Title: Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A permaculture approach to ecosystem restoration
Author: Tao Orion
Recommendation: Would definitely recommend!
Beyond the War on Invasive Species is an insightful, inspiring, and practical book that should be read by anyone who is interested in invasion ecology, climate change, or general sustainability. Orion turns the idea of invasive species on its head with a critical analysis as the mainstream ideology behind invasive species and invasion ecology, land management practices, the concept of wilderness, and our role as humans in “wild” landscapes. Orion backs up their arguments with a dozen or so case studies that really drive the points home, and provides wholesome little stories about what communities and local economies could look like if we practically reformed our notions of invasive species and learned to see them as lessons and assets to be tended to rather than demons to be exterminated at all costs.
You will finish this book feeling enlightened and inspired to go out and make meaningful changes to reintegrate yourself and the community into a functional ecology that supports the needs of humans and the ecosystem at large.
While there is much more to the book than this simple argument, this seems to me to be the bare-bones of it. I use one example given in the book to illustrate this main argument, but Orion provides many other examples in the book that illustrate this and other arguments. I will try to flesh out some of Orion’s other side arguments in later sections, but this should serve as a good basis for understanding what the book is about.
- Human activity (agriculture, city building, highways, pollution, climate change, etc.) has dramatically changed many of the underlying conditions of ecosystems (soil type; water flow; frequency of flooding, fire, and other disturbances; mineral and other pollutant content; temperature; etc.)
- for example, diverting so much of the Colorado river for agriculture means that there will not be enough water for the seasonal flooding of the banks that used to occur every spring, and also leads to increased salinity in the water
- When the underlying conditions of an ecosystem change, the forces driving ecosystem succession will inevitably change with them, creating new niches for novel species to exploit
- seasonal flooding is necessary to trigger germination of the historically dominant willow and cottonwood, and combined with increased salinity, populations of those species will decline, making room for other species like the salt cedar which thrives in the drier, saltier environment
- Conventional methods of dealing with invasive species (i.e. species-specific eradication by mechanical, or more commonly, chemical means) continuously rip open those new niches but do absolutely nothing to address the underlying conditions that have changed and thus opened the door for the invasive species in the first place
- burning, girdling, and poisoning the salt cedar with pesticides will not reduce the salinity of the river or bring back the seasonal flooding that allowed willow and cottonwood to thrive, only rethinking our models for agriculture and urban development can do that
- In almost every case, invasive species are providing critical services to a damaged ecosystem and rather than ignore them and eradicate them, we should be figuring out how to use the many yields provided by invasive species as we work with them to stabilize and transform ecosystems into a habitable system where humans are actively engaged in productive stewardship
- It has been shown that in the long run, salt cedar actually helps to reduce soil salinity and, due to bacteria on its leaves, helps to increase nucleation of clouds that leads to more local rainfall. By working with the salt cedar, we can improve growing conditions along the river and increase rain for agriculture, thereby reducing our need to divert the river in the first place.
- The short story about Kudzu on page 169-170 illustrates this very well
- We should reject the notions of “pristine nature” as absent of human interaction, and try to integrate ourselves and our societies into functional ecologies. Our farms could be forests, and the forests could feed us.
- as long as we se ourselves as separate from nature, and as long as we idealize nature as some pure and static form absent of human intervention, we will continue to destroy it. Attempting to return the banks of the Colorado river to some idealized state in the past that is absent of human involvement while we continue to support our society with mono-crop industrial agriculture will always be futile. We can learn to work with, rather than against, the forces of ecosystem succession, and in doing so not just repair, but become the nature we idolize so much.
On Nature and Wilderness
Orion emphasizes that the notions of “wilderness” as a pure space untouched by humans and the “humans should be kept separate from nature in order to preserve it” (p. 143) are very western and American ideas. Orion explains that while European settlers came to the Americas and thought that the indigenous people were merely passive in a landscape of “natural bounty”, the reality is that “the awe-inspiring landscape[s]… [were] not the work of some mysteriously gardening ‘nature’, but rather the result of consistent, thoughtful, and protracted stewardship by generations of people inhabiting an ecosystem full to the brim with edible, medicinal, and otherwise useful plants,” (p.145). Further “this proliferation of useful plants throughout the Americas was not a matter of chance but of purposive guidance by the people who lived in the regions for millennia. These plants have come to be known as native, wild, and natural, but in fact, they were intentionally cultivated,” (p.148).
Orion illustrates this point of how indigenous cultures engineered the landscapes to suit their needs while contributing to a healthy overall ecosystem using various case studies from the Shoshone of the Sierra Nevada to the proliferation of milkweed in California to the Oak savannahs of Oregon and many more.
The point is that the diversity of “native” ecosystems is the result of careful stewardship and active engagement by the people who inhabit the area. Orion points out that “one of the best ways to ensure the health of native plant communities is to use them… Saving native ecosystems has everything to do with placing importance on their survival, not as intellectually important vestiges of what used to be, but as vital resources that are integrated into our day-to-day lives… The paradigms of restoration and the activities of modern civilization are currently separate; they must become integrated,” (p. 160-161).
Permaculture gives us the tools to rebuild healthy ecosystems in a way that is critically functional to the people who live in them. It is about becoming an integral part of a functional ecosystem, and in doing so, we protect not only the communities of “native plants”, but ourselves as well.
Pesticide Companies and Invasives
This post is getting to be a bit long, so I won’t go into too much detail, but the first two chapters of the book talk about the real effects of pesticide and herbicide use and how little scrutiny is placed on the companies that manufacture and sell such chemicals to determine their safety. It also highlights some of the more insidious tactics used by these corporations that have made herbicides the go-to method for invasive species control, shifting the conversation away from holistic management practices so that they can sell more herbicides and make more money. It is very insightful, albeit a bit depressing.
Beyond the War on Invasive Species is an excellent book that is very easy to read and keeps you engaged from cover to cover. It is incredibly eye-opening and by the end you will feel like you can go out and save the world by rewilding yourself and the community you live in, creating functional ecologies that support everyone. It provides hard scientific evidence and numerous case studies to drive home points that go very much against the mainstream ideology of invasive species, but it will have you convinced that their is a better way, and that you can be a part of the solution. My only criticism is that I wish the book had more illustrations 🙂