Showing posts with label Invasive Species. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Invasive Species. Show all posts

Friday, August 03, 2018

Counterfeit Optimism: A Supplementary Book Review of "Inheritors of the Earth," by Chris D. Thomas

If someone wrote a book about women or a minority, saying that mistreatment of them by those in power is perfectly natural and has in fact made them more resilient, that efforts to help them are futile, and that if we wait a million years they will be fine, the writer would not be hailed as an optimist. Yet a remarkable number of book reviewers have accepted as optimistic a similar logic about nature, as described by Chris D. Thomas in his book Inheritors of the Earth.

That a book can be so flawed in logic and still be reviewed favorably in the news media and on book-selling sites makes clear just how vulnerable society has become to skewed thinking. Even the science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, whose New Yorker essay "The Darkening Sea" is one of my all time favorites, is advertised on the front cover as having given the book her imprimatur. Unlike most other authors who try to let readers off the hook by claiming that invasive species aren't a big problem after all, Thomas has actual degrees in biology and ecology, so his misrepresentations of nature are all the more puzzling.

The professional journal, Biological Invasions, recently published a review I wrote of Inheritors of the Earth. As author, I was given this link to allow access for readers who lack a subscription to the journal. That's the best, most concise read, but because that review may not be otherwise easily encountered, here are some additional thoughts, and some more detailed examples of the book's many deceptions.

INHERITORS OF THE EARTH, by Chris D. Thomas--a supplementary review

In a dark time, when so many problems linger unsolved, and when coordinated action to solve these shared problems is thwarted by political sabotage, hope becomes a scarce commodity. Competing for market share in the hope industry that has sprung up on the outskirts of this void is a book by Chris D. Thomas called Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. The book seeks to absolve us of any species guilt we may feel, as our accelerating alteration of climate, land, and sea propels nature towards the predicted apocalyptic extinctions of the Anthropocene. Thomas erases responsibility and associated guilt by declaring humans and everything we do to be perfectly natural. His version of optimism is to claim that mass extinctions have happened before, are happening now, and will happen again, but that evolution has always patched things up over time. Check back in a million years and everything will be fine. That this logic is being sold as optimistic shows just how much the fabric of the future has unraveled, and how desperate is the search for silver linings in darkening clouds.

A close look at “Inheritors” reveals an underlying, abject pessimism, along with the now familiar techniques used by previous books in this applecart-spilling genre to discredit mainstream science and the work of conservationists. Once again--as in previous books, by Marris, Pearce, Orion and others--invasion biologists and conservationists are portrayed as emotion-bound sentimentalists who are wasting money and effort on a futile attempt to take us back to some past idyllic state of nature. Thomas takes the skewed logic of those antecedent books further, portraying nature not as a highly evolved, complex web of interactions among species, but as a random assemblage of winners and losers. Rampancy by invasive species is viewed as a sign of success. Human needs in this unmoored landscape are paramount, but, surprise, it turns out according to the author that the radical changes we have imposed on nature will benefit nature in the long run. Check back in a million years and you’ll see. If it sounds like an elaborate and too clever way to rationalize irresponsible behavior, well, it is.

Here are some of the techniques Thomas and his predecessors use to create false controversy about invasive species:

Claim conservationists are driven by emotion rather than knowledge

Conservationists seek to restore ecological functioning and protect habitats from radical change. But in this book they are told to “throw off the shackles of a pessimism-laden, loss-only view of the world." They are cast not as nurturing and sustaining, but rather “referees and arbiters of how nature should be.” Conservationists, according to Thomas, are "not happy", they harbor a "hatred of foreign species", and are "poised to kill.” "How long,” Thomas asks in one of his more provocative moments, “will it be before the environmental police force of ecologists and conservationists is prepared to step back and decriminalize introduced species that have had the temerity to be successful." Another quote, "Environmentalists may dislike them (invasive species) for their newfound success,” exemplifies how the book repeatedly portrays conservationists in negative, emotion-drenched terms, rather than explaining to readers the scientific basis for a conservationist’s work. And rather than grapple with the findings of invasion biology, the author wraps mocking quotes around “invasion biologists”, and returns to his polemic.

