Why Eradicating Invasive Species Doesn't Address the Root of the Problem

If we’re going to solve some of the most pressing concerns that are commonly blamed on invasive species, including extinctions, loss of biodiversity, and biotic homogenization, we must take a deep look at the systems that currently provide for the needs of the majority of the world’s population. Invasive species are related to these production systems, but eradicating them does nothing to address the fundamental reasons for their proliferation.

One of the reasons we’ve been so misguided in our approach to managing invasive species is because managing them effectively requires something far more challenging and more powerful than the business-as-usual approach of aggressive, extensive annihilation of “offending” plants and animals. Effective management requires that before anything else—before we develop a plan or reach for the herbicide—we have to first teach ourselves to think differently. Thinking differently, holistically, about invasive species and their management will take time and creativity, as well as honest attempts to answer difficult questions about the state of the ecosystems where they thrive. But if we are to embrace the true meaning of ecological restoration as repairing degraded ecosystems, then we must move beyond short-term and short-sighted invasive species eradication measures and begin the necessary process of engaging the critical task of restoration on all fronts, from our homes and neighborhoods, to farms, forests, and the economic systems that support them—as well as to restoring our own way of thinking.

The process of incorporating a holistic framework into invasion ecology and restoration is emblematic of the historic shifts in scientific paradigms as philosopher Thomas Kuhn explained them. The old paradigm sees invasive species as bad actors, whereas the new paradigm understands the conditions that support their growth. Instead of engaging in eradication, the new paradigm of restoration seeks to address systemic issues with systemic solutions. The first step in this holistic approach is to acknowledge ourselves as part of a web of relationships in which every action has consequences throughout the ecosystem where we live, from our immediate vicinity to the entire biosphere. Although modern life can make it seem as though our lives are dissociated from natural systems, everything is connected. Engaging in a systems-based analysis of the ecological connections that support our lives requires honesty and courage because it’s difficult to admit that some of the things we do are so harmful to life on the planet.

We must take stock of the world as we have created it, the garden that we have fashioned, for better or worse, into its current form. Cities and suburbs, slums, sewers, garbage dumps, dead zones, feedlots, shopping malls, and monocultures. Pesticides, plastics, and persistent organic pollutants. Coal and missing mountaintops. Oil and the wars derived from it. Climate change, sea-level rise, cultural and ecological displacement, extinction. All of these are real, and serious, threats to the existence of life on Earth as we know it and into the future.

When placed in this context, the proliferation of a particular plant, fish, or mollusk seems paltry. But engaging in eradication-based restoration provides a clear-cut and tangible physical action that seems to address the dire circumstances we find ourselves in today. Spending a day pulling out salt cedar, teaching children about “Aliens in Our Watershed,” or getting a job doing wetland restoration seems to offer tangible results in the midst of so many things that don’t. It’s reassuring for us to experience those results amid so much uncertainty and powerlessness. Unfortunately, it’s a misdirected effort, and the energy, resources, and people power supporting the current restoration paradigm would be better spent engaging in management practices that fundamentally transform the processes that contribute to widespread ecological demise—even if their results are not so immediately apparent.

Management, or lack thereof, is key to understanding what can be done, not only to deal with rampant species, but also to conserve and enhance biodiversity within the context of a changed and changing planet. We need to move beyond the appealing myth of pristine, untouched, virginal wilderness, of passive native ecosystems being overtaken by aggressive invasive species; it’s a psychological battle as much as anything else. The old paradigm sees “nature” as static and changing little—which is supposedly when “nature” is at its best and most pure—until humans impose our will on it. This philosophy is wrong on so many levels, but especially in how it negates the healthy relationship that people can develop with the natural world by shaping and being shaped by it, as they meet their needs for food, fiber, shelter, fuel, and medicine. The wilderness concept, a distinctly American idea, denies the work of indigenous Americans in creating the abundance that was “discovered” by European colonists not long ago. The abundant game, lush prairies, bustling rivers, towering forests, and indeed the very structure of native plant and animal community assemblages were shaped by peoples’ interactions with them over long periods of time and will require the same if they are to persevere into the future.

Tending a garden is one of the best ways to manifest—to put into practice—this paradigm shift. If you’ve tended a garden, you are already familiar with the management choices you need to make to produce the desired crops. You thin newly emerging carrots and beets to make room for the strongest and healthiest individuals; you weed garden beds and weed them again to ensure the desired plants have access to the nutrients, light, and water they require to make the most nutritious food. You save seeds from the most hardy, beautiful, productive, and delicious crops. Raising animals involves similar decisions—you monitor pastures closely for growth and species assemblages; you breed and cull herds and flocks over time to create populations best suited to your conditions and desires. These activities place humans in an important role of directing ecosystem succession and evolution.

We need radical restoration of people into their home landscapes, reimagining the possibilities of what it means to be native to a place in the modern era. We need meaningful relationships with land and experiments with how best to mitigate, remediate, enhance, and diversify not only the ecosystems that support human life, but also those that support as many other organisms as possible. As we enter into an uncertain climatic future and embrace the possibility that the production systems we have come to rely on may rapidly become untenable, we need to think differently about how we relate to our place. Restoration in this sense is not so much a process of going back, but of moving forward into the unknown, and using our creativity and the tools available to us to create the conditions in which life can thrive. We need to garden and expand our notion of how everything else does also.

In doing so, we will learn how to best encourage the proliferation of highly diverse and abundant ecosystems and manage invasive species in the process. We will not achieve anything of the sort by continuing to eradicate these novel organisms in the vain hope that the ecosystems where they live will be the same as they were at some idealized time in the past. We are here now, on the cusp of the sixth great planetary extinction, with climate change intensifying, and the ways that we relate to the land that sustains us will become ever more central to designing our way through the challenges to come. We need to understand the ecological lessons embedded in the proliferation of invasive species to determine how we can best assist in bringing diversity and abundance to the ecosystems where they are found. From the Berkeley Pit to coal mine tailings, from clear-cut forests to overgrazed rangelands, to the vast monocultures of corn, soy, and wheat as far as the eye can see, we need to see what thrives, and take note, because there are lessons embedded within this ruderal life that point the way forward to ecosystems designed and managed to serve not only our species, but all life on Earth. This is our imperative, and there is no greater or more pressing work to be done.

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