Into the New Wild

Introducing my new blog The Cultural Wilderness. This will cover topics more directly related to conservation, forestry, and other environmental science topics. This is my inaugural post, a review of Fred Pearce’s book on invasive species The New Wild. Enjoy!

Book review: The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature’s salvation by Fred Pearce

Icon Books 2015 new-wild

In 1910 New Zealand’s great botanist Leonard Cochayne described the dramatic change in plant communities which had occurred since the first visit of Captain Cook to the country in 1769 (1). Some 560 new species from Europe, Africa and elsewhere had by become established by then, with half of them common throughout the country from the coasts to the highest mountains:

At first thought, the idea of 560 different sorts of plants- some of them the most aggressive weeds in Europe- having not only been loosed to do their will, but also having established a secure footing, would lead to the conclusion that, if not the flora of New Zealand, at any rate the primitive vegetation was doomed. No conclusion could be more incorrect. Were it not that man has changed, and is changing, the face of nature by means of his farming operations, his grazing animals, his fires, his drains, and his intensive exploitation of rain forest and flax swamp, the host of foreign plant invaders would be powerless- the indigenous plants, attuned to the special life conditions f their native land, would laugh these aliens to scorn. Why, even now, when the introduced plants have man as their potent ally, 66 percent of the species are rare or local, 40 percent being so rare as to be negligible, while merely 34 percent can be classed as extremely common, common, or fairly common, these being taken together. But these percentages do not emphasise the real state of affairs, for many of the commoner plants are confined to sides of toads, neglected building sites, and rubbish heaps- in short, to “waste ground” as it is called- and there are many other species restricted to cultivated land. In fact, probably only about 100 species are established on land where the vegetation would be exposed to modification only by grazing, fire, and other causes due to the indirect action of man.

The warfare, indeed, between the plant inhabitants of primitive New Zealand and the alien invaders is waged almost entirely under conditions where man takes a powerful hand, for, except for certain rock, stony debris, and water-plant formations, no primitive plant community has been desecrated by a single foreign invader. This is a very different version of the story from that even yet current in biological literature, where it is affirmed ad nauseum that the New Zealand vegetation is powerless when it comes into competition with the European plants, which by natural selection have become the very elite of the weed world.

Cochayne’s observations made over a hundred years ago are almost identical to those made forcefully in Fred Pearce’s provocative new book which takes to task invasion biology– the view that non-native species are generally “invasive”, constituting one of the greatest threats to biodiversity and ecosystem health, and need to be controlled and where possible eradicated completely- almost at any cost.

Continue reading on my new blog The Cultural Wilderness.

Green Romantics

Following from my last blog post, a comment from Steven Blackthorne:

One sentence stood out among many good ones in this post: “Permies don’t do numbers.” Right. Because quantification is quite outside of their way of thinking. Quantification means thinking like an engineer, making calculations to find practical solutions.

They are most decidedly NOT engineers. They are ideologues and romantic dreamers, misguided ones, at that. This is one thing that I love so much about Stewart Brand. He thinks big, he dreams big, but in the end, he wants pragmatic solutions. He wants numbers that add up. It’s the fundamental difference between the romantic dreamer and the engineer.

Brand was right on the money when he wrote about how romantics love tragedy. They don’t truly want solutions. “The romantics distrust engineers, sometimes correctly, for their hubris, and are uncomfortable with the prospect of fixing things, because the essence of tragedy is that it can’t be fixed. Romantics love problems…”

Brand’s quote comes from his seminal 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline and Steven is right that this explains a lot about the permaculture movement.

Romantics love problems… says a great deal. There is a narcissistic seductive lure of believing that we cannot solve our problems rationally, which absolves them from actually getting up off thier butt and doing something about it. Wishing for Utopia all the time allows one to shirk responsibilities- “the world is going down the tubes, at least I won’t have to pay my bills/go to work/actually solve anything”- and “I’m not going to let anyone else come up with solutions either!”

I was thinking of this as I read through a series of tweets from Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute in response to Dark Mountain’s critique of The Eco-modernist Manifesto.

