Wednesday, December 06, 2017

A Review of Emma Marris's TED Talk--Species and Spin

For years I've been writing critiques of a false narrative about invasive species that has recurrently found its way into books, newspaper articles and opeds. A cluster of books came out between 2011 and 2015, claiming that invasive species are not a threat after all, and may even be our saviors. You can find this applecart-spilling lineup on and elsewhere, beginning with Emma Marris's "The Rambunctious Garden" in 2011, followed by "Where Do Camels Belong", "The New Wild", and "Beyond the War on Invasive Species".

I've read all of one, parts of others, and have been astonished at their faulty logic and brazen tone, as they dismiss habitat restoration and (usually unnamed) invasion biologists with a sweep of the hand. The books deliver a big payoff for uninformed readers, who get to look down on supposedly stuffy, self-deceived scientists, while being relieved of worrying about a big problem that, according to the authors, isn't a problem after all.

Though the authors would not welcome the comparison, similar emotional payoffs can be had by denying human-caused climate change, or supporting a candidate who dismisses those with experience and promises to magically solve a nation's problems. This is how polarization is maintained in America (and how democracy's pillars begin to crumble), by recasting consensus as conformity, expertise as arrogance, and then cherry-picking evidence to suit one's ideological needs. The authors present themselves as tough-minded skeptics, bucking the tide, but turn out to have directed all their skepticism outwards, allowing their own misconceptions to prosper unquestioned.

Earlier this year, I scanned the internet to see if the authors of these books were continuing to downplay the threat posed by invasive species. The main thing I found was a 2016 TED talk by Emma Marris, entitled "Nature is everywhere--we just need to learn to see it."

It's a well-delivered talk, but anyone with knowledge of the subject will spot the telltale spin, conflation, and omissions that lead the audience to a counterfeit "A-Ha!" moment. In the talk, Marris claims that weedy urban lots are "arguably more wild" than national parks. Weedlots, she claims, are the true wilderness, because there is no human intervention, while national parks are often carefully managed. Nature's diversity is defined as a straight numbers game of how many different species can be found in a given location. All landscapes are sweepingly categorized as "humanized", regardless of whether the landscape is an elevated train track surrounded by buildings and concrete in Philadelphia, or a rainforest inhabited by indigenous tribes.

There's a downplaying of the deeper ecological interconnections that develop through co-evolution. Marris dismisses the management of national parks as an effort to make them "look natural", whereas land managers and ecologists see the re-introduction of bison and wolves, or the planting of rust-resistant whitebark pine seedlings, not as a superficial visual tweak but as an effort to restore ecological function and health.

To suggest that an urban weedlot is "self-willed" and more wild than a managed national park is to misunderstand the human influence on landscapes. Some of our impacts on the world are intentional, others unintentional. Marris seems to consider the collateral damage of human expansion--the accidental introduction of nonnative species, the altering of hydrology caused by urbanization, the displacement of key species like wolves and bison--as natural acts, while the intentional effort to undo these alterations is labeled as unnatural.

I would argue the opposite, that nature predates humans in America, and that the profound ecological relationships and functionality developed over those millions of years do not disappear under the label "humanized" as soon as people arrive. Elements of that original wild nature persist to varying degrees. Some elements were enhanced, for instance by the American Indians' use of fire in the landscape, and other elements have been eliminated altogether, like the megafauna that were hunted to extinction. Weedlots can only be called wild and self-willed if we ignore the setting, which is human-based. The hydrology, the substrate, the sorts of seeds that land there--all these are the product of past human activity, be it intentional or unintentional. There is spontaneity, as the plants sprout and grow, and the bees visit, but the context is largely orchestrated by people past and present. This is far different from the Amazon, where indigenous tribes may influence nature, but have left most of nature's functional components in place.

People are both part of nature and separate from it. We can work with nature's processes or fight against them. Using our knowledge, we can mend and nurture wildness through intentional action, or further alter the remnants of a nature that once sprung from the ground without any human promptings or orchestration.

