The new regulations announced in the last few days in response to the attempted bombing of Northwest #253 are pitifully stupid and counter-productive.
I see the developed world’s response to terrorism identical to the developed science response to invasive species.
Whether it is kudzu, the Asian beetle, or the arch devil garlic mustard, absolutely astounding amounts of private and public funds have been allocated for “eradication.” The U.S. government maintains over a dozen websites with instructions on invasive species control, and enormous amounts of resources have been expended over the years to curtail invasive species.
It is hard to find a single… that is one example of success.
And yet there are many examples of secondary destruction to the environment in the attempts to control the invasives.
This is an issue I’ve written and felt strongly about for decades, and my passion about it was generated in Africa. But the topic is endless and the data copious, yet I have yet to be presented with a single true example of success.
To be sure certain invasive species have been curtailed in limited geographical regions and have produced positive economic outcomes, such as the temporary curtailment of the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes or the stabilization of kudzu in the deep south. But even these partial examples of success are hard to document, are likely to be reversed, and the environmental impacts of their containment have had their own often worse environmental ramifications.
Many gardeners or authorities over small county-like natural reserves may claim success in curtailing species like garlic mustard or loose strife, and indeed in their small geographical areas they may achieve a level of success for a while. But it doesn’t last, and the efforts expended to effect the limited success often produce more damage than had nothing at all been done.
Essentially, I do not think we can control nature in any macro-successful way. What we have to do is understand it and anticipate it. It’s appropriate and effective to have rigorous agricultural barriers at international entry points, to impede the spread of species we determine may produce negative outcomes in our own society. But once it happens, it’s beyond our current capacity to control in any demonstrably beneficial way.
That’s exactly what terrorism is to culture: Identical to invasive species to the environment.
I wrote recently that any military success we might achieve in Afghanistan would only push the centers of terrorism elsewhere, and that this was currently being demonstrated in Yemen and Somalia.
We can cull deer in the Skokie lagoon, or remove all the garlic mustard from the Kasper Conservancy, but all this does is push the vermin to the periphery, exacerbating by concentrating the problem elsewhere.
It does not deal with the cause.
In the case of invasive species, we need to study why an invasive is so successful. Success in nature should be considered a near first principle, and at least a tautology. Garlic mustard might be spreading like wildlife, because its natural inhibitors are being eradicated. Maybe, a natural inhibitor is a birch tree. Maybe garlic mustard, in turn, is a natural inhibitor to wild parsnip and maybe wild parsnip is a natural inhibitor to poison ivy. And any idiot who thinks we will ever complete the list doesn’t understand nature.
But by concentrating on understanding the links, we will increase an overall awareness of nature’s tautologies. We will cease trying to reverse nature, and may, ultimately, be able to manage its future outcomes to our greater benefit.
Ditto for the Darth Vaders in the world.
There is a cultural reason for the persistence of Al-Qaeda. It will not be eradicated, any more so than garlic mustard will be eradicated. Al-Qaeda is part of the human fabric of culture, exactly as garlic mustard is of nature. It is as impossible that we will eradicate Al-Qaeda from the world as we will eradicate garlic mustard.
But if we cease to think of it as a growing threat capable of taking over the world’s sweat peas than we might spend some time trying to understand why it is so successful, and we might ultimately come to some terms with it. Maybe one solution is to let it grow and take over the distant prairie, and thereby orchestrate a cease fire that allows our sweat peas to flourish in our backyard garden.
There’s an old saying: live, and let live.
In the last few days, airlines have instituted some of the most absurd regulations described as enhanced security in response to the attempted bombing of Northwest #253.
Perhaps the most absurd regulation is that you can no longer leave your seat (or even stand up) during the last hour of the flight. The “rationale” for this is that the bomber had to leave his seat and retrieve his hand luggage to mix the incendiary device. OK, so our incendiary devices will now be mixed 65 minutes before landing instead of 60. In fact in the mayhem as dozens of kids and grownups race to the toilets and pull down the luggage hatches to arrange their last hour of imprisonment, any monitoring of unusual behavior becomes more difficult! How stupidly absurd is this new rule!
We are not going to stop future terrorism with rules like these. We are going to infuriate the public and make travel infinitely less desirable, which may even be an objective of the terrorists.
We are not going to eliminate Al-Qaeda by wiping them out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They’ll just then go to Somali, then to Yemen, then to the Congo… it is a link so long that when the last chain is used, the first will be ready to be used, again.
If we want to stabilize terrorism, if we want to stabilize the spread of garlic mustard, we will cease trying to eradicate it. We will expend our resources to understand it fully, and then to negotiate our own subsequently more intelligent behavior in ways that make it ineffective as a future threat.
It is in preparation and manifestation of the future that we will succeed. Not in trying to reverse the situation of the present.
Live, and let live.
At the New Years Eve party last night, Dan Harms and I discussed the above blog at great length, and he corrected an important mistake I made.
Dan is a life-long conservationist and horticulturalist, former college teacher. He’s deeply involved in our local area wildernesses, and pretty passionate about the need to “manage” invasive species.
That’s where I erred, he pointed out. There are few responsible conservationists who seek “eradication” of invasive species, as I suggested above. Rather, as Dan explained, the trick is to manage and prevent.
We still differ in our outlooks, but he was right that I exaggerated “manage” to “eradicate” although in my defense I hasten to add that the fanatic I sometimes bump into out in the woods tearing out garlic mustard does believe the way to control an invasive species is to eliminate it.
But the conversation greatly focused my own beliefs. I managed to retrieve ideas from Leakey’s book, The Sixth Great Die-off and resurrect the currently not so popular theory of punctuated equalibrium first formulated by the late Jay Gould.
What Dan helped me more clearly believe is that strong (and often categorized as “invasive”) species may be the planet’s best hope for long-term survival. If we weaken the strongest of our living components, we are essentially weakening the entire ecological fabric. It’s like removing the best player from our team.
Dan used two interesting examples: rabbits in Australia and Johnson Grass here in the great plains. Both invasives threaten important other species in the ecosystem. Rabbits in Australia threaten virtually all the other herbivores, because there are not enough predators and the weather which is a major control of rabbits in more temperate climates can’t assist in Australia. Rabbits compete with sheep and cows for Australia’s dwindling grass.
Johnson Grass, introduced from The Sudan into our own Midwest neighborhood, is genetically similar to corn. So it invades corn crops easily, but it is much more successful than corn in hogging the available moisture and nutrients, thereby vastly weakening the corn yield.
And here’s, I think, where we can establish a significant difference.
I believe that rabbits and Johnson Grass should be left alone. I think Dan fears leaving them alone is too great a threat to our own (homo sapiens) well being. But I would argue that we should concentrate on defense, not offense. We should biogenetically tinker with the corn so that it out-maneuvers Johnson Grass. Dan conceded that, in fact, this has been or is being done. Now admittedly biotinkering with everything the rabbit wants to eat is a much greater challenge, and it doesn’t seem plausible that we could biotinker with the cow to become as nimble as the rabbit, leaving just blasting the rabbit to smithereens as the only alternative. This also looks attractive because the rabbit is surviving quite nicely elsewhere on the planet.
But my point is that the long-term (really long-term, not just a few generations) survival of our ecosystem depends upon the hero species, the strengths that the rabbit and Johnson Grass display. Weakening their success ultimately weakens our long-term survival.
We also got into viruses and other diseases, but I haven’t figured that one out yet! Dan, help!