Overstate conservation's goals in order to declare them impractical

Imitating previous books in this genre, Thomas manipulates readers by repeatedly exaggerating the aims of conservationists. Here’s an example: “... to maintain our ecosystems and species in some idealized state is not possible.” Or, “No change is not an option…” Thomas adds his own additional pessimistic twist, claiming that even less extreme goals will prove impossible to achieve: “... we will fail if we attempt to keep things exactly, or even roughly, as they are.”

(Interestingly, conservationists are seldom if ever quoted in books of this genre, the better to sustain them as strawmen for Thomas’s ire.)

Intention vs. unintention: 

In order to relieve readers of any feeling of responsibility and guilt for the degradation of nature, apologists like Thomas make an unspoken distinction between intentional and unintentional action. Since so much of the damage done to nature is unintentional (the CO2 coming out of our exhaust pipes, the invasive species that are accidentally spread around the world by unregulated global commerce and travel) the author must portray unintentional acts as innocent and natural. Secondly, intentional action to right the unintentional wrong must be portrayed as futile, arrogant, dangerous, or all the above.

The strategy of forgiving our unintentional collateral damage while eschewing intentional, organized remediation can be seen at play in the following paragraph from the book. Nature is portrayed as damaged goods, our destructive impacts as natural, and attempts to remedy as futile.

"... we will fail if we attempt to keep things exactly, or even roughly, as they are. This dynamic perspective of biological change might sound like capitulation, but, in fact, it releases us. The earth was not in some perfect or final state before humans pitched up. Life is a process, not a final product. So we need a conservation philosophy that is based on natural change, with humans centre stage: partly because we have already brought about so many changes to the world that cannot be ignored, and partly because humans evolved naturally and we are part of the natural system."

By Thomas’s extreme definition of natural, even nuclear holocaust would apparently be deemed as natural as a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flower. People are relieved, through this perspective, from any responsibilities that might come with our enormous power to pollute and transform.

Abject pessimism

Thomas claims to be an optimist, but the book's prologue is extraordinarily pessimistic about any intentional action to spare nature the worst of our abuses. Check out this stirring call to inaction: "There is no point in taking on a never-ending fight with the inevitability of eventual failure." Think of any movement, whether it be civil rights or women's rights, or to sustain nature or democracy, and ask yourself if those are the words of an optimist. In any struggle, social or environmental, there are always countervailing forces against which one must fight, and victory is never assured. And where's the optimism in "come back in a million years”? If said of any other problem humanity faces, “come back in a million years” would be considered a cruel joke.

Thomas saves his deepest pessimism for page 241, where he declares that any "urge to fight a specific biological change" must meet the following test: "Will our efforts have made much difference a few hundred years hence? If not, this means we are fighting a battle we will inevitably lose. Next, will our great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren be that bothered if the state of the world has been altered, given that they will not know exactly how it is today? If the answer to this second question is no, this means we are fighting battles we do not need to win." Again, it seems heartless to rationalize inaction on the grounds that our descendants surely won’t miss what they’ve never known.

The nature of evolution and diversity

The central tenet of the book is that human disruptions and translocations of species around the world, while causing many extinctions, are also speeding up evolution of new ones. Invasive species are said to have caused few extinctions in the areas they invade, and so can be said to actually increase the total number of species in any particular area. But the book doesn’t examine the possibility that invasive species are undermining the ongoing evolution of indigenous species. If, through competition from invasives, a species becomes more and more rare, gene transfer between scattered remnant populations will decline, and the species will lose the capacity to evolve and adapt to changing conditions. Invasive species and habitat fragmentation due to development deliver a one-two punch, undermining evolution when it is most needed for adaptation to rapid changes in climate.

Thomas holds conservation in such low esteem in part because he sees no web in the web of life. Diversity is presented as a straight numbers game, a body count. For a book that is banking on evolution to compensate for the damage we are currently doing, he shows next to no interest in relationships like symbiosis that suggest a deeper interconnectivity between co-evolved species. Only the most mundane examples of mutualism are given. In “Inheritors”, species are portrayed time and again as free agents that can be jumbled together from all corners of the world, and left to duke it out for dominance. "Mix the species up and see who wins,” he declares. "The history of life on earth is one long story of successful animals and plants replacing those that proved to be less successful."

And yet the book calls for preservation of habitat.

Sprinkled through the text are occasional, almost parenthetical calls for protection of remaining habitats around the world. These calls for preservation sound jarring in a book that repeatedly defines species as winners or losers whose fate is of no concern to us. Preservation, it seems, helps Thomas make the claim that introduced species add to local diversity, "as long as there are still sufficient remnants of the earlier vegetation to act as refuges for the most sensitive species."

