Monday, December 05, 2016

The Latest False Revisionism About Invasive Species

Oftentimes, the headlines that catch our eye are the ones that upset the applecart of long-held views. There's something appealing about the rebels who, with their "growing body of evidence", dare to send the stuffy status quo packing. One subset of this genre that refuses to die is the oped or opinion-drenched article that leaps to the defense of much maligned invasive species, and tells us they aren't so bad after all. Even veteran editors can fall prey to these contrarian views, no matter how thin the factual support they offer, in much the same way the nation's president-to-be's scathing attacks and threadbare proposals were graded on a curve.

A recent addition to this genre is "Humans make a mess, but invasive species get the blame", a Boston Globe article written by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. It appeared online Nov. 27, 2016. She's described as an American freelance writer living in London. A better title would be "Humans make a mess, and invasive species are one of those messes".

Though the details of this extensive post will interest only more nature-philic readers, it demonstrates yet again how seductive is any view that let's people off the hook, that helps us avoid taking responsibility and acting intentionally to solve collectively created problems. For those appalled by the mostly rightwing resistance to acknowledging and taking action to slow climate change, you can find a parallel form of denial among a subset of liberal-leaning people who deny the reality of and any solutions for invasive species.

Below is a complete reproduction of the text, along with critiques inserted. Access it by clicking on the "Read more":

Monday, November 21, 2016

Making Sense of Nonsense: Navigating a Post-Logical World

For many of us, something was shattered when we woke up on 11/9, and it wasn't a glass ceiling. When seeking to put a broken world back together, it can help to start picking up the pieces, without worrying yet how they might all fit together.

Sports and Politics: Compare and Contrast
Both are tribal, in that fans maintain loyalty regardless of their team's performance. Both have a system that winnows the field down to two contenders for the prize. Both have pre-game hype, and a final contest that produces a winner. In sports, the outcome is merit-based. The two contenders meet and prove themselves on the same court. Though a political campaign usually includes debates, where the two candidates actually meet, the outcome is determined not so much by head to head performance, but by hype and spin. Past service and accomplishments fade into the background. If sports operated like democracy, it would not matter how many shots Lebron James made. He could be beaten by collecting videos of all his worst moments, and replaying them until people conclude that he is an awful player and deserves to lose.

When all the worst behaviors have been validated
There's a trope out there that some take Trump seriously but not literally, while others take him literally but not seriously. For those who take him literally, the election's stark message is that if you lie a lot, abuse women, encourage hateful behavior at rallies, dish out criticism but can't take it, and don't bother to study up, you too can become president.

Closer to home, New Jersians know what it's like to have school initiatives against bullying while the governor himself exhibits bullying behavior. The difference is that in schools, kids are held accountable for their behavior. In politics, the news media, for fear of appearing to take sides, says "both sides are to blame". If blame falls on all for the acts of some, there's no incentive for good behavior.

The contrasting responses to politicians like Trump and Christie suggest America is split into two moral universes. There may be insecurity and fear underlying that bullying behavior, but others interpret it as a sign of strength and comforting certainty in their leaders. Meanwhile, the victims of lies, abuse and hate--at least for those outside of one's tribe--by this logic should "man up" and "get over it".

Controlling Women's Bodies
Donald Trump's groping hand is transitioning into the hand of government, as a woman's right to choose faces increasing threat.

Rebellion Against Complexity
The election of Donald was a massive rebellion against a complex world. Build the wall. Lock her up. Drain the swamp. Words of three, let him be ... president. Minimal knowledge? No government experience? Take our country, please. In an information age, ignorance becomes the contrarian's rallying cry. With infinite knowledge at our fingertips, people are drawn to seductive fictions.

Government's Functionality is Unreported and Invisible
Much of what will be lost in this transition--from an administration that sought to make government work to one that wishes to dismantle it--will never be widely known. What is working in the world, whether it be a peaceful and prosperous country or a governmental agency that is well run, tends to disappear from view. The news media covers incompetence and dispute. It seeks out what is going wrong. It's like those trees along the road, green and lush, that we don't take note of until one dies, or is blown down across our path.

When Obama took over from G.W. Bush, massive repair of government was required. Agencies had become moribund, run by people at odds with the agency's mission. Now, with an anti-government president coming in, we'll see the opposite process, testimony to the waste that comes when primary voters filter out moderates, and one political party in need of an enemy targets our own government. Agencies cost money whether they are functioning or not. Anti-government control of government can mean the public is quietly billed but not served.

Show Us The Numbers!
Walter Mondale called out Ronald Reagan for phony budget numbers in the 1984 campaign. His slogan, "Where's the beef?", was meant to call attention to Reagan's drift from budgetary reality. It's hard to get much purchase from a campaign slogan that's posed as a question. Better it be a demand, like "Drain the swamp!" And so that drift, for which Reagan paid no political price, turned into a rising tide of deficit spending, which rose during Republican administrations and fell during the presidencies of Clinton and Obama. Voters had no beef with the beefless Reagan, and 32 years later voters seem content with a "Believe me!". Still, for the reality-bound, it nice to fantasize that a snappy little chant like "Show us the numbers!" could stir a demand from voters for accountability that no candidate could ignore. For good measure, literally, there should be a designated accountant stationed behind the candidates, to give a dramatic thumbs up or down as they offer their proposals.

The Unreachables
Though understandable, given all the abuse leveled at her over decades, Hillary's characterization of half of Trump's supporters as deplorables and irredeemable, when taken out of context surely made them all the more determined to vote against her. A more useful category might be a basket of unreachables. My daughter spent a day in Philadelphia knocking on doors of people known to have only sporadically shown up to vote in the past. Out of 60 households, only four people actually came to the door. Even when the front door was ajar, people tended not to respond to the doorbell. Similar experiences were had by canvassers elsewhere in the country. Some people are conditioned now to distrust a knock on the door. But the bigger question is how to reach voters who have withdrawn into their own personal bunkers of hardened views, sustained by a media and internet bubble of their own making.

When Philanthropy is Chastised by the Selfish
One election post-mortem said Hillary's big speaking fees turned off the working class voters she needed to win the election. Much, perhaps most, of that money went to charity. America seems to have lost the capacity to distinguish between generosity and selfishness. In fact, philanthropy is sometimes resented--by those of wealth who think that they as job producers owe the world nothing more. Perhaps philanthropy, like the "A" student in school, makes the rest of the 1% look bad. Philanthropy is a way the wealthy can connect with those less fortunate and give back to a country that made their wealth possible. That connection would seem all the more important as the income gap increases. Genuine philanthropy poses a threat to those who offer a faux version, who attract working class votes with populist rhetoric in order to implement policies that will benefit the wealthy.

