Invasive species and invading discourses

I took the comfortable three and a bit hour train trip to Stockholm for a couple of days this week to attend the Controlling aliens? Invasion biologies and theorising the native workshop, hosted by Libby Robin and Sverker Sörlin at the Environmental Humanities Laboratory, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). Libby and her co-workers have had several collaborative seminars with AUSCCER researchers on invasive species, so it was great to continue the connection on the other side of the world. It is no accident that the discipline of invasion ecology grew out of the colonial experience; it is strongest in former colonies such as Australia, USA, South Africa. The humanities/social science research dimensions are also strong in these areas, providing a critical take on questions of ferals, aliens, natives and invasives.We were a multidisciplinary group; historians, geographers, ecologists, STS, cultural studies and literary people. The program included Nancy Langston (University of Wisconsin/University of Umeå) talking on her fascinating historical ecological research on the Lake Trout collapse in the Great Lakes of North America. She argues that invasive sea lamprey were blamed for this collapse, but a detailed examination of more diverse sources of environmental damage reveals a much more complex story.

Cambridge geographer Bill Adams’ talk was called ‘Unnatural Times: order, control and the policing of wild nature’. This talk picked up on some of the themes Bill discusses in his recent essay in the new Aeon magazine, which has been a bit of a hit on twitter. I presented some of Jenny Atchison’s and my work on ‘Eradicating bodies in invasive plant management’ and received some great feedback that we will work into paper redrafts. I connected also to my recent paper on nativeness in GR 50.

As is typical of small workshops (12-15 people), much greater depth of discussion was possible than at large conferences. People could engage at some length with others’ arguments, and we all went away stimulated and with new connections. A useful feature – and part of the ‘laboratory’ process – was that several early career researchers (Dolly Jørgensen from Umeå University, Anna Tunlid from Lund, and Jenny Beckman from Uppsala) put pre-circulated draft papers up for comment and critique.

Of particular interest was the increasing concern with species nativeness and invasiveness in some of the places we think of as the most profoundly humanly modified – the UK and Sweden among them. Several people described this concern as an ‘invading discourse’ into Sweden. On one hand the increasing intensity of international exchange of people and organisms has intensified the issues around invasive species. But on the other there are real questions about how much it makes sense to attempt to police complex jurisdictional boundaries within a region like Europe. These questions were also asked of species protection. Should Sweden be investing so much of its limited environmental resources in protecting species that are endangered in Sweden but perfectly healthy somewhere else?

There was a lot of discussion about the Anthropocene, weedy futures and the futility of attempting to fix nature in place, not least in a time of climate change. But it is somewhat more difficult to frame a constructive contribution to what we tend to think of as ‘managing’ the environment. The ‘so what?’ question emerged early. How can our work contribute to solving the world’s problems? How do we go beyond just saying, it’s complicated? Environmental historian and Aeon magazine co-founder Brigid Hains was also there, and able to talk about different ways of communicating and writing. Social media and digital communication are clearly part of the cultural change package.

Libby’s team and AUSCCER people will be continuing the conversation in February in Wollongong, when Jenny Atchison, Nick Gill and I convene a small workshop between researchers and practitioners, with Richard Hobbs and Brendan Larson as keynote speakers.

Overseas scholars are often bemused at the strength of Australia’s attempts to police its boundaries for all sorts of organisms. It was sobering to hear that the policing of human boundaries has reached such surreal levels at home this week that the whole country has been excised from its own migration zone. The parallels with the purity of nature ideals are inescapable. The boundary lines can seem very arbitrary, but they are no less real for that. As geographers have been arguing for some time, categorisations have material consequences.

This is the second in a series of posts from Sweden, where AUSCCER Director Lesley Head is currently Visiting Professor at the Department of Human and Economic Geography, University of Gothenburg.  She is on twitter @ProfLesleyHead

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