Earth Matters: Beware of language that demonizes some species

Earth Matters: Beware of language that demonizes some species

By Lynn Capuano

I’m a big proponent of the belief that language matters. English is a rich language with a multitude of ways to describe objects, activities, living things, emotions and relationships. But it’s not without limitations as we all have likely experienced at one time or another. Sometimes it is in an effort to describe a remarkable site or experience that we confront the inability to find the right word. Sometimes it is when asked to define ourselves that English fails us.

Over the last 20 months I have been involved in a project to preserve the biodiversity of an undeveloped plot of land. Through this work I have had to face the limits of language as a consequence of 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 the government at every level. They are used to focus attention on plants, insects or animal life that typically come from places other than the United States. These species are viewed as presenting a threat to the plants, insects or animal life present for some period prior to introduction of this new species. The threat often comes in the form of newcomers killing other species by outcompeting with them for food and by growing faster and depriving other species of things like space, water and sun. These species also succeed because they are new, so predators are not accustomed to eating them. This gives them time to get established and to spread before a predator adapts to treating them as a food source.

The result is a loss of or change in the biodiversity in an area where the new species has been introduced. As a rule, loss of biodiversity is not a positive consequence and is something we work to prevent. Hence, you read about extensive efforts to eradicate and control these “invasive” and “non-native” species.

I don’t take issue with the accepted position that allowing certain species to run rampant is problematic, destructive and disruptive, or with the belief that we should act to address the impact of the presence of these species has. I am, however, uncomfortable and dissatisfied with our choice of language for describing these species.

The plants, insects and animals did not invade this country. They were brought here through no exercise of free will, but as unintended passengers in a cargo ship’s ballast water, on the bottom of a traveler’s shoes or in a box headed for your neighbor’s door. Referring to them as invasive conjures up notions of being attacked and echoes our unfortunate national proclivity to alienate the “other” when we are looking for a group to blame. Whether it was the Japanese in World War II or any number of other racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural groups throughout our history and as recently as yesterday that we have described as alien, invaders or non-native, this is a well-worn practice used by politicians, extremists and others seeking a following.

Those of us who cannot claim Native American heritage ought to be more sensitive to the hypocrisy of referring to anything as non-native. We certainly weren’t the first people on this land and should be the last to make any claim about wanting to keep things as they were.

In the context of ecology, we need to reframe the issue and change the language we use to correctly explain and describe what we are talking about. A growing number of people are talking about this need and trying to identify more appropriate and less burdened language to use. For the time being, I choose to focus on preservation of biodiversity. I emphasize the importance of plant management for the benefit of preserving a wide range of plant species and to serve the breadth of life fed and housed by that plant life.

Some species are too destructive not to think about in terms of eradication. But many others do not fall into that category and, in fact, offer us opportunities to break down cultural, racial and ethnic barriers by learning about how they are used in other places. We may not want them to dominate an area, but we should think and speak in terms of management 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.

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