Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration
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By Tao Orion
If there’s one thing I’ve learned after years of living and working at Aprovecho, it’s that people are searching for and implementing ways of life that provide more meaning, connection, laughter, and integration with the world that sustains us. They come from all over the world to experience a slice of life that is different from the normal and expected narrative of modern industrial capitalist culture. Experiencing this yearning from the many wonderful people I’ve come to know over the years helped inspire me to write my book Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration. During my time at Aprovecho, I had a job working as a botanist on a restoration project, and I realized that this discipline too is in need of another narrative, one that is grounded in a holistic understanding of ecosystem processes and functions. So I went about writing a book that offers a glimpse into what restoration could and should mean if practiced in a context outside of or beyond the war on invasive species, as the concepts are usually considered one and the same. This book, like so many things in my life, are inspired by Aprovecho’s mission of living, learning, organizing, and educating to inspire a sustainable culture. So, invite you to aprovechar (to make best use of) the excerpt from the book below:
If we’re going to solve some of the most pressing concerns that are commonly blamed on invasive species, including extinctions, loss of biodiversity, and biotic homogenization, we must take a deep look at the systems that currently provide for the needs of the majority of the world’s population. Invasive species are related to these production systems, but eradicating them does nothing to address the fundamental reasons for their proliferation.
One of the reasons we’ve been so misguided in our approach to managing invasive species is because managing them effectively requires something far more challenging and more powerful than the business-as-usual approach of aggressive, extensive annihilation of “offending” plants. Effective management requires that before anything else—before we develop a
plan, or reach for the herbicide—we have to first teach ourselves to think differently. Thinking differently, holistically, about invasive species and their management will take time and creativity, as well as honest attempts to answer difficult questions about the state of the ecosystems where they thrive. But if we are to embrace the true meaning of ecological restoration as repairing degraded ecosystems, then we must move beyond short-term and short-sighted invasive species eradication measures and begin the necessary process of engaging the critical task of restoration on all fronts, from our homes and neighborhoods, to farms, forests, and the economic systems that support them—as well as to restoring our own way of thinking.
The process of incorporating a holistic framework into invasion ecology and restoration is emblematic of the historic shifts in scientific paradigms as philosopher Thomas Kuhn explained them. The old paradigm sees invasive species as bad actors, whereas the new paradigm understands the conditions that support their growth. Instead of engaging in eradication, the new paradigm of restoration seeks to address systemic issues with systemic solutions. The first step in this holistic approach is to acknowledge ourselves as part of a web of relationships in which every action has consequences throughout the ecosystem where we live, from our immediate vicinity to the entire biosphere. Although modern life can make it seem as though our lives are dissociated from natural systems, everything is connected. Engaging in systems-based analysis of the ecological connections that support our lives requires honesty and courage because it’s difficult to admit that some of the things we do are so harmful to life on the planet.
Author and philosopher Joanna Macy has written extensively and eloquently about how acknowledging our collective concern for the dying world can be a means for transforming grief and despair into positive action.
“We have to honor and own this pain for the world, recognizing it as
a natural response to an unprecedented moment in history. We are
part of a huge civilization, intricate in its technology and powerful
in its institutions, that is destroying the very basis of life. When have
people had this experience before in our history? We ask people to
relate to what they experience with respect and compassion for
themselves. They’re not just griping and grumping. It is absolutely
shattering when we open our eyes and see that we are actually, in an
accelerating fashion, destroying the future . . . People fear that if they let despair in, they’ll be paralyzed because they are just one person.
Paradoxically, by allowing ourselves to feel our pain for the world,
we open ourselves up to the web of life, and we realize that we’re not
alone . . . The response that is appropriate and that this work elicits is
to grow a sense of solidarity with others and to elaborate a whole new sense of what our resources are and what our power is.”
Macy calls this process “the work that reconnects.” It is at once humbling and empowering and informs a more realistic relationship with land. We have to face the facts, heartrending as they may be. We must take stock of the world as we have created it, the garden that we have fashioned, for better or worse, into its current form. Cities and suburbs, slums, sewers, garbage dumps, dead zones, feedlots, shopping malls, and monocultures. Pesticides,
plastics, and persistent organic pollutants. Coal and missing mountaintops. Oil, and the wars derived from it. Climate change, sea-level rise, cultural and ecological displacement, extinction. All of these are real, and serious, threats to the existence of life on Earth as we know it and into the future.
When placed in this context, the proliferation of a particular plant, fish, or mollusk seems paltry. But engaging in eradication-based restoration provides a clear-cut and tangible physical action that seems to address the dire circumstances we find ourselves in today. Spending a day pulling out salt cedar, teaching children about “Aliens in Our Watershed,” or getting a job doing
wetland restoration seems to offer tangible results in the midst of so many things that don’t. It’s reassuring for us to experience those results amid so much uncertainty and powerlessness. Unfortunately, it’s a misdirected effort, and the energy, resources, and people power supporting the current restoration paradigm would be better spent engaging in management practices
that fundamentally transform the processes that contribute to widespread ecological demise—even if their results are not so immediately apparent. Management, or lack thereof, is key to understanding what can be done, not only to deal with rampant species, but also to conserve and enhance biodiversity within the context of a changed and changing planet. We need to move beyond the appealing myth of pristine, untouched, virginal wilderness, of passive native ecosystems being overtaken by aggressive invasive species; it’s a psychological battle as much as anything else. The old paradigm sees “nature” as static and changing little—which is supposedly
when “nature” is at its best and most pure—until humans impose our will on it. This philosophy is wrong on so many levels, but especially in how it negates the healthy relationship that people can develop with the natural world by shaping and being shaped by it, as they meet their needs for food, fiber, shelter, fuel, and medicine. The wilderness concept, a distinctly American idea, denies the work of indigenous Americans in creating the abundance that was “discovered” by European colonists not long ago. The abundant game, lush prairies, bustling rivers, towering forests, and indeed the very structure of native plant and animal community assemblages were
shaped by peoples’ interactions with them over long periods of time, and will require the same if they are to persevere into the future.
–Excerpted from Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Pemaculture Approach to Ecosystem Resotartion, p. 165-166