Thomas views remnant populations of indigenous species as “spare parts”, “building blocks” that should be saved “to maintain flexibility for future change.” And yet his indifference to the stress invasive species exert on remnant native populations, along with his abject pessimism about the conservation efforts needed to keep remnant populations alive, make these calls for preservation ring hollow.

Conspicuous omissions and blurred distinctions

Thomas claims that, outside his window, "the basics of biology remain. Regardless of their origin ... plants still capture energy from the sun and convert it into leaves, rendering the world green; animals consume plants and their seeds and in turn are killed and eaten by other animals." The part about "animals consume plants" is often not true. Introduced plants that become invasive tend to be those that the local animals won't eat, whether due to texture, taste or toxins. This gives the invasive plants a competitive advantage, so that they displace the native species, making the habitat less edible for wildlife as time goes on. Herbivores are proving incredibly slow at evolving a taste for stiltgrass, or the poisonous fig buttercup, or any number of other highly invasive species. What Thomas calls a successful species may not be superior, but merely have escaped, through human transfer to a new continent, the predators, herbivores, or diseases that kept its numbers in balance where it originally evolved.

Elsewhere in the book, Thomas describes how forests moved north as the glaciers receded, displacing grasslands. He believes that the human transfer of species from one continent to another is no different from this historic north/south shift of plant communities. But those historic shifts were not only gradual, over thousands of years, but also involved the shift not of this or that individual species but of whole communities of plants and animals that had evolved together, establishing checks and balances over time.


Click on “read more” to access my detailed notes on the book, including page numbers for various claims and contradictions.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Don't Bet Your Garden on Mike McGrath's View of Native Plants

By chance, while heading out to a March 31 workday to rescue some flowering dogwood trees from invasive porcelainberry vines at the Princeton Battlefield, I happened to turn on my car radio just as Mike McGrath, host of the You Bet Your Garden" show, was answering a question about native plants. Though I have respect for anyone knowledgeable enough to field questions on any and all aspects of gardening, and who can make the subject entertaining enough to sustain a radio program, McGrath also needs to know his limits, and plant ecology is one of them. He pretends to speak with authority about invasive species, when in fact he is simply passing along misinformation.

Below is a transcript of McGrath's answer, spoken in front of an audience at the Philadelphia Flower Show, with embedded critiques showing how he misleads audiences with his superficial knowledge, emotion-based arguments, and the creation of a despised "Other" that veers towards demogoguery, in direct contradiction of his live-and-let-live facade. His faux arguments are part of a genre that I have critiqued in detail online, most recently in a book review of Inheritors of the Earth in the professional journal, Biological Invasions.

QUESTION: ”My next question is if you could talk about the benefits of planting native species, as opposed to some of the stuff that you buy in big box stores that never seem to work.”

“This to me is a controversial topic."
Only one sentence into his answer and he's already sounding problematic. False controversy is used in climate change denial to suppress acknowledgement of its reality, and to delay action to solve the problem. As an example, an April 1 NBC Nightly News story about proposed rollbacks on fuel efficiency standards didn't even mention climate change--the primary motivation for the standards. Beware of the "controversial" label, particularly when controversy is artificially created and sustained with bogus arguments, like some that McGrath uses later in his answer.
"I know native plants are hot and I know there are people who treasure native plants, Doug Tallamy, I mean, of the University of Delaware who probably speaks here as much as I do, and he’s a great guy, and he has the proper native plant for every place," 
Give McGrath credit here for at least acknowledging the existence and expertise of Doug Tallamy, the entomologist whose research has contributed so much to our understanding of the deep interconnection between native plants and the insects they support. You can read whole books bashing native plant advocates, and see no mention of Tallamy. Though McGrath says Tallamy is successful and a great guy, he ignores the implications of his research, and refers to native plants as "hot" and "proper", as if they are a fad, or a dictate being imposed upon us from above.
"but I was just, again, reading a book, and the introduction reminded me, there’s a quote by Jefferson that no man can do more for his country than to introduce a new foreign plant to his farm. The brother gardeners, the founding gardeners, the people who really paved the way, created the idea that we think about horticulture and gardening in America, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Bartram, all these people they just wanted to throw every plant from every part of the world and see what would thrive here." 
Whoa! Bringing out the founding fathers to support a helter skelter, pell mell introduction of non-native species--that's a new one, to me at least. Here's Jefferson's actual quote, from the Monticello website: "the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to its culture." The website goes on to say that "Jefferson ranked the introduction of the olive tree and upland rice into the United States with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. A Johnny Apple seed of the vegetable world, Jefferson passed out seeds of his latest novelty with messiahinistic fervor."