What Did Posterity Ever Do For Me? (Groucho Marx)
The 2016 campaign was in some ways a contest between catharsis and nurturance, and catharis proved a much more potent motivation to vote. For some of us, Hillary's lifelong devotion to children's issues sounded impressive, but children can't vote, and if voters were concerned about children, they would have demanded that action be taken to slow climate change decades ago. Groucho Marx's joke about posterity has more truth in it than anyone wants to admit. When you're trying to save your own posterior, posterity is someone else's problem.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

9/11 - 11/9: The Mourning After

A builder of tall buildings has proven ascendant, and yet so much appears in free fall. First impressions the morning after:

When the Unthinkable Suddenly Felt Inevitable
Sometimes, when the unthinkable happens, you look back and realize there was a moment when you knew that the unthinkable was inevitable. I had such a moment back in the primary season, on May 3, when Trump won Indiana, and Hillary lost that same day to Bernie Sanders. The news came over the radio, while I was sitting up in bed. Hillary's loss came as a surprise to me, suggesting an unexpected weakness. And then Trump came on with his victory speech, with that smooth voice, so comfortable and confident--a voice I knew then and there people would be tempted to believe and follow. My jaw dropped at the contrast. I felt a chill, recognizing the danger at a visceral level. Then, over the ensuing months, as Trump's flaws became more obvious, and Hillary took the upper hand in the polls and the debates, I forgot that telling moment.

Comedy's Failure As a Force For Change and Enlightenment
One couldn't listen to Jon Stewart and his brilliant offspring--Colbert, Oliver, Samantha Bee--and not believe that humor would save us from cable news' drift into tabloid journalism and propaganda. Humor was the sugar coating that would successfully deliver the medicine of substance and reality to a distracted, escapist nation. Turned out the less urban parts of the country were not amused. When you point out the flaws in people's thinking, they don't change their minds. Being chastened is far less satisfying than getting the last laugh. A column written back in September by Ross Douthat, "Clinton's Samantha Bee Problem", sticks in the mind. Even he underestimated the power of the reactionism he rightly identified.

The Failure of a Nation's Immune System
One important role of the news media is to serve as the nation's immune system. In our bodies, the immune system can fail by not recognizing a real threat, or by attacking a non-threat. Cancer grows because the immune system does not identify it as a threat. Hay fever--that highly distracting annoyance--is the result of one's immune system attacking harmless pollen. During this election, the news media avoided substantive policy issues and the looming catastrophe of climate change, and chose instead to spend its zeal on the highly distracting annoyance of harmless emails.

Women Were Right
At least in my circle of friends and family, though men were disturbed by the Trump candidacy, women tended to show a far deeper distress, sitting for hours glued to cable news, seeking in every new poll some small evidence that disaster would be averted. I was worried, too, but it seemed a bit much, like my wife's double locking of doors at night in a low-crime town. This is Princeton, I'd think. What are the chances of someone breaking in? And, this is the United States. What are the chances that a man so demonstrably unfit to be president could be elected?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Trump Unites the Nation, Against Trump

Simply put, in the final presidential debate, it was the class valedictorian against the rich kid who never had to study up. Hillary looked increasingly poised to break through the glass ceiling, while her opponent went crashing through the floor into the basement. Still, we may someday thank Donald for bringing us together, even if what we share is revulsion.

The following impressions, out of respect for the wide separation between the candidates on stage, takes them one at a time.

In retrospect, assuming he loses, Trump will be seen as having done the nation a huge favor, and I mean that "huge" in the outsized Trumpian sense. His campaign could be renamed, Let's Make America Agree Again, and the brilliant strategy all along has been to say increasingly preposterous things until finally the rightwing and leftwing, the Them's and Us's, would come together and speak as one, against Trump. What a challenge he faced! Politicians define themselves through disagreement. Talking heads on cable news are paid to differ. Obama's naive "let's all work together" approach back in his first term had crashed and burned. What's a peacemaker to do?

Well, it took a nut to finally crack that nut. People complain about the endless campaign season, but Trump needed every bit of it to finally break through the lockstep disagreement. First, he tried saying crazy things, like climate change is a hoax, or tax cuts pay for themselves. But a lot of people had drunk the same Kool-Aid, and long-intimidated journalists refused to call a lie a lie. He launched one conspiracy theory after another, each more improbable than the last, but his followers loved him all the more. He spoke disparagingly about women, war heroes, selected ethnicities, and still his supporters remained steadfast.

Seeing he was struggling to fully alienate people, the Washington Post thoughtfully released a video of some of his past braggadocio about groping women. Many supporters wavered at that point, but last night's final debate was truly the breakthrough moment. Not sure he'd accept the results of the election? He'd already extended his political party's contempt for science, government, nature, and minorities to include women, truth, and all leaders present and past, excepting Patton and Putin. There was only one more card to play, and he played it last night: contempt for democracy itself.

Oh, what a joy to see politicians and commentators of all stripes afterwards, speaking as one in their condemnation of Mr. Trump. True, the air of agreement won't last long. Otherwise, the talking heads would lose their raison d'etre. But for one shining moment, the dream of unity burned bright. The unifying power of a universally alienating figure was demonstrated beyond doubt. If we emphatically agree on a negative, might we find a few positives to agree on as well, and finally move forward?

Though Trump questioned whether he'd accept the election results, there was a moment in the debate where he seemed to concede to Hillary. Speaking, as he does so well, in that dystopian, doom and gloom manner, he said, "And wait until you see what happens in the coming years. Lots of luck, Hillary."

I'd like to suggest that President Hillary, in the spirit of Obama's appointment of her as Secretary of State, appoint Trump to be a special envoy to the Middle East, where he will be tasked with saying and doing such deplorable things that all people, Palestinians and Jews, Sunnis and Shias, will lay down their arms and ancient animosities and come together in the public square to say as one, "This person is HORRIBLE!" One point of agreement will lead to another, and peace will blossom in the desert as never before. This diplomatic coup will be called the Trump Triumph. In gratitude, humanity will build in his honor a giant tower 300 conspiracy theories high, lock him up in the penthouse suite, and tell him if he wants to rejoin us he'll have to grow his golden locks long enough to reach the ground.

Could it be that Hillary has grown in the past few months, blossomed and found the joy? Back in July, speaking to legions of devotees during her acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, she sounded at times almost angry, as if unwilling to let people love her. Now, with her long time ambition to be president finally within grasp, something in her has begun to relax. She seems more comfortable in her skin, more presidential. The Hillary who is reportedly so personable one on one is starting to show through the lens of a camera and in front of crowds. In the final debate, she said some things that went beyond talking points, things that needed to be said, about her opponent, about the country, about leadership. To listen was healing, and because Hillary's life has spanned so many of the nation's traumas, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam, through culture wars, the drug war, through the Republicans' pivot from the Cold War to a war on government, she like many of us carries those national traumas within her. If any national healing can come, it will come from within and without, with one feeding and informing the other. Hillary stands as the embodiment of both the trauma and the potential for healing. Many, made leery by the endless stream of innuendo, will hold their noses when they vote for her. I view the prospect as much more exciting--a behind-the-scenes policy wonk who finds her voice, progressivism informed by pragmatism, a chance to cut through the pretty lies that have seduced voters of many stripes for decades.