The critique relies on just two points:
Firstly, that eco-modernists believe in a teleological process of continual human improvement. This is a straw-man: there is no “destiny” that humanity is following, and things could go wrong. We could indeed wipe ourselves out or leave the biosphere so badly degraded that advanced civilisation may no longer be sustainable. If this were to happen however, it would not necessarily be the fault of the eco-modernist agenda:

Secondly, that modernism and technology have not yet brought a perfect world so they should be reversed/stopped and banned, which is nonsensical:

I prefer the term “eco-pragmatist” to “eco-modernist”- it is more descriptive. Unlike the Dark Greens, a pragmatic approach understands that there is no perfect world to be had, there will always be problems, but advocates quite simply a pragmatic way forward, accepting the trade-offs necessary in the real world.

The Green Romantics have no alternative other than the politics of opposition and the seductive power of negativity and a sort of “woe-is-us” misanthropy. “Technology has gone wrong in the past, so it is All Bad”; “Golden Rice does not create a perfect world and fails to address underlying political issues, so should be banned”; or often just “we don’t like your proposals, so they should be banned.”

Meanwhile, the proposals preferred by the eco-romantics will actually have the opposite effect and make things worse- they are the antipathy of pragmatism:

It is not rocket science 😉 -if we can grow food more intensively, producing more from the same amount of land, then we need to use less land for farming which could release more of it for wild nature- hence sparing nature;
if we can get more energy dense fuels such a nuclear power then we need less physical space for mining coal or installing windmills.

This will never satisfy the Green Romantics who want not just an unattainable Perfect Solution, but also their solution, often driven as much by aesthetic idealism than by anything that could actually work- but in doing so they drive a reactionary agenda which actually obstructs real progress from being made- to the detriment of both planet and people.

Lobster Liberation

By chance I happened to be in Dublin on Sunday night at the Abbey Theater for the last of a series of Climate Conversations, “The Call to New Horizons”.

Bringing People Together for a New Understanding on Climate Change” – a series of conversations hosted in partnership with Christian Aid, the Environmental Pillar, Ibec, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Trócaire.


We missed the beginning but caught a couple of fascinating presentations, the first by field archaeologist Michael Gibbons, and the second by visual artist Dorothy Cross.

Both were only tangentially connected with climate change, though both indeed dealt with change, of both nature and culture.  Gibbons talked about  the layers of settlements in the changing landscape of the west of Ireland over millenia, and how they had both shaped and been shaped by environmental change.

Dorothy Cross explained that a lot of her work “is about trying to find the residue of life -which sadly is through death- and take that and bring it to the studio, and try to relate the bones or the skin of something that once existed to make us look at our own perilous natures.”  This she then related to climate change which she referred to as “monstrous”, a symbol of the perilous state of the whole of nature, or so she believes.

To illustrate her work she  showed us two remarkable videos from the island  of New Ireland off the coast of Papua New Guinea, about the dying practices of shark singing- yes, literally luring sharks into traps by singing- and octopus hunting.

In the first video, Cross shows a woman hunting an octopus with a spear. Barely able to swim herself, it takes her some 7-8 minutes to catch her octopus, a daily necessity for food.

The octopus hides in a hole in a rock and expands its body to resist capture; the woman waits while children swim out to her with poisonous leaves which she dives down again to poke into the hole forcing the tiny octopus to give itself up. It barely made a meal- the people there live precarious lives as there is less and less fish to catch, and as development slowly arrives on this remote island, this way of life captured on film is now almost gone.

In the second film Cross showed footage of one of the last shark singers, no longer allowed to go shark hunting himself as he was ostracized by the younger generation of fishermen who believed he had lost his magic, wiping tears from his face as he sang his mournful song for the camera.

I was still thinking about the harsh lives of the shark singers and the octopus hunters when I awoke the next morning and heard on the news the strange story of the Lobster Liberation that took place last Friday evening:

A GROUP OF animal rights activists say they ‘liberated’ nine lobsters by walking into a Dublin restaurant and pinching them from a fish tank.