There is, of course, no doubt that the nation's founding fathers had a deep respect for the importance of plants in our lives. It's not a fluke that the U.S. Botanical Garden stands within a stone's throw of the nation's Capitol building--a centrality that seems incongruous today, when the study of plants has become so marginalized.

Many plant introductions have proven useful for agriculture and horticulture, but we now know the risks. Jefferson spoke those words long before the nation's elms, chestnuts, and other species were decimated by imported diseases, long before the multiflora rose escaped cultivation to choke our forests with thorns. McGrath's argument is just one more way of pretending that science hasn't taught us anything about the importance of balance and deep interconnectedness of species in an ecosystem. Presumably, if Jefferson were alive today, he would not own slaves, nor would he be advocating for the unregulated introduction of new species into the country. People and societies are supposed to learn from their mistakes.
"So, native plants have a lot of benefits to native pollinators, but, the world has become such a small place. You probably aren’t going to find many corners of it where there isn’t a plant from every other continent growing in context with the other plants."
Here, McGrath makes no distinction between habitats where native flora have been largely displaced, and habitats where the native flora are largely intact, with minimal disruption from introduced species. There are gradations of disruption of ecosystems, but McGrath seems to think of the whole planet as having lost its virginity, so therefore there must be no indigenous plant communities of value left to preserve. 
"Now, I’m not talking about invasives. Obviously people shouldn’t plant invasives, but I also don’t see invasives being sold at garden centers much, unless you count Bradford pear, you know." 
Here, McGrath at least makes a distinction that is surprisingly hard for some to make. Not all introduced plants exhibit invasive behavior. Now, there are plants that don't begin exhibiting invasive behavior until long after they've been introduced. Unlike native species that have grown in a region for many thousands of years, an introduced species has no track record. Once they begin acting invasively, it's usually too late to stop their spread. Thus, the healthy skepticism towards introducing new species to an area.
"But you have to remember, poison ivy is a native plant. Virginia creeper, one of my most troublesome weeds, is a native plant."
Again, he makes the important distinction that invasiveness is a behavior. In my experience, native cattails can be very aggressive in a wetland. In a small wetland I take care of, we actually remove it so that other species can thrive. But it's also important to remember that the vast majority of invasive plants are introduced, not native. McGrath is obscuring this reality. Virginia creeper can be aggressive in a garden, but I've never seen it become a problem in nature preserves. 
"I know the evils of Japanese honeysuckle. I know what a bad person I am, because it appeared on the fence, in my yard, ten years ago, and my wife was out on the little balcony outside our bedroom one night, and she goes, “I thought the multiflora rose were all done blooming.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, they’re just a nuisance now.” And she said “What’s that amazing smell?” And I said, “That’s a bad plant. Would you like to taste it?” And she had never as a child gone out and drank the honey of the honeysuckle flower petal, and she goes “Explain to me that this is a bad plant. Why?” Well, supposedly no native butterfly can use it as a host plant, and while we’re out there, there’s like a dozen native bees fighting to get at every flower,"
First off, this is the classic cherry-picking approach. If a plant has one positive trait, or in this case two, then any negative traits magically become immaterial. Apologists for invasive species depend heavily on incomplete characterizations in order to make their arguments seem plausible.

McGrath told a similar story about his wife while praising multiflora rose. Invasive species like Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose thrive because the wildlife don't eat them. Their dominating displacement of the more edible native plants means that insects and other animals have diminished options for edible foliage, and even the pollinators feasting on the Japanese honeysuckle flowers will have few options for sustained nutrition once the dominant invasives stop blooming. At least McGrath mentions the need of butterflies for specific host plants, but that acknowledgement comes with a grudging "supposedly", and the story tells of the sinful pleasures to be had while enjoying plants we've been told are bad.