Chris Wallace did a good job, except he somehow forgot to ask about climate change. Strange that a video about abusing women demands response, but denial of our high-risk collective abuse of the planet does not. It's only the only place we have to live. For Wallace and other moderators, "drill baby drill" is just harmless locker room talk.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Attacks at Commander in Chief Forum--Was Clinton Held to a Higher Standard?

A ground rule for the Commander in Chief Forum, hosted by NBC on Sept. 8, 2016, was that the candidates should not use the forum as an opportunity to attack the opponent. Both were reminded of this at the beginning of their respective half hour interviews.
It’s often said that Hillary Clinton is held to a higher standard for behavior and honesty than her opponent. An analysis by your News Companion of the candidates' words at the forum reveals the following:

Clinton criticized Trump on three occasions—143 words out of a total of 2744. Trump agreed to keep attacks to a minimum, “absolutely”, then went negative 18 times--879 words out of a total of 3226. Clinton went negative 5% of the time. Trump went negative 27% of the time.

By word count, Trump broke the rule five times more often than Clinton, and yet only Clinton was called out for breaking the rule, when Lauer interrupted her, saying, “And we tried to have an agreement…”

Other Troubling Aspects of the Forum

This was the first time the two candidates appeared on the same stage on the same night, first one, then the other, with their contrasting styles very much in evidence. Clinton gave long, detailed answers, while Donald Trump's responses were clipped.
  • The Emails: Hillary Clinton's half hour began with an extended grilling about her emails and whether they suggest she is unfit for the presidency. This is part of a long, judo-like tradition of using Clinton's strength's against her. For anyone who believes public servants should be working hard for us, the impressive number of emails, in the tens of thousands, could be taken as evidence of her work ethic and extensive experience with foreign affairs. Instead, by alleging wrongdoing, her opponents make us think not of hard work and deep commitment to country, but of some vast impropriety. Though not mentioned at the forum, Colin Powell had also used a private email account, because the State Department's email system was slow and cumbersome. 
  • Trump's Secret Plan: Trump, when asked repeatedly about how he planned to solve this or that problem, gave few or no specifics, quickly veering instead into attacks on Obama and Clinton. Asked how he would defeat Isis, he claimed to have a plan, but then said he'd ask generals for a plan. The interviewer pointed out that Trump had earlier claimed he knew more than the generals about Isis. That inconsistency led to more attacks on Clinton and Obama. In other words, we have a candidate more comfortable with attacking his opponent than offering coherent proposals. 
  • Dictatorial Tendencies?: Trump suggested that, given our huge investment in money and lives in Iraq--he said $3 trillion--that we should have taken all of their oil. "To the victor belong the spoils," he said. That way, Isis would not have had oil to fund their terrorism. Speaking positively of Putin, who has invaded and claimed other countries, Trump noted Putin's high popularity rating and said, "the man has very strong control over a country." Trump portrayed our country as currently weak and embarrassed by other nations. We have a "depleted military" and "We’re losing our jobs like we’re a bunch of babies." Obama is poorly treated by other countries, e.g. when the Chinese failed to provide stairs for him to walk down from his plane. In his convention speech, Trump had claimed that "our citizens ... have lived through one international humiliation after another". The world's most notorious dictator, prior to World War II, portrayed his country as "defenseless", and a victim of "the most humiliating treatment ever meted out to a great nation." Similarity in speech does not necessarily equal similarity in intent (a survey of language used by other dictators would be instructive), and yet, when Trump portrays our country as humiliated by foreign powers, and praises a foreign strongman, and speaks of extracting foreign oil as "spoils", what does he mean when he says he'll make our country great again?
  • No Mention of Climate Change: Our military leaders see climate change increasingly as a destabilizing influence in the world, and therefore a security threat. Climate change likely played a role in the extended drought that contributed to destabilization of Syria. Trump's denial of climate change raises questions about his ability to identify threats, and yet the subject was not raised.
Below are the candidates’ words (all questions removed), with attacks in red. For each candidate, the words in attack sentences in red were counted and compared to the candidate's total verbal output.

Friday, September 02, 2016

A Borderline Solution for the Border: Build That Retirement Community!

I have a dream. Two dreams actually. The first is that Donald Trump not become president, in part because being president requires having an attention span, but also because his dream of a secure border with Mexico can best be realized if he remains in the private sector.

Building the wall is important to him, at least for the energy the slogan generates at his rallies, but is it important to us? You can watch this PBS News Hour report to learn that "illegal immigration from Mexico is at an historic low". 21,000 agents patrol the border, aided by ground sensors and cameras, with 650 miles of wall strategically erected along the 2000 mile border.

But even if a politician is trying to scare us with a diminishing problem in order to avoid grappling with steadily growing problems like climate change, we could always do better with border security, and that's why my dream is that Trump in his post-election defeat pulls himself together and takes on the biggest, best, most fabulous real estate project of his career. Rather than a wall, which will only drain more public treasure while drug smugglers tunnel underneath it, private citizen Trump should buy the Mexican border, then build a linear retirement home that will run its full 2000 mile length. Don't worry about logistics. He'll make it work. That the building's extraordinary length is expressed horizontally rather than vertically may not sit well, but horizontal will become the new vertical as the population ages and heat exhaustion on a warming planet lays us low.

The building will have all the best accommodations for all the best people who have lived all the best years of their lives and now desperately need all the best care from all the best Mexican workers willing to deal with their ever expanding debilities. Our increasing number of seniors will enter from the U.S. side, while Mexico's increasing number of care givers will enter and leave each day on the Mexican side. Some will view the separate entrances as a nod to an era when America was supposedly greater than it is today. We're talking nothing less than a ribbon of prosperity and employment along the border so great that no one will ever want to cross the border again.

There's only one man for this job, and it will require his full inattention.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Trump, the Suicide Candidate

One way to understand Donald Trump, in his new role as Republican nominee for president, is as a suicide candidate who has gained entry into the Republican Party. Hidden underneath that improbable hair is a brain with the potential to blow up the Party, and take Trump with it. This is assuming he proves so alienating that he loses the November election, but there remains a chance that he could penetrate the nation's defenses and blow it up as well, figuratively or literally.