The caged crustaceans were being kept in the tank in the window of Ka Shing Chinese restaurant on Wicklow Street before the gutsy rescue mission.

There were several news items covering this during the day and a couple of interviews with one of the vegan activists, who calmly and clearly stated that killing any animal is “murder” and abhorrent and unnecessary;

now I am not fond of shellfish, am allergic to shrimp, and do indeed find the idea of boiling lobsters alive somewhat abhorrent;

but I couldn’t help wondering whether that idealistic young activist from the National Animal Rights Association, should she ever encounter that octopus hunter- living at the time in a cash-less economy, with virtually no access to any of the amenities of the modern world, and relying on a diminishing stock of ever smaller octopuses to feed her family- whether she would see her also as a murderer, and whether she would consider it a valiant act of liberation to sabotage that hunt.





50 Shades of Green

A Spectrum of Environmental Thought

“You seem to spend a good bit of time slagging off environmentalists” complained a particularly earnest student to me recently. His gripe seemed to be to do with some fairly incidental comments I had made in passing about fracking being OK in principle, and Permaculture offering no silver bullet for delivering sustainable agriculture.
The thing is though, who are these “environmentalists” of which we speak? It is misleading to speak about “environmentalists” as if they all agree on things like nuclear power or GMOs; in fact, when it comes to the Green movement , we are talking about a very broad church indeed.
Here then, is a selected range of thinkers, movers and shakers on environmental issues, most of them who would identify with being “environmentalists” in some way. This also roughly equates with Professor Steve Fuller’s suggestion (see below) that we are seeing a dramatic 90-degree shift in the poles of political thought- no more so much “Left wing” and “Right wing”, much more “Down-wingers” (Dark Green environmentalists) and “Up-wingers” (eco-pragmatists and technophiles).
As we move through the spectrum, we see a shift from focus on the Precautionary Principle with regard to technology- a general aversion to any more “meddling with nature”- and gradually move closer to Fuller’s “Pro-actionary imperative”- the view that as humans, we are all but compelled to keep innovating and developing new technologies, leaping further into the unknown of the future, if we are to continue to thrive.

There are of course hundreds more writers I could have included. The exact placement of each writer is open to interpretation, and not intended to be precise, not least because many will be further one way on some issues (eg nuclear power or climate) and further the other way on others.

Here we go then- 50 Shades of Green:

Dark Green
This end of the spectrum tends to be quite extreme and ideologically motivated, characterised as:
-Suspicious of technology
-romanticizing the past
-romanticizing “Nature”;
tends to make apocalyptic predictions- the “Doomers”;
emphasis on “over-population”;
follows “Limits to Growth” philosophy: the Earth’s resources are finite, and humanity is approaching the limits- soon there will be severe shortages of energy, minerals, food, leading to a likely population collapse;
Peak Oil= Peak Energy- humans are like “bacteria on a petri dish” and subject to the same laws of limits as other species- it is only our hubris and arrogance that blinds us to this truth;
Humans must cut back and end economic growth, restrict use of technology, live simpler lives;
Moralistic- Humans are an inherently malevolent influence on the planet
Often Misanthropic = human-hating- seeing Nature as Pure and Humans as Polluted.

At the very extreme end of the spectrum…
Eco-fascism: eg Nazi Germany- Rudolph Hess was a leading Nazi Nature Mystic who believed the purity of the German race was intimately connected with the purity of the Land and its Soil –Blut und Boden– (“Blood and Soil”)- the Nazis were the first and only movement to promote Steiner’s mystical practice of Biodynamics on a large scale, which was also inspired by this view;
The Nazi mystics believed there to be a powerful, ordained connection between Das Volk and Das Vaterland– the notion of a sort of chosen land for a chosen people, the Aryan race. This link was expressed naturally enough through farming practices, which needed to be “pure” so as not to pollute the blood through “unclean” food. Purity of the soil- the Land- meant purity of the food; purity of the food maintained purity of the Blood- and therefore, purity of the Race.
Organic farming emerged after this time as a reaction against the rise of industrial farming which was seen as polluting, not just the soil and the land, but the Race.
This kind of thinking, while not explicitly racist in content, can still be found underpinning the Darker side of the Organics and anti-GMO movement. In many ways, the foodie movement in general is best seen as versions of Kosher foods- a modern take on the age-old tradition of identifying ones tribe by the food it eats. “Pig meat unclean” and only eaten by the Infidels becomes “GMOs unclean”.
This position is perhaps best exemplified in the figure of Dr. Vandana Shiva, who, while feted widely by western environmentalists who would prefer to see themselves on the Left, in her native country is more closely identified with right-wing nationalistic interests who shun modernity and have vested interests in the maintenance of the caste system.

