Friday, 28 July 2017

Rhododendrons are not people

“It’s this immigration thing. It looks as if the whole of Europe is turning into a barricaded society. ‘We don’t mind people as long as they are our people. We don’t like these foreign squirrels coming in and taking over.’ It’s intolerance, and it’s illogical.”
John Bryant of Animal Aid
[Environmental journalist Fred] Pearce also notes that, in 2009, the racist BNP branded the North American signal crayfish “the Mike Tyson of crayfish … a diseased, psychotic, evil, illegal immigrant colonist [that] totally devastates the indigenous environment”.
From Patrick Barkham's article about the grey squirrel culling debate, which appeared in the Guardian earlier this year.

Bryant and Pearce clearly hate the anti-migrant hysteria currently being whipped up by cynical demagogues (and the apologists who excuse such bigotry as "legitimate concerns"). I agree - it's nasty, stupid and indefensible.

But I think Bryant and Pearce are dead wrong when they make a rhetorical link between such bigoted nativism and attempts to stop local ecosystems from being destroyed or degraded by introduced species.

First, you can argue for controlling invasive species without making it about this country versus the rest of the world. When humans unwisely introduced the Nile perch to Lake Victoria, several hundred resident species were driven to extinction or near extinction. Introducing rabbits to Australia led to massive overgrazing and species loss. Introduced cane toads and Burmese pythons have taken to eating resident species (some of them endangered) in their new homes (there are countless examples from around the globe - these particular stories were taken from here). Both perch and python are devastating ecosystems which have nothing to do with this nation.

Second, as per the title of this post, introduced animals and plants are not human beings. Comparing them to abused and vilified human migrants is just the flip side of the category error racists make when they rant about a crayfish as a "psychotic, evil, illegal immigrant colonist." A crayfish isn't an oppressed minority, or an antisocial person without valid documents. It's a big shrimp.
Third, I'm not that impressed by the idea of environmental laissez faire:
Fred Pearce has argued that ecosystems are always changing and invasive species should be celebrated. The vast majority of Britain’s flora and fauna arrived in the last 10,000 years. Nothing is “native” – everything is visiting. For Pearce, the alleged damage caused by most “invasive” species, such as Japanese knotweed, is overstated by grant-seeking bureaucrats and sensationalising media. 
Yes, flora and fauna naturally move about over thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of years. Species move, evolve and perish over time. But that's not an excuse for perpetrating, or doing nothing about, ecological disasters caused by human meddling or negligence.

I'm reminded of the time when the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould mentioned that extinction was a natural part of the evolution of life and that over 99.% of species that have ever lived are extinct. He was bemused to find his words being cited by people arguing that wildlife preservation was therefore a waste of time, because all species die eventually. Gould compared this misrepresentation of what he'd said to somebody refusing to give life-saving drugs to a sick child on the grounds that all humans are mortal anyway.

Forget the misplaced anthropomorphism. There's overwhelming evidence that introduced species have devastated environments and driven other species that live there to extinction, or close to it. The newcomers aren't the psychotic, evil, illegal immigrant colonists of racist metaphor, just lifeforms surviving and reproducing in their normal way, in an abnormal environment, but the damage they do is real. If we value our biodiversity we should avoid upsetting our existing ecosystems with thoughtless introductions and we should control invasive species wherever possible. Sometimes a rhododendron is just a rhododendron.

A human moving from one place where humans already live, across an artificial line on a map drawn by humans and ending up in another place where humans already live is not like an invasive species.*  It's a bad metaphor. The economic and socio-political arguments about the pros and cons of human migration have nothing to do with what happens when humans transplant a novel species into an environment where it didn't evolve.

As far as I'm concerned, migration and invasive species are two, entirely separate, issues that shouldn't be conflated, either by racists comparing other humans to alien species, or by self-described conservationists who won't do anything to prevent the damage done by actual invasive species because they, also, view non-native species as being like human immigrants, only in a good way.

When it comes to environmental policy, I completely disagree with Bryant and Pearce. I do concede that they have a point when it comes to the use of language. It is, after all, a short step from the BNP's ridiculous description of the signal crayfish as "a psychotic, evil, illegal immigrant colonist" to Katie Hopkins' notorious description of migrants as "cockroaches." This sort of language is becoming so normalised that people are becoming immune to it.

I should know, because I did something similar recently, when I described Nigel Farage, who is apparently thinking of emigrating to the USA, as a "rat" and a specimen of alien vermin threatening Maine's native ecosystem. The use of language was, I thought, ironic and satirical, in the spirit of, "If he thinks it's OK to talk about migrants in those sort of terms, let's see how he likes it when he's the migrant." Also, Farage, unlike the average migrant, is self-evidently** nasty, spiteful and destructive, so he's fair game, I thought.

But I'm starting to have second thoughts. Not only were my words open to misinterpretation by the irony-deficient, as per Poe's Law, but giving more exposure to the language of racists, even in mockery, is probably a bad idea. There are other ways to mock bad faith and terrible ideas and I'll bear that in mind when writing about this sort of stuff in future. So at least Bryant and Pearce have made me think about the language I use, even if I've got no time for their ideas about conservation and introduced species.

*Bad things have happened in the past when humans have moved around the world (think of the fate of the native Americans when Europeans came along with their germs and weapons), but it shouldn't take more than a few moments' thought to realise that these, too, are misleading, useless metaphors for what happens today when somebody from a poorer country comes to the UK to do a bit of cleaning, or fruit-picking, or to work in the NHS.

**Don't take my word for it - ask his current employer:
LBC is facing growing pressure to end its relationship with Nigel Farage after it was forced to retract a series of false and misleading claims he made on air...

..."The fear is that he is going to be the next Hopkins," one LBC source told BI.
'Nuff said.