While the Russians have hacked the Democratic Party's and Clinton campaign's computers, Trump has successfully hacked the Republican Party itself, showing it to be uniquely vulnerable. Disguising himself as a brilliant dealmaker, his first step was to hijack the news media, then use its apparatus to get free advertising. Since news media give bombings top billing, he remains the lead story by dropping one verbal bomb after another. In the process, he has served the media's purposes well, providing easy stories for journalists, easy jokes for late-night comedians, and endless fodder for the opinion industry. Rivaling a trip to the movie theater, the spectacle conjures powerful feelings of validation or disgust, hope or horror, depending on whether he's viewed as a savior or charlatan.

Unlike a suicide bomber, who exits with the first splash of carnage, Trump sustains prominence by miraculously surviving each verbal bomb he detonates, buoyant no matter which segment of the population he alienates--religions, ethnicities, women, gold star parents. Whereas Superman was able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Trump is able to alienate whole constituencies and rally the base in a single out-of-bounds statement.

While Republican Party leaders are themselves uneasy with his candidacy, they have spent decades preparing their Party for takeover by someone like Trump. Is he indifferent to facts? Welcome to the Party where tax cuts pay for themselves. Does he lack empathy for the disadvantaged and believe nature exists only to be exploited? Welcome to the Party that mocked the phrase "I feel your pain". Does he harshly criticize others while showing no capacity for introspection? Welcome to the Party that, while Newt Gingrich was having an affair of his own, focused its energy and the nation's attention on impeaching a president for lying about an affair. Does he stoke fear and resentment by conjuring false threats? Welcome to the Party that led the charge into Iraq. Does he offer no real solutions to real problems? Welcome to the Party that believes climate change is a hoax. The Party of Ronald, Newt, George and Rush needs to ask itself why it has proven such a good fit for a Donald with clear narcissistic tendencies. Could it be that the Party itself has a character disorder?

But the real groundwork for Trump's ascendency was laid by the low bar the Republican Party has set for public service. Because it defines government as the enemy--an inherently inept institution that does little more than take people's money and hamper the economy--the Party's mission has devolved into sabotaging any effort to make government work well. The resulting paralysis and national frustration set the stage for a candidate who claims that he alone can fix problems. Combined with the stultifying conformity demanded of Republican candidates (deny climate change, demonize taxes of all kinds, government regulation always bad, free market always good), the Party's low bar attracted a field of uninspiring candidates among whom Trump could prosper. Having occupied government with the professed goal of dismantling it, the Party now finds itself occupied, by a candidate whose goals are similarly anarchistic.

There's an emptiness at the center of it all. The news media chases one foul Trumpism after another, while real problems fester. Trump himself has been described by his biographer as a "black hole". It would be nice to think that, in this election season, the nation is bottoming out, and will begin to unify around a deep revulsion for the intolerance and recklessness on display, not only in a candidate but also in the Party that proved so well suited for his raw ambitions.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Book Review: Tao Orion's "Beyond the War On Invasive Species"

In Tao Orion's book, you can witness the sorry sight of one faction of plant lovers attacking another. Permaculturists launch a verbal broadside against mainstream habitat restoration. My review here was initially limited to the book's Forward and Introduction (available online)--along with an interview of the author discussing her book--but I have since read and reviewed the whole book, added below.

Unlike others who criticize invasion biology and restoration ecology and claim that invasive species aren't such a big problem after all, Orion may have some relevant ecological training--an agroecology degree--but voices many of the same dubious opinions analyzed here in previous posts. It would be nice to think that the rest of the book, given the topic of ecology, would mention food chains, plant-insect associations other than pollination, and co-evolution, and provide evidence to substantiate the author's inflammatory charge (in the interview) that the concept of invasive species was a product of marketing by pesticide manufacturers. Permaculture has so much to offer the world. It's unfortunate to see its positive vision hijacked to serve a polemic.

The Book's Title

Here is the first irony. The book is supposedly about a more peaceful approach to dealing with species that aggressively spread across landscapes, but the book cover shouts war in big bold, red letters. War is being used to sell the book. Of course, that’s the way we humans work. We say we love peace, but the headlines we tend to go for are about conflict. Readers open the book expecting a war, and the book delivers one, whether it’s real or not, with descriptions of bulldozers, chainsaws, helicopters, and herbicides being used to control invasive species. But is that depiction representative of habitat restoration in the U.S.? As a botanist and preserve manager, I’ve been involved for 30 years with restoration work in Michigan, North Carolina and New Jersey, and the tools utilized are much less dramatic.

The “Praise for Beyond the War on Invasive Species” bookcover

Here is the second irony. The book claims that calling a plant “invasive” is a form of demonization. So what do those who praise the book do? They demonize the demonizers, using accusatory language like “deep ethical corruption”, “the military-industrial invasive species complex”, “invasive species ideology”. The book, telling us we shouldn’t see invasive species as the enemy, creates a new enemy out of other people, which is not really a step forward.

Forward by David Holmgren

Holmgren describes a conflict between permaculture and botany/environmental types—a conflict I didn’t even know existed until I encountered this book. The conflict supposedly began in permaculture’s early days in Australia. For me, being enthusiastic about both permaculture and habitat restoration, news of this conflict is like finding out that two of your siblings have secretly hated each other since they were kids. Holmgren is co-founder of the permaculture movement, and as such is worthy of great respect and gratitude. But the forward he writes pushes lots of hot buttons to trigger our reflexive resentment.

Skirmish over nomenclature: Believing the word "invasive" to be laden with negative connotations, Holmgren seeks to use the less judgmental adjective “spreading” for species that expand aggressively across the landscape. And while the word “naturalization” is, in my experience, typically used for a non-native plant species that becomes part of a landscape without displacing native species (red clover would be an example), Holmgren wants to generalize the term to include all nonnative species, regardless of differences in their behavior.

Conjuring a grand deception is a common technique used to stoke outrage. Holmgren claims that governments and taxpayers have been hoodwinked by an ideology that “demonizes spreading species”, and mobilizes “armies of volunteers in a ‘war on weeds’”. It’s an ideology “corrupted by corporations selling chemical solutions”, that considers herbicides “a necessary evil in the vain hope of winning the war against an endless array of newly naturalizing species”, creating a “rapidly expanding market” that “began to rival the use of herbicides by farmers”. All of this is evidence of an “ethical corruption at the heart of both ecological science and the environmental movement” that coincided in the 1980s with cheap oil and the “Thatcherite-Reaganite revolution”. A whole “restoration industry” arose to counter a “perceived problem of ‘invasive species”.

Holmgren drops the "nativism" bomb, saying that he worked in New Zealand with Haikai Tane, who “branded the war against naturalizing species as nativism, an ideology that sought to separate nature into good and bad species according to some fixed historical reference.”

The third irony: Having used words sure to trigger liberal’s negative emotions—corrupt, corporation, chemicals, Thatcher-Reagan, unwinnable wars, nativism—Holmgren calls for “abandoning emotionally loaded and unscientific terms such as “invasive” and “weed”. Ironic, is it not? But this is what happens when people conjure enemies. It is human to become that which one hates. We’ve seen it in conservatives who perceive communist conformity as such a threat that they, too, demand strict adherence to a rigid orthodoxy, mimicking the very enemy they seek to oppose. And we see it in Holmgren’s attack on the science of invasion biology.

Seeming to mimic the “We report, you decide” slogan of Fox News, Holmgren claims that Orion’s book uses “measured language and open questions” allowing “the ordinary reader to judge”. Strange, then, that the book’s Forward wishes to be judge, jury and executioner.

Work Song: A Vision

After the Forward, there’s a lovely poem by Wendell Berry that envisions a very deep healing of land. That’s one of the sad things about these attacks on invasion biology and the native plant movement. Both “sides” in this manufactured controversy care deeply about nature and wish to see it healed.


Author Tao Orion describes the job she undertook near Eugene, Oregon to create a wetland on a 64 acre site that had been farmed for 50 years. It’s an interesting project, though not necessarily representative of restoration projects in general, which can involve anything from denuded land to fairly intact habitats.

Here are some troubling aspects in the book's introduction:
  • Orion says that words like “nuking” (with herbicide) and “moonscape” are “common terms in the restoration lexicon”, though I’ve never heard them used. 
  • She says Roundup was used on the site, which is strange, because a wetland site normally requires using a wetland-safe formulation of glyphosate such as Rodeo. 
  • She confuses readers by saying that restoration casts native species as good, invasive species as bad. This is like comparing apples and oranges. Native refers to origin. Invasiveness refers to behavior. In my experience, most nonnative species do not show invasive behavior, and in a few situations, a native species can behave invasively. 
  • Orion is not trained in ecology. This has been a chronic problem with criticisms of invasion biology and native plant advocates: the critics come from other disciplines. We’ve seen this also in attacks on climate scientists, coming from people who may be brilliant in their fields, but have no actual training in climate science. Orion at least worked in the habitat restoration field for awhile.
  • Orion suggests that scotch broom's capacity to fix nitrogen and thus increase soil fertility is an unalloyed good. In farming and gardening, we think of greater fertility as a good thing, but oftentimes the most diverse native habitats exist on poor soil. Nutrient inputs can actually be destabilizing in some cases. Many invasive species gain advantage and disrupt local ecologies by altering the chemistry of the soil. 
  • Regarding herbicide use, Orion states “…I have never considered using herbicides ... As individuals, we have to take responsibility for the land. We have to draw the line.” She admits to having a bias, and my own preference is to find ways to avoid using herbicides when possible. But in calling for us to stop judging plants by their origin and behavior, in effect to stop drawing lines, she chooses to draw a rigid line between manufactured chemicals (bad) and the soil-altering chemicals a plant may release (presumably all good). 
  • Orion contends that the whole-systems approach of permaculture has much to offer for better understanding the way introduced plants behave in an ecosystem, and claims that “invasive species aren’t the actual problem, only a symptom”. This can sometimes be true, for instance when lands that seem natural have in fact been thrown out of balance by underlying, largely invisible factors: altered hydrology, past traumas like agriculture, elimination of predators, or suppression of natural fires. One can’t simply battle the invasives and think the land will heal. We see a very similar approach used in holistic medicine, with the big exception that holistic medicine has no taboo against using manufactured medicines when need be. An understandable ban on manufactured herbicides in organic farming becomes problematic when extended to complex natural systems. Why are organic methods hard to use in a nature preserve? Because you can’t plow up a nature preserve, or mulch it. Many methods used in organic farming simply don’t translate. 
Creating strawmen: Critics of invasion biology and habitat restoration tend to create strawmen they can then tear apart. They state that habitat restoration seeks to eradicate all invasive species and turn back the clock to recreate a historic assemblage of native species, neither of which is possible. By claiming that habitat restorationists have extreme goals (I’ve never seen any actual quotes offered in the many critiques I've read), critics like Orion can portray restoration as a radical pipedream.

Denial of the problem: Christian Science teaches the unreality of evil, that disease is an illusion. Critics of invasion biology make similar claims, suggesting that invasive species are a consequence of our thinking rather than a real threat, as in this quote from the Introduction: “In this light, the idea of “invasive species” is peculiar since all plants and animals are native to our singular and unique planet. Bill Mollison, co-originator of the permaculture concept, states, “I use only native plants, native to the planet Earth. I am using indigenous plants; they are indigenous to this part of the Universe.”

Denial of co-evolution: To make such a statement, that all plants are native everywhere on earth, one has to deny co-evolution. While claiming to want to work with nature rather than against it, critics pretend that plants don’t develop deep associations with the plants and animals they evolve with over thousands of years. Evidence of these deep associations is vast and easily available to anyone who wishes to learn about them. The intricate relationships that have evolved between insects and plants, for instance, are an endless, fascinating study. From what I've seen, denial of co-evolution among critics of invasion biology has been as universal as it is mind-boggling.

The Rest of the Book

(Note: Scroll down for review of the rest of the book.) This review of Orion’s book is a detailed look at the sections available for reading online. I’m hoping the book’s interior is less biased and misleading. It would be nice if the chapter entitled “A Matter of Time” grapples with how long it takes for a newly introduced species to become integrated into an ecosystem, and whether the damage done in the interim is reversible. Permaculture’s perspective could potentially contribute to the shared goal of healthy habitats in which a diverse nature can thrive. I couldn't agree more with Orion's desire to see native plants thrive not only in areas officially pegged for restoration but in the landscapes where we live our lives. Unfortunately, the narrative offered is warped by the very dismissiveness, demonization and denial it perceives in the mainstream restorationist “Other”.

Update: I posted a review of the whole book at this link on Amazon, which is followed by an extended back and forth with the author in the comment section. Review sites at outlets like Amazon and Goodreads provide an opportunity to pop other people's bubbles.

Here's the review posted on Amazon of the whole book. The link's still interesting for the comment section, though.

Update (Oct. 21, 2023): Amazon has long since deleted the opportunity to comment on a book review, and has deleted the "not helpful" category (now you can only say if you found the review helpful). Book review sections on Amazon and Goodreads have long been one of the few ways for people with relevant knowledge to warn people about misleading books. I checked Amazon today, and found that its "Top Reviews" category is all 5 star reviews. You have to click on "most recent" to find the more substantive, critical reviews. So the critical reviews are there, but only for those who dig for them. 