This concept of "good" plants and "bad" plants can hang people up. Here, McGrath has a nice moment with his wife, smelling Japanese honeysuckle and sipping its nectar, and resents having to think of it as a "bad" plant. Consider the possibility that the plant is good, that people are good, but that the main threat to the planet is too much of a good thing, that the balance of species, of CO2 in the atmosphere, and of the planet's capacity to process the biproducts of human activity has been thrown out of whack. 
"and I know there are nice native honeysuckles that are well behaved, that go to bed on time, listen to their parents, get 95s on their report cards, but at least when I was in college girls didn’t want to go out with those guys, you know."
Part of McGrath's popularity comes from his colorful personality and willingness to go big with his opinions, but here he can't help but veer into demogoguery, playing to the crowd at the Philadelphia Flower Show for laughs, while portraying native plants and the science that underscores their value as the sort of good boys and overachievers that the rest of us don't want to hang out with. In the process, he creates a despised "Other", in stark contrast to the pose of open-mindedness he then adopts in the next sentence:
"But, my personal feeling is, I see the good in every plant. I see every plant having some kind of purpose, and so I let almost everything grow on my landscape. If I deliberately tried to plant my landscape, it would look like Yellowstone after a fire, but instead I’ve learned to welcome the stranger, to see what this plant looks like as it grows up. Now, if it’s going to become a tremendously invasive problem, and it’s going to inflict, you know, harm on my neighbor’s property, then I pull it out. But I find that a lot of nonnatives have value,"
Yes, after impuning native honeysuckles as a bunch of boring, conformist, do-gooders that we don't want to spend time with, he then says he sees "the good in every plant." Radio show host, know thyself. This sort of hypocrisy is common in the native plant bashing genre, a hypocrisy most famously captured in the words of songwriter Tom Lehrer, "I know there are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings and I hate people like that."

The comment about "Yellowstone after a fire" threw me off. I thought at first he meant it as a positive, since fire in a relatively healthy, fire-dependent ecosystem like Yellowstone brings a flush of new and richly diverse plant growth. But more likely, he equates fire with a blackened and barren landscape, as it is portrayed, wrongly, in the news.
"and the saddest part, the saddest truth of what’s happened to this planet is a lot of native plants can’t survive because the climate they thrived in is gone."  
Though the speed of human-caused climate change is creating stress for plants and animals, it's also true that most plant species in the U.S. have very long vertical ranges, often stretching from Georgia up into Canada, across a broad range of hardiness zones. Here's one example, picked at random.
"You know, native when? Native a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, fifty years ago?"
The "native when" argument, like the view that ecosystems are either virgin or humanized, with no gradation between the two, betrays a dismissiveness towards co-evolution, in which species that live together for thousands of years can develop complex relationships of mutualism and symbiosis. 
But I also encourage people to try to support native plants and learn more about them, and for that I will send you to the work of Dr. Doug Tallamy, at the University of Delaware. He’s a genius in this regard. 
Again, credit McGrath for mentioning Doug Tallamy. McGrath could have saved everyone a lot of time by limiting his answer to this last sentence, and sparing the audience all his bias and misinformation.

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. 

Friday, December 01, 2017

Rationalizing Extinction--an Oped by Alexander Pyron

I know. A lot of you have been feeling guilty about how we humans are causing the 6th great extinction event in earth's history. 40% of all species on earth are predicted to slip quietly into history. But we're good people! For the most part. How could this happen? Well, no use wringing your hands, you hand wringers, you. Because, voila!, extinction turns out to be good, after all, according to R. Alexander Pyron, an associate professor at George Washington University who is trying his hand at opinion writing. Why change our destructive behavior when we can change our ethical standards instead? Demonizing the human race is so last century. Time to rationalize! Time to get anthropocentric about the Anthropocene.

A colleague had sent me the link. The headline (written by the newspaper's editors) sounded like a troll from an online comment section. "We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution: The only creatures we should go out of our way to protect are Homo sapiens."

"Cool!", I exclaimed, looking at the headline on my phone while standing in the parking lot of a nature preserve, getting ready to lead a nature walk on a Sunday afternoon. I shared the provocative title with others who had gathered. We reveled in relief as all that species-guilt we'd been feeling for as long as we could remember drained away, melting into the pavement beneath our feet.

By chance, I'd been analyzing a book with a similar message, "Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction, " by Chris D. Thomas. The book may well have emboldened Pyron to write his opinion piece, and given the Washington Post a rationale for publishing it. Both the book and the oped seduce uninformed readers by upsetting the applecart of mainstream thinking, and by letting the reader off the hook. Remember Dr. Strangelove and "How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb?" Doctors Thomas and Pyron are doing something similar with the Anthropocene, but with no sense of satire.

