By Lynn Capuano
I am a big believer in the belief that language is important. English is a rich language with a multitude of ways of describing objects, activities, living things, emotions, and relationships. But it’s not without limits, as we’ve probably all experienced at one time or another. Sometimes it is in an effort to describe a remarkable site or experience that we are faced with the inability to find the right word. Sometimes it’s when we ask him to define himself that we lack English.
For the past 20 months, I have been involved in a project to preserve the biodiversity of an undeveloped land. Through this work, I had to face the limits of language due to both the meaning of words and the use of words historically, politically and culturally. I am referring to the use of the terms “invasive” and “non-native” when used in an ecological context.
These terms are widely used by professionals, respected organizations and government at all levels. They are used to draw attention to plants, insects, or animal life that typically originate from places other than the United States. These species are considered to pose a threat to plants, insects or animal life present for a certain period before the introduction of this new species. The threat often comes in the form of newcomers killing other species by supplanting them for food and growing faster and depriving other species of things like space, water, and sun. These species are also successful because they are new, so predators are not used to eating them. This gives them time to establish and spread before a predator adapts to treat them as a food source.
The result is a loss or modification of biodiversity in an area where the new species has been introduced. Generally, the loss of biodiversity is not a positive consequence and it is something that we are trying to prevent. Therefore, you are reading the tremendous efforts that have been made to eradicate and control these “invasive” and “non-native” species.
I do not dispute the accepted position that allowing certain species to spread is problematic, destructive and disruptive, nor the belief that we should act to deal with the impact of the presence of these species. However, I am uncomfortable and dissatisfied with our choice of language to describe these species.
Plants, insects and animals have not invaded this country. They were brought here without exercising free will, but as unwitting passengers in the ballast water of a freighter, on the bottom of a traveller’s shoes, or in a box heading for your neighbor’s door. Calling them invasive conjures up the idea of being attacked and echoes our unfortunate national tendency to alienate “the other” when looking for a group to blame. Whether it was the Japanese during WWII or a number of other racial, ethnic, religious or cultural groups throughout our history and as recently as yesterday that we described as aliens. , invaders or non-natives, this is a practice used by politicians, extremists and others in search of a sequel.
Those of us who cannot claim Native American heritage should be more susceptible to the hypocrisy of referring to anything as non-Native. We were certainly not the first on this earth and should be the last to claim to want to keep things as they were.
In the context of ecology, we need to reframe the problem and change the language we use to properly explain and describe what we are talking about. More and more people are talking about this need and trying to identify a more appropriate and less loaded language to use. For now, I choose to focus on preserving biodiversity. I stress the importance of plant management for the benefit of preserving a wide range of plant species and for serving the extent of life nourished and hosted by this plant life.
Some species are too destructive not to think about their eradication. But many more do not fall into this category and, in fact, offer us opportunities to break down cultural, racial and ethnic barriers by learning how they are used in other places. We may not want them to dominate a territory, but we have to think and speak in terms of managing and maintaining biodiversity in our approach. In this way, we do not demonize the species, the places they come from and certainly not the people who also come from those places.