After reading the whole book, I find no reason to change the one star rating, given how misleading the book is in its presentation of evidence and conclusions. Repeatedly, the book comes to sweeping conclusions based on highly selective logic and sources. It categorically condemns all herbicides, regardless of their varying toxicities, while insisting that invasive species are always a symptom rather than the problem. It takes a very pessimistic view of habitat restoration as currently practiced, saving a wildly implausible optimism for an alternative vision. There is a deep confusion in terminology. The words "native" and "invasive" are used as opposites, even though "native" refers to place of origin while "invasive" refers to behavior. These two terms are used throughout the book, yet are periodically said to lack meaning.

The book's ambitious scope and detail will deceive those who lack the knowledge base to notice the conspicuous omissions. The book claims that chemical corporations, seeking profits, have influenced land managers in government and the nonprofit sector to use herbicides on invasive species, yet doesn't even mention the powerful influence of the nursery and exotic pet trades, which view concern about invasive species, and any consequent restrictions on global trade and marketing of exotic species, as a threat to their bottom line.

Coevolution, which helps explain why a plant's evolutionary context matters, and why some introduced species can wreak such ecological havoc, is given credence only in relationship to smallpox and other introduced European disease pathogens that decimated American Indian tribes. The ash tree, in contrast, is somehow expected by the author to have an inborn resistance to the introduced Emerald Ash Borer. As with other polemics against invasion biology, the book states that wildlife benefit from eating the berries and nectar of invasive species, but avoids mentioning that the native wildlife tend not to eat the invasives' foliage. Herbivory is an important means of limiting rampancy, and if wildlife aren't providing that ecological service, then it's left up to us. Having condemned all herbicide use, the author offers a logistically improbable alternative, in which vast numbers of like-minded people relocate to the countryside and nurture nature's abundance, removing undesired plants by hand.

Yes, we need people to reconnect with the landscape, and herbicides should be used as minimally and selectively as possible, and permaculture has much to offer. But this book is trying to squeeze people and nature into an ideological box.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"You Bet Your Garden" Radio Show Spreading Misinformation About Invasive Species

Does misinformation behave like invasive species, spreading into people's minds, eluding normal checks and balances and resisting attempts to root it out? If so, the otherwise entertaining NPR radio program "You Bet Your Garden" is proving to be a primary means of distribution. Surprisingly, its website contains some of the most misleading and needlessly accusatory writings about invasive species to be found. The author and show host, Mike McGrath, is known for his big opinions about gardening--opinions that in this case prove to be wrong in a big way. As can be seen in the critique of two of his postings below, he uses now-familiar techniques to attack those of us who are concerned about the impact invasive species are having on forests, fields, and people's yards. The two postings critiqued here are particularly irresponsible given the apparent size of McGrath's audience.

A closer look at his postings shows that he may have "drunk the Kool-Aid" at some point, because two posts express a mainstream concern about the invasiveness demonstrated by plants like morning glory and Japanese honeysuckle, while two other posts, perhaps more recent, are riddled with conspicuous omissions and misinformation that then lead to reckless accusations.

Because this false narrative about nature is showing up in otherwise respectable outlets like NPR and the New York Times (critiques here and here), it's important to thoroughly dismantle the assertions being made.

Here is the most egregious post on McGrath's website, beginning with a listener's question. Indented paragraphs are quotes from his two posts, interspersed with my critiques. The headings in bold are a means of categorizing the tactics used.
Lesser celandine—for some, a Bitter Buttercup!
Q. We are in the process of restoring a Lehigh River bank with native plants. But the over 2000 beautiful spring natives we've put in are being choked by a thick blanket of lesser celandine that flourishes during the peak bloom of such natives as Dutchman's BreechesVirginia Bluebells, Trillium and Trout Lilies. It was recommended that we use Roundup in February before the natives come up. I understand that the glyphosate in the Roundup is not severely evil. However the size of our area would require a major grant to purchase the amount we'd need. Pulling is tricky as the celandine produces little tubers along their roots that can stay behind. What are your thoughts on this? Literally hundreds of acres are affected.
    ---Ilse in Bethlehem
A. When tested by University of Pittsburgh researcher Dr. Rick Relyea, the active ingredient in the herbicide 'Roundup' (glyphosate) was found to be relatively innocuous to the amphibians he studies. But in real life the active ingredient is never used alone, and when Dr. Relyea usedactual Roundup purchased at retail, it wiped out massive numbers of frogs, toads and other amphibians. The surfactants and other so-called 'inert' ingredients in such chemical herbicides appear to be far from inert—or innocuous. (And they are considered trade secrets by the EPA and therefore do not legally need to be disclosed.) 
Important information withheld: In the paragraph quoted above, McGrath should know, and say, that there are wetland-safe formulations of glyphosate, with Rodeo being the best-known example. He also fails to point out that, since Monsanto's patent expired years ago, glyphosate has long been available from other companies, so there's no need to support Monsanto.

"Luckily, Round-Up is not approved for use near water, and I doubt anyone would invite Federal prosecution by writing you that big grant check." 
Threats based on misinformation: In the sentence above, McGrath actually adopts a bullying tone. He's suggesting that the woman seeking to save her watershed from a vast invasion of lesser celandine, and anyone who funded her work, could be prosecuted. He can only come to this false conclusion by remaining strangely unaware of wetland safe formulations of glyphosate.

"And hundreds of acres?! Removal of such a large number of plants along a river bank in any manner would lead to severe environmental devastation. And for what? To be able to risk replacing a plant that produces pretty yellow buttercup-like flowers and does a magnificent job of preventing erosion with different plants that thrived in a different era and may no longer have what it takes to compete in a world that's been dramatically changed by the presence of humans? 
Drinking the ideological Kool-Aid: In the paragraph above, McGrath takes some truth and warps it with propaganda. Lesser celandine is indeed pretty. Any effort to eliminate it over hundreds of acres would be disruptive and almost certain to fail. The hydrology of river valleys has in some cases been altered, favoring invasive species more tolerant of destabilized hydrology. But if you've read other defenses of invasive plants, you'll notice the similarities: An invasive plant's good qualities (beauty, erosion control--the latter may be questionable, because lesser celandine's leaves disappear in early summer, leaving the ground exposed to wind and rain) are offered as somehow compensating completely for the ecological disruption it causes. The interest in bringing back native species is characterized as sentimental, and the natives themselves are presumed too weak to make it in today's world.

