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.


Calamagrostis said...

Thank you very much for your review of the beginning of the book. I just found out that Tao Orion (her real name?) has been invited to be the keynote speaker at our Central California Invasive Weed Symposium. This seems to me like having a conference on global warming, then inviting a global warming denier to be the keynote speaker, so that you can present a diversity of opinion. I have the book on order (used, so no more money goes to the author) so that I will be able to dissect her argument. Then I am going to alert our local community of land managers about it so that we can plan a response. At least this should lead to a lively symposium.

Steve Hiltner said...

The comparison is apt. One begins with a blanket condemnation of government, the other with a blanket condemnation of pesticides, then they skew their perceptions of reality to preserve the sanctity of that foundational bias. Its fascinating to witness the mental gymnastics at work.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot to be learned here, on all sides. Explore each other's ideas for merit without preconceived bias. You don't have to agree with someone to learn from them.

Unknown said...

I hope you have a chance to read the entirety of my book! Usually that's the norm when writing book reviews.

Steve Hiltner said...

To Ms. Orion,
Glad to see you've found my website. I hope you read the various critiques posted here of writings ideologically similar to your own, and that you will reflect on their relevance to your assertions. Though a close reading of your whole book would be best, and I have searched without success for your book locally, I find, with writings that demonize native plant advocates and invasion biologists, that a detailed critique of the logic being used, in this case exhibited in the Forward and Introduction to your book, can reveal the gaps in understanding, the failures to make important distinctions, that would be missed in a broad overview.

Unknown said...

Hi Stephen,
You're welcome to order a copy of my book directly from me through my website: Although you've spent a lot of time writing up what you think are my conclusions and ideas, it would be intellectually dishonest of you to not actually read the whole book. As you will find, I actually am a native plant advocate, am deeply committed to enhancing the practice of restoration, and spend the majority of my time working towards these ends. As such, I haven't had a chance to read your critiques of other peoples' work. Since I have gotten excellent feedback about my own work from numerous seasoned restoration professionals, and am actively involved in working with many of them by doing consulting and presentations, you may even find that you agree with some of my conclusions. And, if you ever decide to write a book, I'll be happy to read the whole thing before giving a review!

Steve Hiltner said...

I'll extend the courtesy of allowing you to mention your website url and criticism here, and trust you'll reciprocate on your own website. I'd like to believe that your inclination is to mend and enhance rather than to inflame and demonize, but it's not a good sign that, rather than responding to the particulars of my critique of your book's jacket cover, Forward and Introduction, you choose rather to attack with words like "intellectually dishonest". It would be intellectually dishonest to read just portions of a book and pretend one has read it all, but I was in fact forthright in limiting my critique to those portions I read, and expressing the hope that the rest of the book is less biased and misleading. If a book's tone and claims are substantially different than it's cover, forward and intro, then that's problematic and not altogether honest. You definitively assert that "invasive species aren't the problem; they are merely a symptom." Tell that to a town losing its ash trees to EAB, or a land manager who has found the beginnings of a major invasion of lesser celandine.

Perry from Durham said...

Thank you for your insights and perspectives on this book especially in the greater context of species relationships and co-dependence, and the potential disruptions, or worse, caused by invasives. I look forward to a more in-depth review of the book's entirety, if you so decide to pursue that.

Anonymous said...

I have finsihed reading the book, and this post does not reflect the true value of the book. I think you should read it and then write a review. Her book shares important knowledge to address the issues. Considering that ecosystems are dynamic the concept of trying to maintain ecosystems stable is obsolete. Thousands of species are migrating as a result of climate change, so it is irresponsible and unrealistic to expect that ecosystems do not have to change to adapt to the new situation. The book has become more important now that climate change is worsening. Besides, we know more about the effects of herbicides on the environment and human health. Your post has become obsolete.

Steve Hiltner said...

Thanks to anonymous for the above comment. Obsolete? That's quite the claim. Climate has changed in the past, but not at the extremely fast pace that humans are now causing. Similarly, there may have been plants introduced to new regions in the distant past, but not at the extreme rate of introductions now occurring due to intentional or unintentional human transfer. Rate of change matters. Climate change may cause plants to shift their ranges, but most plant species in the eastern U.S. have very large ranges, extending from Canada down to the southeast U.S. Not sure how climate change would cause a plant to "migrate," as if it picks up its bags and heads to some distant locale. If a plant expands its range northward, so too will the species that prey upon it and limit its rampancy. The combination of invasive species and climate change has proved devastating recently in Hawaii: