctuaries to create open-air ecological museums is fine, too….You can garden in a garden. You cannot garden nature.”

8 thoughts on “The Economist: “You can garden in a garden. You cannot garden nature.””

  1. I keep swearing that I will not waste my time replying to your posts when you just cherry-pick information to suit your ideology and ignore all the contrary evidence. Yes, many introduced (non-native) plants are not successful and not particularly harmful to native ecosystems but nobody is griping about these; invasive plants are only labelled as such when they have proved invasive and harmful. You are deceitful: you show a beautiful plant like Rhododendron ponticum to win people to your side – yes, many introduced/invasive species are beautiful – but don’t describe its negative properties. And the comment about the cane toad is fatuous – the Economist should check Wikipedia where it says that cane toads (introduced for human convenience without an inkling of their toxic effect on the natural environment) prey on native species not protect them. What does The Economist know about ecology, anyway? Who wrote that article? Certainly not a biologist!

    1. Its all about scale and realistic goals. Show me a realistic goal and I will show you a garden size project that can be done safely without soil damage. (Without pesticides)

      1. Precisely. For example, when the so-called Natural Areas Program was created in San Francisco nearly 25 years ago, one-third of all city-managed park acreage–1.100 acres–were designated for native plant restoration. The conspicuous failure of that program is attributable to biting off more than they can chew. To compensate for inadequate resources to successfully manage all that land, the program uses more herbicide than other parks, with the exception of a tournament golf course. The herbicides that damage the soil and non-target plants are a contributing factor in the sorry state of that ambitious project.

  2. Taking on the invaders is a futile gesture, not a means to an achievable end. what’s the meaning of this statement? should me take on the invaders or get rid of them?

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