By opposing action against invasive lesser celandine, McGrath echoes the logic of those opposed to taking action on climate change. Here is a recasting of his paragraph in terms of climate change, using the same sentence structure and logic: Any attempt to remove fossil fuels from our lives will devastate the economy. And for what? To deny Canada a warmer climate and force us to continue enduring cold winters, while denying us all the comforts and freedom fossil fuels make possible?
"Nature doesn't favor natives—or so called 'invaders'. Nature simply provides a canvas, and the rules of Darwin decide the winners. It's not the same river as when those other plants first flourished; human activity has changed everything about it and the area around it. The best I can suggest is that you establish a nearby area that you can protect with deep edging in which to show off your natives. Any attempts to remove that much celandine will be expensive, time-consuming, immensely destructive to the environment, and run a high risk of failure." 
Denial of co-evolution and ecology: Native plants are characterized, in the paragraph above, like some political ideologies characterize the poor, essentially as losers unfit for today's world, and therefore not deserving of any assistance. He willfully ignores the reason natives are important, and why the nonnative lesser celandine has such a competitive advantage. Through thousands of years of association with native plants, the native wildlife--insects, deer, etc.--have learned to eat them, not only their fruits but importantly their foliage as well. In this way, the solar energy collected by plants can move up the foodchain, supporting a thriving, diverse ecological community. An introduced plant like lesser celandine, poisonous as it turns out, may have had predators where it originally evolved, but has left those behind, and is left uneaten by the local wildlife. In its new environs, it therefore has an enormous competitive advantage. As it displaces native species, there's less and less food for the local wildlife. That's a big problem that McGrath, who is a gardener, not an ecologist, chooses to ignore.
"BUT you might be able to get it out of some small areas to help establish that refuge without causing too much damage. There is a new class of alternative broadleaf herbicide that uses Iron as its active ingredient—and it's specifically labeled for use on this plant (although the label just calls it "creeping buttercup", they clearly mean lesser celandine). Just go slowly, and try and keep it away from that priceless waterway as much as possible, as all herbicides must contain some type of surfactant or they won't work. 
Luckily, the surfactants and other inactive ingredients in natural products like this are designed to be gentle on the environment. And iron isn't a hormonal disruptor, like Roundup and many of the other chemical herbicides.  
And smothering the plants with wood ashes is an ancient tactic I found suggested in the lesser celandine article at a wonderful "Modern Herbal" website, This might be another nice experiment for a small area. But please don't mess with any right near the river; lesser celandine is virtually invulnerable in wet areas, and the erosion you'd cause trying to get it out would be immense. "
Skewed advice: Somehow, in the paragraphs above, McGrath assumes that all surfactants in chemical herbicides are bad, while those in "natural products"--he links to a product he happens to sell--can be okay. McGrath, having sworn off using manufactured herbicides like glyphosate, must then characterize all chemicals as bad, and recommend products that range from the untested to the highly dubious. Ideological purity in organic gardening and farming is commendable, but shouldn't be imposed on land managers dealing with hundreds of acres of nature preserves with little or no budget. In a condescending way, he assumes people trying to restore native habitats have unlimited time to apply untested and almost certainly less effective products. Like medicine, herbicides have differing toxicities, and can be used in an intelligent and carefully prescribed manner. Their abuse and overuse in industrial farming is as terrifying to nature preserve managers as anyone else, because it hastens the evolution of resistant weeds and makes farms less hospitable to species like monarch butterflies.

Note, too, that McGrath describes the waterway as "priceless", while not even mentioning the value of the terrestrial ecology that has been altered by the invasion of lesser celandine.

The post continues with a response to another listener's question about lesser celandine:

Q. We have a two-fold invasion of lesser celandine; in my planting beds and throughout our new lawn. There's so much in the lawn that we can't spot spray to get rid of it—it would kill the lawn, too. Thanks for any advice!
    ---Jen in Southeastern PA
Little help for besieged homeowners: In this second question, above, yet another homeowner has lost control over her lawn and garden, due to an invasion by lesser celandine. Many people have told me of the distress this causes them. In response, McGrath offers time-consuming and likely ineffective remedies, described below.
"First, test the lawn's soil; if the pH is low, add wood ashes to raise it to neutral and go heavy on the ashes overtop of the lesser celandine. By all means, try an iron-based herbicide as well. 
And then care for the lawn correctly! Your location—in the mid-Atlantic/Northern part of the country—strongly suggests that, unless its zoysia, your lawn is composed of cool-season grasses. So for you, 'correct' means: never cut it below three inches, never cut it during a dry heat wave, and feed it only in the Spring and Fall. 
And, as lesser celandine craves moisture, make sure you don't overwater the lawn. If we don't get rain, waterdeeply, but only once a week. If you see you're making headway, aerate the turf this fall to improve the drainage. (But if your lawn is always wet, you'll have to install drain tiles to fix the problem and start over to keep the celandine out. This weed beats grass any day in a sopping wet environment.) 
Dig it out of the flower beds relentlessly. Be persistent, get the below-ground tubers, and be sure to get it out earlyin the season—before it drops little seed-like things that also grow new plants, just like the underground tubers. (To quote the Modern Herbal website: "In the early summer, when the leaves and stems are dying down, grains drop to the ground, each capable of producing a new plant." ) 
Then cover any bare ground in the flower beds well with shredded leaves or other non-wood mulch and install deep edging to keep the celandine out. And again, don't overwater!"
More Kool-Aid, and an ugly accusation: Relevant to the paragraph quoted below, part of the ideological Kool-Aid that McGrath has drunk and is now sharing is that action against invasive species is futile. We see similarly pessimistic assumptions driving the resistance to action on climate change. He mentions dismissively a "hit list", which refers to lists of invasive species that homeowners should beware of. These are imperfect lists, but they are helpful to any homeowner wishing not to contribute to the ecological problems caused by invasive species.

Saving the worst for last, McGrath accuses the ecologically-minded people who developed invasive species lists of being in cahoots with corporate giant Monsanto. The land managers I know use herbicide in very small, targeted amounts--a little dab on the cut stump of an invasive shrub, here and there. People looking for someone or some thing to demonize typically imagine a big, pervasive enemy, wanton spraying from giant machines. McGrath's accusation, unsubstantiated of course, is both comic and offensive.
And please dear listeners and readers, don't go around trying to wipe this plant out everywhere you see it because it's on some hit list. It's not going to go away—and that 'hit list' may well have been instigated by Monsanto or some other herbicide producer. Lesser celandine stabilizes wetland areas brilliantly, and the buttercup-like flowers are breathtaking in the Spring, inspiring literary tributes by the likes of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, D. H. Lawrence, and—most famously, the poet Wordsworth who wrote: 
"Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies; Let them live upon their praises;…There's a flower that shall be mine'Tis the little Celandine."

People first, nature second: McGrath ends with quotes about how Wordsworth and others enjoy the aesthetics of lesser celandine. Again, this puts human interests ahead of nature's ecological functions.

In another post, "Another way to look at invasive plants", McGrath's response offers more examples of the strategies people use to dismiss the damage done by invasive species, and to demonize those who take the threat seriously. Here are some excerpts:
"Bottom line: No chemical herbicide is even remotely safe for people and the environment, and the current and unfortunate tendency to spray first and ask questions later (if ever) must be changed if we want to seriously lower the cancer rate and reverse our degradation of the environment."
Zero tolerance, in the name of tolerance: In the paragraph above, he shows zero tolerance for chemical herbicides, lumping them together as all being too toxic to use. Ironically, this zero tolerance is juxtaposed with, and used in the service of, a supposedly open-minded view of invasive species, which he thinks are wrongly maligned. The satirist Tom Lehrer has a famous line that captures this irony of people committing the very sort of prejudice they feign to oppose: "I know there are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that."

A few good qualities supposedly compensate for any invasive properties: In the paragraph below, his woods "is full of" multiflora rose because the wildlife can't, or won't, eat it. Therefore, the sun's energy captured by plantlife, which to a large extent now consists of multiflora rose, isn't moving up the foodchain, and the local web of life suffers. It's nice that his wife likes the flowers, the rosehips may provide some food for wildlife, the shrub provides cover and erosion control--all good. But native plant species, meaning those that have evolved with the wildlife over thousands of years, provide all of these benefits plus foliage vital to the wildlife. And thick walls of thorny multiflora rose have transformed our nature preserves into daunting, menacing places for anyone wishing to experience nature.

"Multiflora rose is, like many now-unwanted plants, a deliberate import that was heavily promoted for agricultural use as a 'living fence' and erosion controller. My woods are full of it, and this season it bloomed like mad, making me a liar for saying so often that the flowers are unattractive because they looked sensational. And they so heavily scented the air with a wonderful fragrance that my wife asked me what smelled so good. "A bad plant", I told her. "Really?" she responded, "we need more of those." Multiflora rose provides essential cover for birds and other wildlife, and copious food for wildlife and people via its super-nutritious rose hips (an excellent natural source of vitamin C). It is unsurpassed at erosion control."
Confusion of unintentional consequence with natural processes: One of the hardest things for people to grasp is that, even though we aren't intentionally changing the earth's climate, it is in fact our collective fault. Similarly, in the paragraph below, a meadow is said to be controlled by "Darwin and Mother Nature". In reality, that field is tremendously influenced by human impacts. Periodic fire was once a natural part of the landscape, but now excluded. We removed all the predators of deer, so their numbers have exploded, and their preference for browsing on native species has given nonnative species, which we have introduced to the continent in numbers far greater than could ever be termed natural, a competitive advantage. Past farming obliterated the native seedbank that once would have favored native species. To compensate for all the historic human-caused transformations that continue to affect the meadow, what is needed now is intentional action--the very sort that McGrath would describe as "unnatural". 
"Ah, but Darwin and Mother Nature are in control that meadow. As Peter Del Tredici, Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University explains in his excellent new book, "Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast", your unwanted plants are succeeding there naturally. (And perhaps because you are unnaturally mowing the meadow in the fall, which probably favors the 'bad' plants immensely.) It is possible to remove and replace such plants, notes Del Tredici, but not without tremendous environmental destruction and endless intensive care for the replacement plants. You can't just spray the "weeds" and have wanted plants suddenly thrive; the reworked area would have to tended like a garden. (But it would require much more work than a regular garden.)"

Confusion of intentional action with "dominating Nature": McGrath and other apologists for invasive plant species are essentially offering us excuses for inaction--a tremendously appealing option, given our hectic lives. But the people asking him for help are feeling besieged by invasive species, and want to act. He offers them instead a skewed, rigid ideology and dubious advice that leads to a sense of futility. Past human impacts are downplayed, excused, or repackaged as "natural", useful tools for intervention, such as herbicides, receive blanket condemnation, and any intentional action to undo past ecological trauma is attacked, e.g. in the paragraph below, as an attempt to "dominate Nature". 
"The plants that are there now are stabilizing the soil, managing storm water, protecting the creek and watershed, and providing food and shelter for wildlife. Before you remove those plants, take a careful, objective look at the plants you propose installing in their place. If they won't do a better job, you'd just be trying to dominate Nature, not manage it."
The accusation of emotional bias: One last thing to point out. The word "objective" in the quote above implies that people who are concerned about invasive species are somehow blinded by bias and emotion. Similar accusations have been made by others critiqued on this website. McGrath, at least, doesn't confuse nonnative (origin) with invasive (behavior), and though he makes reckless and unfounded accusations, as far as I know he hasn't flung the word "xenophobic" around. This detailed critique shows, however, that McGrath has lost whatever objectivity he may once have had to speak about ecological matters.
For more on glyphosate from the perspective of land managers, here's an informative post:

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

More Skewed Logic on Invasive Species--Bradford Pear

Soon after writing a critique of the NY Times article that demonizes those of us who are concerned about invasive species, I received an email saying "They've done it again!" The email pointed to a NY Times oped by a science writer, Gabriel Popkin, about the Bradford Pear. Called The Ups and Downs of the Bradford Pear, most of the oped tells the standard story of how this tree, introduced by the nursery industry with great fanfare, became an ecological problem years later. Only at the end does the oped take a bizarre turn, using strange math and selective pessimism to conclude that, in a world full of bigger problems, we need not take any action.

The Bradford Pear turns our towns, and increasingly our countrysides as well, white with its intense, incandescent blooms in the early spring. It seems like a beacon after the long voyage of winter, telling us that the comforts of spring are close at hand.

But like many species introduced to our continent with great hopes,

Monday, March 14, 2016

Skewed Logic Thrives in NY Times Article on Invasive Species

One expects quality from the NY Times, but for some reason it periodically weakens its standards to publish an oped or article attacking native plant advocates and biologists who study biological invasions. (See list and previous detailed critiques here.) The tactics are always the same: a blurring of important distinctions, a failure to explain to readers the basic concepts of invasive behavior in plants and animals, the creation and tearing apart of strawmen, an embedding of bias in word choice and sentence structure, and a lot of mean-spirited pejoratives. This curious, recurrent smearing of those who seek to understand and tend nature's garden is fueled, as best I can tell, by a never-ending stream of resentment emanating most stridently from a couple California-based websites, then given undeserved validation by journalists who lack training and field experience in biology and ecology.

The latest, by veteran science writer Erica Goode, is a polemic loosely disguised as an article in the Science section. Entitled "Invasive Species Aren’t Always Unwanted", it portrays invasion biology as a xenophobic, militaristic, quasi-religious cult that has invented a false enemy and caused people and governments to behave in violent ways. We are asked to accept this dark psychological portrait largely on faith.

Like attacks on climate science, the article claims to shake the foundations of a major area of scientific study