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.

Permaculture and Agroecology

Fascinating post by Andrew Kniss on Redefining Agroecology:

In the agroecology program at the University of Wyoming, we teach that proper use of technology is an indispensable part of achieving sustainability. After all, if technology in crop production was shunned, we’d have succumbed to the Malthusian catastrophe many generations ago. Technological innovations, in many cases, can help us maintain or increase production while minimizing the negative impacts of agriculture. This doesn’t mean that technological solutions should replace important traditional agricultural practices (like crop rotation, manure, appropriate tillage etc.). Technology is most certainly not a substitute for good agronomy. By studying agroecology, we can determine how to best use technology to increase the sustainability of agroecosystems. It also allows us to maximize the benefit of traditional agricultural practices and minimize their negative impact.

The point is that agroecology has lost its origins as a science and become co-opted by the “alternative farming” movement which not surprisingly annoys Kniss:

And this, I think, is why I get a little defensive when the term agroecology is used in conjunction with “utterly unrealistic solutions” and “bogus challenges.” Most frustrating to me, is when agroecology is used in this context:

“We don’t need [insert technology here], because we have agroecology!“

In the comments, Karl Haro von Mogel suggests in order to reclaim agroecology as a science that embraces technology, another term should be found to encompass the political movement.

I think I know what that term might be: Permaculture. After all, in response to my critique of permaculture, some have claimed I ignore the close association with agroecology.

But while Kniss shows that agroecology is really a science that holds no ideological commitment- as a science it merely investigates the ecological interactions in the context of agriculture, with the purpose of benefiting both- permaculture has never been a science and is nothing if not an ideological movement.

Permaculture is not just agriculture ofcourse, and has a heavy focus on urban farms and gardens and small-holdings; and has spread far beyond this to embrace advocacy on everything from sustainable housing to renewable energy to Deep Ecology and airy-fairy “People Care” ; but its origins would seem to be almost identical to what has become the agroecological movement, closely associated with the Food Sovereignty movement (pdf) and the Organics movement, albeit the latter with a narrower and more clearly defined focus.

All of these movements subscribe to the idea that modern agriculture is unsustainable, largely driven by the quest for corporate profit, and heading rapidly over a cliff like demented lemmings;
and they promote their own cause as a simple no-brainer one-size-fits-all Answer to the issues of feeding the world.
They ignore the fact that industrial agriculture has been spectacularly successful in feeding modern populations, and in equal measure ignore the short-comings of the proposed alternatives, including less efficient land-use.
The biggest problem though is their rejection of technologies such as GMOs which can make farming more efficient, precisely because they are ideological movements and not science.

Can we reclaim the word agroecology as a science? Probably not, but it is worth thinking about replacing it with the word permaculture when you see it used as a movement, if only because it helps spotlight permaculture for what it really is.

Sky Gardens and Moon Planting

No it’s not that kind of Moon Planting- I’m talking about actually growing crops on the Moon and in space, just one of the ambitious and unusual career opportunities proposed in the inspiring talk by James Wong last night in Cork.


The talk was hosted by the Biological, Earth and Environmental Science department, UCC. Speaking to a packed auditorium of mainly young horticulture students, TV botanist James Wong was keen to show a career in horticulture could be exciting, sexy, cutting edge, and perhaps most of all, lucrative.

Keen to get away from the typically uninspiring openings he sees on the internet, which paint a picture of horticulture as just back-breaking unskilled work aimed at “tidying up” garden borders, James invited us to consider opportunities as diverse as:

– the “living walls” or vertical gardens of Patrick Blanc;
“living buildings” with movable panels of micro-algae in the walls which replace AC for cooling;
the amazing Botany Builders who are developing buildings that literally are living, made of trees;

Park-royal Sky Garden, Singapore

Park-royal Sky Garden, Singapore

– for those looking for something on a grander scale there may be inspiration to be found in holding back the deserts in China with Great Green walls of millions of trees;

or in designs like the amazing Sky Gardens of Singapore.

And if that was not enough to attract even the most adventurous horticulturalist eager to break the mold of growing the ubiquitous begonias, yes, there might even be opportunities in space with NASA’s project to grow plants on the moon by 2016– an essential first step to allow humans to travel into deep space.

James also catered for those with a more down-to-earth approach to gardening by discussing the interesting commercial and entertainment value of unusual edibles such as Synsepalum dulcificum the “miracle berry” that makes even raw rhubarb taste delicious shortly after eating some; or the potentially huge commercial potential in the anaesthetic properties of Spilanthes acmella, the “Electric Daisy”, also known as the toothache plant.

James is unapologetic in his futuristic and technophile approach, along with his irrepressible plant-geekery, and was not afraid to make a gentle jibe about someone who was objecting that their interest in plants was to “feed the world” rather than make money (one might aspire to do both of course). A couple of his sometimes outspoken and controversial views stuck with me:

At one point in the talk he showed a familiar map of North Africa, showing the relatively small square that, if entirely covered with pv solar panels could theoretically supply the whole world’s electricity. James was rather dismissive of such claims- “people live there” he said, “it would have an impact.” Just as importantly, solar cells do not have a very long life-expectancy, only about 25 years. Smart design solutions with plants however, which grow and reproduce themselves- now that might have much more promise for ecological restoration and even, as in his living walls examples, substitute for some energy production and efficiency.

The other idea was about innovation and change: horticulture in Britain, James thinks, has become stuck in a rut and is extremely conservative and unwilling to try new ideas- everyone just grows Begonias. There might be bold new ideas in British architecture, but “Why do we have to live as if it is 400 years ago when we go outdoors?” The irony in this retro-romantic, conservative trend is that when, in this part of the world, we think of heritage, we tend to think about how the Victorians did things, with their style standing for stability and tradition. Yet the Victorians themselves, in garden design at least according to James, were anything but conservative in style, and were obsessed with novelty, in design, new plant varieties, new concepts. In truth, we would be more like the Victorians with our approach to gardens, plants and perhaps even the natural world if we reached more for the stars.

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