Conservationists are becoming enemies of nature, according to a new book The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation by environmental journalist Fred Pearce. Drawing primarily on examples from the United Kingdom and remote islands across the world, the book challenges the long-held belief that keeping out non-native species and returning ecosystems to a pre-human state are the only ways to save nature as we know it. Calling this line of thinking unproductive at best, Pearce states that seeking only to conserve and protect endangered and weak species becomes a brake on evolution, a douser of adaptation. “If we want to assist nature to regenerate, we need to promote change, rather than hold it back,” he writes.
Though his criticism of traditional conservation perspectives that advocate for restoring ecosystems may appear controversial, Pearce isn’t pushing for an “anything goes” mentality, nor does he believe people should stop trying to save endangered species. Rather, he says it’s important to separate our emotional needs from the needs of the environment. “We have a legitimate need to curb excesses and a legitimate desire to protect what we like best. But we should be clear that when we do this, it is for ourselves and not for nature, whose needs are rather different.” With few, if any, pristine ecosystems left on earth, Pearce ultimately concludes we need to begin embracing a “new wild” that will be different from our old visions of the wild. This new kind of nature may include species that are foreign and unfamiliar, but it will be more resilient than ever before.
The first section of the book begins with stories of places where human-introduced species have thrived, often doing the ecosystem jobs that native species could not accomplish. One such place is Ascension Island in the tropical South Atlantic, which has an entirely synthetic cloud forest ecosystem that includes a mix of species shipped in by the British navy during the early- to mid-nineteenth century. The island, which is home to Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, is now home to around three hundred introduced species of plants that “have bucked the standard theory that complexity emerges only through co-evolution.”
Pearce then addresses the myths we have about conservation and alien species. He states that many conservationist’s attempts to “fix” nature have been almost comically unsuccessful. Billions of dollars have been spent trying to eliminate alien species, yet the failure rate for these project has been alarming. Of the 43 projects aimed at eradicating or controlling alien species in the Galapagos Islands – often considered the mecca for conservation research – only nine have been successful. Now the head of restoration at the Charles Darwin Research Station, Mark Gardener, has raised the white flag on eradicating aliens. “As scientists and conservationists, we need to recognize that we’ve failed. Galapagos will never be pristine,” he told Science magazine in 2011. If Galapagos, with its rich history of native species preservation, is moving in this direction, it is only a matter of time before other regions follow suit.
The last section of The New Wild is a call to action, presenting opportunities for remediating environmental damage caused by humans. The most compelling chapter of the book is the core of this section, in which Pearce discusses industrial sites as potential hot spots for biodiversity. Though few conservationists protest when industrial sites are built over, they often fail to recognize that these sites often support more scarce wild species than farmed land. According to Pearce, nature persists, even flourishes, in the most unlikely, most damaged, and apparently least natural environments. And experts throughout the book agree. “Brownfield sites are as important for biodiversity as ancient woodlands, yet we are encouraging people to build on them,” Matt Shardlow of the United Kingdom conservation organization Buglife says in the book. “It’s the combination of habitats that is so rare. There are very bare areas, basking places, short grasses … and bits of wetland. Trail-biking youths and illicit bonfires ensure that trees never take over. Feral urban Britain turns out to be a wildlife paradise.”
This knowledge that environments we perceive as the most unnatural and the most developed are actually some of the most ecologically-rich has the potential to completely turn our picture of nature on its head. We may have to rethink landscapes we may have previously considered nature, such as “pesticide-soaked” agricultural fields.
Though parts of the book are reminiscent of American journalist Emma Marris’ groundbreaking book the Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, The New Wild benefits from Pearce’s unique voice and his extensive experience as an environmental journalist. Pearce presents each of his arguments in such a persuasive way that it often becomes hard to imagine conclusions more logical than those he has come to. Though equally as readable and controversial as the Rambunctious Garden, The New Wild takes Marris’ arguments about creating hybrid ecosystems that combine wild nature and human management a step forward, offering concrete ways conservationists, restoration ecologists, and landscape architects can help the natural world adapt.