Deep Ecology

Anarcho-primitivsism- Derrick Jensen “The Culture of Make-Believe”

Dark Mountain

We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.

– from the Dark Mountain Manifesto

Thomas Malthus 1766-1834- predicted food supply would fail to keep up with population increases, leading to inevitable famines;

Paul Ehrlich The Population Bomb 1968:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

Giving society cheap, abundant energy … would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.

– Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power”,

May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists Public Issue Report cited here

Silent Spring Rachel Carson 1962

Limits to Growth 1972 Club of Rome report by Meadows and Randers;

Jared Diamond 2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Richard Heinberg The End of Growth 2011
Heinberg is an influential figure in the Peak Oil movement, which sees the peaking in world oil supplies to be happening now and leading to inevitable collapse of modern industrial society;

Transition Towns Network
A world-wide network of community projects started in Tones, Devon in 2004:

is a charitable organisation whose role is to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they self-organise around the Transition model, creating initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions…Ultimately it’s about creating a healthy human culture, one that meets our needs for community, livelihoods and fun.

TTN promotes the urgent need for a response to the “twin threats” of Peak Oil (resource depletion) and Climate Change (pollution of the Global Commons) by forming re-localisation projects. The vision appears to be a return to more-or-less self-sufficient local and regional communities growing their own food and producing their own energy and other resources, in a general move away from globalisation, technology and progress; they could be characterized as a “neo-feudal” movement.

Supporters and alliances include Prince Charles and the Schumacher College; their seems much in common with the ideology espoused by Rudolph Steiner and other early 20thCentury reactions against modernity.

Permaculture –again, closely aligned with and informing of Transition, Permaculture began as a landscape design method, but now represents a very broad movement claiming to work towards a “Permanent Culture”, Permaculture clearly began as a reaction against industrialisation and modernity and a conviction that society is surely doomed should it continue down its current path;
Also linked with Anthroposophy, Organics and the Food Sovereignty Movement.

The giant multi-national green NGOs Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth probably fit in around about here, with a strong anti-GMO and anti-nuclear stance;

George Monbiot
Monbiot is one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, and aligns strongly with the anti-capitalist, anti-corporate Left; but he also has links with Dark Mountain and the darker Greens on many issues, while at the same time breaking ranks in a rather fundamental way through his advocating of nuclear power as the “lesser of two evils” when considering the need for base-load low-carbon energy to tackle climate change.


Thus far those cited have tended to believe in the inherent unsustainability of the modern world and call with varying degrees of urgency and optimism for a retreat “back to Nature”;
Coupled with this is frequently found at root a rejection of Enlightenment values- which see human agency as liberating us from the confines of an often merciless “Nature”- as hubris. Instead, they argue, the escape from “natural limits” is a dangerous illusion.
Most mainstream environmentalism including the Green parties of Europe and the US tend towards this view.

Now we look at those who support conservationism and environmental protection in various guises, but who see this as best happening in the context of modern industrial society which should continue to use human ingenuity and technology to solve environmental problems without a wholesale abandonment of modernity:


Sometimes also known as “neo-Greens”;
Mark Lynas
The myth of Easter Island’s Ecocide

In this article, Lynas points to recent research suggesting Diamond (above) was wrong to point to Easter Island as a metaphor for ecological over-shoot and collapse.
Lynas falls between the two ends of the spectrum as he also has very dark views of potential climate apocalypse (viz his 2006 book “Six Degrees” and more recent “The God Species” about planetary boundaries.)