There are several values I hold in common with Emma Marris. She calls for people to seek out and enjoy the nature all around them. The watershed association I founded in Durham, NC was inspired by a desire to provide urban dwellers with mini-preserves a short walk from their homes. Marris believes nature is made to be touched, not treated as a museum. Amen to that. She makes a good point that kids, just discovering nature, need not be told that the flower they're holding in their hand is a non-native invasive plant. I was weeding a large, mostly native wet meadow planted in a park's detention basin this past spring when a kid came along, grabbed a dandelion seedhead, told me it was a wishing flower, and sent the seeds flying with his breath. Though dandelions were one of the weeds I had been undercutting with a shovel that afternoon, I held my tongue and let him enjoy his love of the dandelion. Kids will learn soon enough, when their parents curse the fig buttercup that's taking over their yard, or a fishing trip is undone by a combination of habitat degradation and invasive species. My first remembered encounter with invasive species, as a kid in Wisconsin, was a trip to nearby Turtle Creek, which had appeared on the map as a sweet rivulet in the countryside. What we found was a muddy creek degraded by cattle and carp.

It's one thing for Marris to want to protect and nurture kids' delight in nature, but another to downplay or deny among adults the threat posed by invasive species.

I had an interesting interaction recently with Ms. Marris. In the TED talk, she claimed that a Finnish ecologist named Illka Hanski let his yard grow up, and several years later found "375 plant species, including 2 endangered species". Very impressive, and in the talk's trajectory, that was the moment that sealed the deal for the audience. You could feel that collective "aha" moment, when the "let it go" approach to nature seemed a truly powerful tool for achieving plant diversity. But the number sounded wrong to me, and sure enough, in an interview Ms. Marris did later last year, the story is told differently. The interviewer says:
 "In Helsinki, researcher Ilkka Hanski stopped mowing his 16,000-square-foot lawn and found, after several years, 375 species of animals and plants — including two endangered insects." 
Since soil itself is packed with species, we have no idea how many plant species were in the yard. I emailed Emma Marris, and she immediately acknowledged having misspoken, and has added a footnote to the TED talk pointing out the mistake. 

Unfortunately, showing how misinformation can have a ripple effect, the TED staff had appeared to use the false figure in Marris's TED talk to suggest greater biodiversity in urban lots than in national parks:
"...untended patches of grass and weeds growing in abandoned lots and around deserted buildings. (It may surprise you that that patch is most likely more biologically diverse than an entire national park.)"
The TED staff include Marris's talk in a group of speakers who supposedly "debunked received wisdom, looked critically at common knowledge — and restarted conversations we thought were closed." What in fact happened in this case is that misinformation was used to artificially create debate. Our appetite for surprise and a dramatic "overturning of the applecart" creates a market for false controversy.

Marris had the TED staff also remove the "It may surprise you ..." language, but the TED talk can't be modified to remove the false claim about diversity, and now has over a million hits.

My experience with diversity is the opposite of Marris's cherry-picked example. The roadsides of Durham, NC, where I used to live, tend to be dominated by a few nonnative grass species. But here and there under the powerlines along old 2-lane roads, where soil was left undisturbed, probably for centuries, and woody growth is kept mowed down, can be found patches of native piedmont prairie teaming with plant diversity. The soil was undisturbed because farmers wouldn't have plowed the roadsides, and mowing under powerlines is a serendipitous stand-in for periodic fires that would have swept through in centuries past, preventing woody vegetation from shading out the herbaceous species. Thus, serendipitous human actions have allowed an indigenous plant community to survive from an era that was far more wild than our own.

My email exchange with Emma Marris was friendly enough. She is an accomplished environmental writer who is commendably working to immerse kids in nature. But I did ultimately feel a need to point out the ways in which she uses spin, blurred distinctions, cherry-picking, and omission to undermine consensus and create false controversy. That brought the email exchange to an end, but it serves as a good summary of what still plagues her writing about invasive species:
"I'd say I agree with you on some things, and find other aspects of your TED presentation problematic. People should look for nature close to home, and not be hands off about it, and lectures on the dangers of nonnative invasive species are best saved for some moment other than when a boy is connecting with nature for the first time. The rest--that park stewardship is intended to make the park "look natural", that all landscapes touched lightly or heavily by humans can be categorized as "humanized", that diversity is primarily a numbers game, that an urban lot is "self-willed" when the circumstances are largely dictated by people, and that deeper interactions such as herbivory or lack thereof don't bear mention--is problematic. Your talk made me remember my fascination with roadside weeds when I was first learning plant names, but I don't see you giving the deeper interactions that evolve over time between species their due."

Postscript: Googling Ilkka Hanski did uncover a useful reference to him in a David Suzuki Reader, in which Hanski had found that "people surrounded by a greater diversity of life ... were less likely to exhibit allergies." It sounds similar to the contention that kids' immune systems will be improved by playing in dirt. All of this, if true, is good fodder for those of us not enamored with the sterility of suburban landscapes. 

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