Why Invasive Species Will Save Nature

The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will be Nature’s Salvation / Beacon Press

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.”

Green Mountain on Ascension Island / Shallow Marine Surveys Group
Green Mountain cloud forest on Ascension Island / Shallow Marine Surveys Group

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.

Visitors to the Galapagos Islands view the endangered Galapagos tortoise, one of the biggest tortoises in the world / GalapagosIslands.com
Visitors to the Galapagos Islands view the endangered Galapagos tortoise, one of the biggest tortoises in the world / GalapagosIslands.com

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.

7 thoughts on “Why Invasive Species Will Save Nature

  1. Richrd K. Sutton 09/09/2015 / 9:02 am

    The idea that nature needs saving is purely anthropocentric hogwash. As stated by William Irwin Thompson, “Nature is not a place, state, or field but merely the horizon of the dominant culture.” What needs saving is humankind’s relationship with the natural world — a world which up to now that has provided us with the physical and spiritual resources for survival and growth. Human growth belies our roles as the consummate invasive species; look at the mess we’ve made !!!

    • milliontrees 09/09/2015 / 10:40 am

      The idea that nature needs saving originates and is perpetuated by the those engaged in the industry of “restoration”….the army of people who write “management plans” and environmental impact reports and those who implement those plans by spraying herbicides and destroying harmless plants and animals deploying a variety of destructive methods. Until taxpayers refuse to fund these projects they will persist because there is a great deal of economic interest at stake. I am NOT a person who begrudges paying taxes, but I do resent wasting my taxes on something both futile and damaging.

  2. milliontrees 09/09/2015 / 9:08 am

    As much as I admired Mr. Pearce’s book, there is a more recently published book on this issue that is even better: “Beyond the War on Invasive Species” by Tao Orion. Ms. Orion’s book is unique in its focus on the pesticides being used by the “restoration” industry. She invites us to consider how nature is being poisoned by people claiming they are serving nature. She also reports on the considerable public record proving that the “restoration” industry was spawned by the manufacturers of pesticides. Here is a review of her book: http://milliontrees.me/2015/09/08/beyond-the-war-on-invasive-species/

  3. marianwhit 06/13/2016 / 7:35 pm

    These people have provided the perfect cop-out by people so they can dodge the responsibility of being good land stewards. The same few invasive thugs are appearing in many many parts of the world. Yes, we are helping the biggest, meanest, and nastiest plants take over by casually mixing things up globally. Yes, we will need to find ways to use invasive plants, because that is all we will have left. One may think that adding an invasive species is adding to an area’s diversity, but not for long. These things go over everything, in very natural landscapes.

    Worldwide, the fastest growing threat to botanical diversity overall is invasive plants. We barely understand how an ecosystem works or what uses the future will make of the plants. Who are these writers who presume to know how to make new ecosystems. In ALL science in unexplored territory is fraught with failure. The problem now is the fallout from the global travel boom at the turn of the century. Think what air travel will be, or the sale of invasives on the internet. Please look at both sides of the issue. And think about your property value. That will go down if you plant an invasive, as there are several that can only be killed with large amounts of chemicals. Look at some of Doug Tallamy’s videos on why we need native plants. Please….I can’t rebut every point in these books, but Tallamy does a pretty good job. I am with him. I was offended by these people calling me a “Nativist” at first, because I plant all kinds of things to eat and admire.

    But the more I learn, I am now proud to be a nativist because the rare and beautiful plants on the planet will need protection from those who only have their own selfish, shortsighted goals in sight and are not willing to consider the needs of the creatures there before them. If you are religious, think about this…what if we really never left the garden of Eden or are being given a second chance? Earth in all its many creatures is paradise.

    The extinction rate is SKYROCKETING for many reasons. World bird populations, even common birds are declining…let’s not contribute to that. Research your plants very carefully for invasiveness in your area and areas of similar climates. Grow from seed if possible. Many invasives (plants and even fire ants) come in the soil of potted plants. Use management practices that use materials on site so you are not moving things around. Our need for plants comes right after air and water people. Let’s keep the number we have to choose from as high as possible.

  4. Stoneground 07/11/2022 / 2:37 pm

    In the eyes of Mother Nature, Man is an invasive species. Invasive species “problem” is normal evolution in the continuum of life. Man species is living in tighter quarters. Man has created artificial means of seed transportation, whether unintentional or otherwise. Think of all the species on Earth that have gone extinct because of other species moving in. Life evolves as it combats change. Invasive species create change. Control it with life killer if it makes you feel good about yourself, as doer of “good” deeds, otherwise, it is what it is. It shall come to past. Let it be here now.

  5. marianwhit 07/11/2022 / 8:12 pm

    Simply learn the invasive species, then look where they are invasive around the world. The same plants cause issues in country after country, so yes, the biggest baddest plants will win out.

    And yes, I agree that the snowball is on the slope…Pandora’s box is WIDE OPEN and it was full of seeds that have already been planted…and our shortsighted interest in species other than ourselves is truly depressing and sad. Yes, dandelions and clover will wipe out a lot of other things, and change soil chemistry and suppress native plant reproduction by diversion of pollinators. Dandelion can even send pollen via bees that keeps competitors from its own genus from reproducing. I can see the landscape changing quickly, year by year, and I get really angry at armchair philosophers that think they know how to grow food in an unpredictable ecology, or could not step outside their door and identify the plants just outside, where they come from, and the impacts they have. Birds not getting adequate nutrition on their breeding grounds are stressed and will simply fill the bellies of sharks as they are unable to complete migration or simply succumb more quickly to disease like Avian Flu. How can we NOT care about this? The science is there…look into Black Poll warbler migration, or the necropsy results from the migration “fallout” of 2020 in the midwest…the birds were malnourished when they started to migrate. As far as plants, the same species are found in country after country. Google “dandelion field,” and take note of all the locations where you will find them around the world. Then take that list of locations and then google “native plant meadow” and you will get a different picture for every location…THIS is what we are giving away. Who planted all those dandelion fields? A field of one plant cannot meet the nutritional needs of animals through a whole season. The same plants and insects that cause huge issues for humans growing food, and building materials appear over-and-over. It would be great to have tools other than introducing yet more biological organisms or broad spectrum herbicides…it would be great if everyone suddenly hated 2″ lawns, and if turf companies started working with native grasses (a critical component for native animal biodiversity). The “anti-native plant defense” stance is just as emotionally motivated by the lazy and uncaring (or worse, inspired by corporations reluctant to change). I have tracked spectacular increases in butterfly and moth diversity by fighting invasive plants (simply making room), and planting some native plant species, especially grasses. I don’t care what y’all do, I will be outside enjoying my 22 species of butterflies (up from 5 when we started). That is the best news I can find these days…in my own back yard. But then again, I am willing to work hard and get my hands dirty, not sit around and be critical. I know these things from actually doing them.

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