Much of their thinking is rooted in books published some years ago--by Marris, Pearce, Orion and others--that vilified habitat restoration and invasion biologists and portrayed invasive species as a blessing in disguise. I thought that line of thinking had long since died of its own strained logic, but Thomas's book appeared this summer, presenting the old arguments in an even more nihilistic form.

If nothing else, Pyron's essay is useful for pointing out some recurrent habits of this genre, which seeks to undermine our trust in mainstream scientific thought. Below are some typical techniques, with quotes from his opinion piece:

Portray the “Other” as emotional, sentimental, and self-serving. In this case, the "Other" is mainstream biological and environmental thinking about habitat restoration and extinction.
  • “Yet we are obsessed with reviving the status quo ante.”
  • “And if biodiversity is the goal of extinction fearmongers, ...“
Claim that working to restore nature, or otherwise expend conscious effort to reduce humanity's negative impacts, is a waste of time and money.
  • “But the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency.”
  • “Conserving a species … serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.”
  • “whatever effort we make to maintain the current climate will eventually be overrun by the inexorable forces of space and geology.”
Declare the conservationist Other’s words to be meaningless, either by erasing distinctions or mocking the Other’s words with quotation marks.
  • "There is no such thing as an 'endangered species,' except for all species."
  • “We are a part of the biosphere just like every other creature, and our actions are just as volitional, their consequences just as natural.”
  • “alien species will disrupt formerly 'pristine' native ecosystems.”
Manage guilt or purge it altogether.
  • “extinction does not carry moral significance, even when we have caused it.”
  • “Humans should feel less shame about molding their environment to suit their survival needs.”
  • "Conservation is needed for ourselves and only ourselves."
Play tricks with time frame. Sure, we're doing harm to nature, but all will be fine a million years from now. Can you imagine such reasoning being used for any other problem we face?
  • "Our concern, in other words, should not be protecting the animal kingdom, which will be just fine. Within a few million years..."
  • “If this means fewer dazzling species, fewer unspoiled forests, less untamed wilderness, so be it. They will return in time."
Cherry pick evidence. Oftentimes, one positive trait is used to supposedly compensate for all the negative traits of invasive species. The positive trait might be a pretty flower, or nitrogen-fixing ability, or erosion control.
  • “ Studies have shown that when humans introduce invasive plant species, native diversity sometimes suffers, but productivity — the cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem — frequently increases. Invasives can bring other benefits, too: Plants such as the Phragmites reed have been shown to perform better at reducing coastal erosion and storing carbon than native vegetation in some areas, like the Chesapeake.”
Most writings in this genre use extinction as the only measure of damage to native species, but Pyron's oped is even more heartless, claiming that extinction is all part of the game, neither good nor bad.
  • “Invasion and extinction are the regenerative and rejuvenating mechanisms of evolution, the engines of biodiversity.”
  • "The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings."
Make biodiversity purely a numbers game; minimize or ignore the evolution of complex interactions between species
  • "South Florida, where about 140 new reptile species accidentally introduced by the wildlife trade are now breeding successfully? No extinctions of native species have been recorded, and, at least anecdotally, most natives are still thriving. The ones that are endangered, such as gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, are threatened mostly by habitat destruction. Even if all the native reptiles in the Everglades, about 50, went extinct, the region would still be gaining 90 new species — a biodiversity bounty."
Present evolution as winners and losers
  • “Extinction is the engine of evolution, the mechanism by which natural selection prunes the poorly adapted and allows the hardiest to flourish. “
Overall, Pyron's writing has an "abandon ship" quality. Ayn Rand's "In Defense of Selfishness" comes to mind. Libertarianism, as described at, envisions "a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others." This sort of thinking leaves us helpless to prevent collectively created crises. Opposition to collective action to slow or prevent climate change then necessitates a way to rationalize the tragic consequences. Pyron's political views are unknown, but he essentially extends the libertarian view of the individual to the species as a whole. Hope is invested not in proactive avoidance of disaster, but in the endgame: "we will find a way to adapt." And if that fails, then come back in a million years. Everything's sure to be fine then.

Update: Alexander Pyron later wrote an apology on facebook

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, 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: