People, plants and…..racism?

A recent edition of Yale Environment 360 got me thinking about something I’ve written about in the past, and which informed my Ph.D. In an entry entitled Alien species reconsidered: Finding a value in non-natives Carl Zimmer notes that: “one of the tenets of conservation management holds that alien species are ecologically harmful. But a new study is pointing to research that demonstrates that some non-native plants and animals can have beneficial impacts”. He continues by quoting the authors of a new study in the influential journal Conservation Biology who, based on their research, note that “we predict the proportion of non-native species that are viewed as benign or even desirable will slowly increase over time.“More recently Mark Davis and 18 other leading ecologists published a Comment in the journal Nature Don’t judge species on their origins arguing that: “increasingly, the practical value of the native-versus-alien species dichotomy in conservation is declining, and even becoming counterproductive. Yet many conservationists still consider the distinction a core guiding principle.”

One author in both of the studies, Scott Carroll even calls for an approach he calls conciliation biology . He argues that: “a conciliatory approach to managing systems [is] where novel organisms cannot or should not be eradicated. Conciliatory strategies incorporate benefits of nonnatives to address many practical needs including slowing rates of resistance evolution, promoting evolution of indigenous biological control, cultivating replacement services and novel functions, and managing native–nonnative coevolution“. Progressive conservation biologists like the authors of these papers, who call for a more tolerant approach, are a small but growing band. There are others however, who think exactly the opposite. This will become an increasingly vocal debate as the spiraling costs of eradication become higher as climate change really kicks in.

My interest however, is in the popular and conservationist language surrounding non-natives, or aliens. This language has I think, been influenced by the dogmatic thinking critiqued by more progressive conservation biologists. Having been involved in the 1980s in the London Wildlife Trust, where Syccie Bashing (eradication of Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus was encouraged), I began to question the use of brutal language for eradication purposes. I then realized that this language was not simply related to eradication and removal on non-natives or alien species, but to the very presence of such species in places where someone (aka a conservationist) decided they were not meant to be.

Consider the following language: “sometimes they are disliked simply because they are ‘foreign’ and therefore out of place in native plant communities” (Nicholson 1987/8); “they are…alien imports, plainly lacking the cultural credentials of the native broadleaf”…. “like other immigrants these fir trees all look the same to the affronted native eye” (Wright 1992); or, more disturbingly still: “dislike of alien species is indeed similar to racial discrimination-wanting to preserve the culture and genetic integrity of one’s own stock (a natural human failing). Alien species are welcome in strictly defined areas (gardens) but must not be allowed to pollute the native culture (the wider countryside)” (Fenton 1986).

British journalist  Schoon (1992) however, took us to new heights in disseminating such ideas. In the well respected left leaning newspaper Independent on Sunday, heattempted to popularize the native-versus-alien species dichotomy in conservation by appealing to peoples’ xenophobia. His choice of archaic and pejorative phrases is wide ranging and unguarded. One can only assume that his sources (conservationists and ecologists?) fed him their own prejudices, which he then adapted into an aggressive and emotional populism. He talks of “encroaching foreigners”, “running riot”, “ferocious, fast growing foreign plants”, “the villainous and the benign”, “acceptable aliens”, “staggering penetration”, “ruthlessly ousting the natives”, “pink and green Japanese terror” and plants which “brutalise the native flora”. This undisguised xenophobia, including sexual metaphor (“staggering penetration”) is an indication of the depth of feeling (and fear) which the issue raises.

The depth of fear surrounding ‘pollution‘ by ‘the alien’ is clearly being sensationalized by a variety of commentators. However, it is well documented by Doughty (1978) who, like Fenton, (1986) takes the argument to its logical conclusion, by noting the popular comparison in the nineteenth century US, between alien plants or animals and human immigrants. He discusses the feelings of Americans to the immigration of the English house sparrow into the United States in the Nineteenth Century and notes that “sparrows and immigrants had ‘low morals’, reproduced at amazing rates, and appeared to be plotting and conspiring to exploit the United States at the expense of native-born Americans. In contrast, native birds were clean, tidy and hardworking who preferred country living and fulfilled the ‘yeoman myth’” (p28) . He  continues by noting that, according to Berrey’s American Thesaurus of Slang, “Irishmen were also nicknamed sparrows because they were so numerous and prolific” (p28).

How should a just sustainability respond to both the contested scientific debate mentioned in the first part of this blog, and to the anthropomorphic, highly emotive and ultimately offensive language generated by that debate?


Nicholas Schoon, formerly of the Independent on Sunday and quoted above, has since 2007, been editor of the authoritative ENDS Report (strapline environmental intelligence for professionals……..). He has authored a book on biodiversity, Going, Going, Gone: the Story of Britain’s Vanishing Natural History (Bookman, 1998)


Doughty, R, (1978) The English sparrow in the American landscape: a paradox in nineteenth century wildlife conservation. Research Papers 19, School of Geography, Oxford, pp. 1-36.

Fenton, J  (1986) Alien or native?’ ECOS Vol  7 No. 2 p22-30

Nicholson, B (1987/8) Native versus alien. London Wildlife Trust Magazine Winter 1987/88 (unpaginated)

Schoon, N (1992) ‘The barbarians in Britain’s back yards’ Independent On Sunday 17th May 1992.

Wright, P (1992) ‘The disenchanted forest’ The Guardian Weekend7th November 1992.


  1. Gabriel Holbrow on June 1, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    The language about non-native species certainly does start to sound like it’s about something else. University of Chicago anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff use the example of South Africa to investigate the role of fighting alien plants in the formation of a post-colonial nation state.
    Comaroff, J. and J. L. Comoroff. (2001) Naturing the Nation: Aliens, Apocalypse and the Postcolonial State. Journal of South African Studies. 27(3) 627-651. doi:10.1080/13632430120074626

  2. Rob Fetter on July 30, 2011 at 4:46 am

    Excellent post. David Theodoropoulos also provides a powerful critique from the perspective of an ecologist in Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience. (View a recent speech at One of my favorite rejoinders to the “native species” proponents, other than the links to xenophobia and racism, is that the apple is non-native in New England (it is native to western Asia). People usually realize at that point that they don’t really want to extirpate non-native species.

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