Other thinkers are less concerned about any concept of absolute boundaries.

Eco-pragmatists believe technology can really help the environment- indeed, it is unethical in the extreme to abandon the poor, and they see bringing the rest of humanity out of poverty to be the number one priority. As people become wealthier they naturally take more care of the environment and reduce family size;
See Maslow
Advanced technologies like nuclear power and genetic engineering are cleaner and can both feed and bring energy to the world and help solve some of the problems of earlier technology; “Nature” is something to conserve, but not something we should be aiming to return to.

James Lovelock

The maverick scientist is the hardest of anyone on this list to categorise- on the one hand, his Gaia hypothesis inspired a generation of Deep Ecologists, and also the broader environmental movement, to think differently about the planet; on the other hand he has in recent years made a dramatic turn-around from stating climate change will result in the end of humanity, to “noone really knows” and advocating technofixes including fracking, nuclear power and the geo-engineering.

Hans Rosling Population Growth
TED Talks: Global Population Growth

Rosling shows how development and the demographic transition is leading to a reduction in fertility rates and decline in population growth rates, which is happening all over the world more rapidly than expected.
Essential viewing: The Magic Washing Machine

Emma Marris Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Fascinating look at changing perspectives in ecology and conservation in a world where very little if any “nature” that hasn’t been modified by humans remains.

Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
In this talk, Kareiva takes issue with the romantic notions of Nature of Thoreau and Edward Abbey.
Failed Metaphors and a New Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Stewart Brand Whole Earth Discipline

We are as Gods – and must get good at it.

Brand, one of the founders of the environmental movement and a pioneer in permaculture and appropriate technology in the ‘60s, discusses 4 Environmental Heresies:
-cities are green
-nuclear power is green
-genetic engineering is green
-geo-engineering is probably necessary to tackle climate change.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger and the Breakthrough Institute: The Death of Environmentalism
-a Key article from critics of the mainstream environmental movement

Norberg and Shellenberger reject the idea that it is human population and overall human impact that is the problem, instead embracing enlightenment values, seeing technology and human progress the key to solving climate change and other environmental issues.

Daniel Botkin Botkin challenges the “Balance of Nature” narrative in Darker Green Environmentalism

Matt Ridley The Rational Optimist

To go back to Nature would be a disaster- for Nature

Self-sufficiency is poverty.

TED talk: When Ideas Have Sex

Ridley believes human beings became the dominant species through innovation, specialization and trade, aided by our unique ability to communicate through language;
the “optimist” in his book’s title places him further towards the “upwing” of the spectrum, believing that technological innovation can continue to improve life for humans, overcoming environmental problems;
unlike most of the previous writers, he is controversial and outspoken on climate change, believing it to be less of a threat than the Darker Greens.

Bjorn Lomborg
The Skeptical Environmentalist 2001
Cool It! 2011 Book and Film

key article: Lomborg Explains how to Save the Planet

How we live today is clearly unsustainable. Why history proves that is completely irrelevant.

Lomborg was influenced by Julian Simon (d.1998)

In The Ultimate Resource (1981) Simon argued that human innovation and economic forces would always overcome apparent or temporary resource limits, as in the saying ”The stone-age didn’t run out because we ran out of stones”- in other words, we will always be able to find better substitutes long before a resource actually expires.
Lomborg continues to be skeptical of the more doom-ridden end of the spectrum, and in particular, while accepting that man-made climate change is a problem, believes the mainstream policy response is all wrong, and the key is once again technological innovation- we cannot move away from fossil fuels until we have a cleaner alternative that is also cheaper- and in the meantime there are far more pressing human and environmental problems we should be spending our money on solving.

Patrick Moore Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout 2010

Pure science made me a Greenpeace drop-out.

Moore believes much of the “Dark Green” environmental movement had become irrational and reactionary and anti-science.
More than other “eco-pragmatists” mentioned, Moore is skeptical of the science behind man-made climate change, tending to argue that CO2 plays little if any role in warming the planet, and is certainly not a risk.

