Diversity or Perversity: Are Immigrants an “Invasive Species”? 

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As people around the world are fighting wars, polluting the environment with plastics and other toxic chemicals, clearing the forests for agriculture, developing new pathogens to kill people, and attempting to alter the weather with geo-engineering experiments, we are told to take a moment out of this mayhem and chaos to recognize Invasive Species Awareness Week

We are in the so-called age of man, or the Anthropocene, where human activity is a defining force on Earth. And one of the things humans have done is to move plants and animals around the planet with us, as humans migrate from one ecosystem to another. 

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At one time, this was encouraged, since people felt the planet was ours to use. If we want to rearrange the species from one place to another, who cares? If they can survive in the new environment, fine. The world was big back then, and nobody seemed to care when introduced species began to outgrow their new space, and spread. 

Some of these species turned out to be pests. “Pest” is a nonscientific word, and means that you don’t like it. It’s a human-centered definition that divides the world into desirable and undesirable species. Not everyone agrees on which species are pests, and pest status is dependent on context. But some species just get in the way of what humans want to do. 

Invasive species are considered pests too, but for a different reason. It’s because they are foreigners. They are illegal immigrants. They are invading the environment from without, changing it for the worse, since any change from human intervention is considered bad.

According to invasion biologists, our current definition of an invasive species is an alien species that is considered to be, or has the potential to become, a threat to the environment, health, or the economy. Note that a native, or local, species that is a threat is not invasive by definition. The essential component of the definition is that these species are not native, or are alien. 

Not all immigrant species are pests by nature. Some are good for the environment, such as trees. Some give us food. But since the immigrant species is not “native”, it is considered a threat to the natural order in its new location, and it must be eradicated. It was guilty of the sin of going against the natural order, where things belong where nature, or god, placed them.

Wanting to conform to a natural order sounds like a strange position for humans to take, given the human tendency to challenge and change the natural world. But the underpinning philosophy of invasion biology is that species “belong” where they were found by colonial powers during Western cultural exploration and expansionism of the past 6 centuries. 

Mankind, it is believed, should never transport species from one place to another. Any such transfer must be without human assistance to be “natural”. 

The value of the so-called “pre-contact”, or native, world is held high in a religious-like esteem. It is also held that white man damaged these Edenic worlds of freely living native people and their animals and plants by invading and introducing strange, new cultures and strange, new species. According to this environmental doctrine, species which are introduced by people just don’t belong. Everything has its place, and that was determined by some environmental god who set everything where it is. 

Of course, this raises the question, since humans are a species of animal, where do humans “belong” on the planet?

If humanity evolved from primates in Africa, for example, does this mean we should all be Africans? People have moved to virtually every corner of the globe. Talk about invasive species!

The fact is that species, and people, do spread around the planet. It’s an old planet, and the full story of life’s migration history is still a mystery. And when you throw into the mix human animals, who love the challenge of discovery and travel, and who enjoy taking species along with them for the journey, the issue of defining which species “belong” where, and which are “invasive”, becomes absurd.

This doesn’t stop people from judging their current environment and deciding on what to kill and what to keep. If nothing else, humans love to decide on what to kill and what to keep.

However, every decision needs a reference point for judgement. How are we to decide what belongs and what doesn’t? Clearly, there can be multiple ways to define environmental values and goals. But anything that gets in the way is a pest, and will be destroyed. 

If we want food, then any species that interferes with our food is a pest. It should not matter where the pest is from. A local pest can be worse than an immigrant pest. A sense of where the pest “belongs” is not usually considered. Pests, humans believe, don’t belong anywhere.

Why are immigrant species now considered pests? Why not consider them exotic introductions, as they were in the past when they were intentionally spread? 

This question is relevant to today’s immigration crisis. Are migrant people welcome introductions, or are they invasive?

Not all cultures are the same. Some are obviously noxious to our culture and are justifiably considered pests. And some are obviously beneficial. 

Human and environmental immigration policy are fundamentally the same thing. At any time in history, the culture is either open to immigrant people and other species, or closed. During times of plenty, cultures are more open. When times are tough, the doors are shut and the guests are asked to leave.

When times are bad environmentally, and foreign species come in, they are said to threaten local resources, redefine the environment, and take space from native species. When times are politically bad, and foreign people arrive, they are said to threaten local resources, redefine the neighborhood, and take jobs away from local people. In both cases, people will say the newcomers don’t belong.

The current state of our nation’s environmental policy is an anti-immigration policy that is native supremacist. It is a reverse discrimination, or affirmative action, environmental policy that kills immigrant species for being alien, and props up native species which can’t compete in the changing climates of the world. The results are endless eradication campaigns against introduced species which are successful in today’s environment, but who are in the wrong place on the planet.

The current state of our nation’s immigration policy is mixed. We want good immigrants, not bad ones. We want beneficial cultures and people, not threats to our culture and people. But our open border policy is indiscriminately introducing all of humanity to our shores, without consideration of whether they are beneficial or noxious. 

Invasion biology is defining our current environmental policy of attacking non-native species for competing with native species. This is bio-xenophobia, fueling the current anti-immigration stance of many people wanting to rid the country of “invading” illegal aliens, who are considered to be in competition with the local culture for jobs, resources, and space.

Some people want their culture to change from its traditional values, and see introduced cultures as a way to increase overall diversity. However, these people also feel concern for the fate of native cultures who suffered at the hands of imperialists, and call for the return of taken lands, or reparations paid to the descendants of those dispossessed by colonialism. 

This means immigrants create diversity, but diversity is bad for native cultures. This results in the contradictory policies of supporting both native cultures and immigrant cultures. 

But wait. What is the native culture? How far back should you go? In the U.S., when we think about traditional American culture, we think about white, Christian, nationalistic culture. Is that “native” American culture? Or are Native American cultures more “native”?  They came first, after all. But what about the cultures that came before they did? Humanity has been taking over other peoples’ places ever since there have been people and places. 

We see this problem in the Middle East. Modern Israel displaced modern Palestinians. Are the Palestinians the “native” people of that land? The Israeli’s say no, because the Jewish people lived there thousands of years ago. So they are the original “natives”. Until, that is, some other group says they had that land before the Jews did. And so on. 

How far back do you go? What is the statute of limitations beyond which the current residents can call themselves “native”? How long should you be in a place to be a “native”? 

The same set of questions apply to native species. We live in a big Petri dish, called Earth, which for a long time has had life spreading around. We are seeing it all at one point in time. How absurd to believe that where we find species now, or found it 400 years ago, is somehow where that species is native and “belongs”. 

All of this focus on “belonging” is clearly political, biased, and an unavoidable human issue. Our species develops obsessive-compulsive disorder when we feel out of control, and we need to define the world and put everything in its place. 

This all leads to confusion over diversity, whether it be environmental or cultural. Is it good or is it bad? 

Of course, there is no objective answer. Good and bad are subjective terms, just like native and alien. 

Beneath these concerns are the human fears of losing identity, space, and control. This fear drives humanity. When we feel good, we’re generous. But watch out when we feel threatened. 

The concept of invasive species is a reflection of our nature as humans. We are the ultimate invasive species. We must stop blaming other species for our thoughtless mixing of the planet’s life forms. And we must stop killing animals and plants simply because our current state of mind is fearful and needing to be in control. 

“Invasive species” is a human concept, it’s our problem, and it reflects our invasiveness. During Invasive Species Awareness Week, let’s reflect on this fact, and try to figure out how a destructive species like Homo sapiens can stop feeling threatened, and start feeling the kinship with all life on this planet.

Likewise, we must examine our human immigration policy and find a balance between positive diversity, where immigrant cultures assimilate, versus negative diversity, where immigrant cultures clash. 

There are no borders in a Petri dish. We are in this together. 

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