At the extreme end- Promethean Greens
Believe technology and human innovation will ultimately lead to a better environment- there is no “Nature”- only what humans decide will remain;
Even asteroid-mining or deep space travel will be possible eventually;
Transhumanism– human-computer link-ups; nano-technology; and even eternal life after the Singularity is reached and life-expectancy advances faster than real time.
Eg Jacques Fresco’s The Venus Project
See Mark Stevenson An Optimists’ Tour of the Future for an entertaining survey of future technologies that may not be that far off.

As mentioned in my intro above, in his 2014 book The Pro-actionary Imperative Professor Steve Fuller takes issue with the dominant Left-Right dichotomy, instead positing “Down-wingers” (anarchist Deep Ecologists and Conservatives) and “Up-wingers” (Marxists and Libertarians). He himself advocates Transhumanism as a political strategy, embraces technological fixes- but, in sharp contrast to the more secular/atheist tendencies of other Prometheans, this emerges from his Christian belief that God made us in his image ie our destiny therefore is to literally become As Gods, and not just metaphorically as per Stewart Brand. Successful risk-taking is what has made us human, and the last thing we want to is allow the Dark Greens to slow this down.


So there you have it. Let me know if you think there are any major omissions. In truth, we are all environmentalists– once we have sufficient wealth and security to worry about things beyond our immediate survival.

Botkin and the Balance of Nature

Book Review
The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Revisited
Daniel B. Botkin
OUP 2012


Daniel B. Botkin is currently Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara. The author of numerous books on environmental science and policy and energy, his latest- the first I have read by him- is a return to themes about humans and our relationship to nature first explored in an earlier book Discordant Harmonies (1990).

Bringing the measured tone of a life-long scientist who has thought deeply about how we are changing nature and how nature changes, Botkins’ central thesis is that conservation policies are failing because we have failed to understand how strongly deeply felt mythologies about nature, which we often mistake for science, still influence and underpin them.
Botkin draws on more than 40 years experience in ecology bringing an extensive scope to his book, covering a wide range of environmental and conservation issues in the context of a much bigger picture of our understanding of nature, science, ecology,and environmentalism and how they are shaped by mythology.

I had previously come across Botkin in this episode of Adam Curtis’ series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts

This fascinating documentary actually covers very well many of the ideas Botkin discusses, weaving together the emergence of ecology as a science in the 60s as being based largely on cybernetics and the burgeoning study of systems theory, and the influence these ideas had on the environmental movement. Thus, the early scientific study of nature- which was itself shaped by emerging technology of machines with which to study nature- embedded within it the powerful metaphor of nature as machine.

Curtis explains that in the computer age these ideas have lead to a dominant ideology that we cannot really change things for the better ourselves, but that we can replace the traditional oppressive hierarchies of the past with self-regulating systems beyond our control. In the introduction to the film he says

But in an age disillusioned with politics, the self-regulating ecosystem has become the model for utopian ideas of human ‘self-organizing networks’ – dreams of new ways of organising societies without leaders, as in the Facebook and Twitter revolutions, and in global visions of connectivity like the Gaia theory.

Botkin’s begins his story about our mythologies about nature much earlier, from the time of classical Greece philosophy which saw nature is a “Great Chain of Being”. Nature was seen as constant, in an ideal state and unchanging, with

a place for every creature, and every creature in its place; in modern parlance, that every creature and every species has its place (that is, its role and its location—its habitat) in the harmonious workings of nature and is well adapted to that habitat, and to that role, which ecologists call today a species’ niche.

This view of nature, Botkin argues, has been retained down through history, taking many different forms in theology and philosophy, and slipping almost seamlessly into the machine metaphor of the modern scientific era.

Botkin himself began his career as an ecologist in the 1960s with these traditional views firmly embedded in his mind, and as he explains in an early chapter concerning Isle Royal, a large forested island 15 miles off the shore of Lake Superior. Botkin had gone there to study moose populations in the implicit belief that there was some kind of self-regulation of vegetation, herbivore and predator populations that would always revert in time to a natural balance: Continue Reading