They were beautiful. A row of Monterey Cypress trees that lined a path to the ocean. They provided respite from the winds, a home for birds, shade, and oxygen in exchange for our CO2. They were part of the walking trails at Fort Funston in San Francisco and every time we reached them, the dogs would get excited. They would start vocalizing and surging ahead. They knew. Because the trees, or at least I liked to believe the trees, foretold of what was to come: The ocean was within reach. There was sand to kick up, balls to chase, water to frolic in. I don’t know if the trees meant anything to the dogs, but I loved those trees. And they exist no more. Each and every one was cut down, leaving a row of stumps, an ugly scar on the beautiful seascape of one of San Francisco’s open space treasures.
They were not cut down by loggers trying to profit from their timber. They were not cut down to make chairs or tables or copy paper or toilet tissue. They were cut down by so-called “environmentalists.” They were killed by those whose mission was supposed to be their protection. According to the local chapter of the Audubon Society, the trees were not “native” and had to be destroyed.
Invasion Biologists believe that certain plants or animals should be valued more than others if they were at a particular location “first.” When the species that were there “first” are competing for habitat with a species that came later, they assert that the latter should be eradicated. In championing such views, the movement paradoxically has embraced the use of traps, poisons, fire, and hunting, even when these cause harm, suffering, and environmental degradation. And the destruction of a beautiful tree lined path to the sea.
In Fort Funston, it was not long before the dogs were unwelcome. Before the birds declined in number. Before the plants were ripped out and the rabbits disappeared. What was left was row after row of “caution” tape, telling people to keep out. In San Francisco, on the Channel Islands, all across the United States, plants and animals are being trapped, poisoned, hunted, burned, and destroyed by people who claim the mantel of environmentalism; by groups like the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the Sierra Club.
And it is getting worse and increasingly violent, both in rhetoric (fish they don’t value are called “missiles with fins”) and in deeds. When Illinois spent $3,000,000 dumping tons of chemicals into Lake Michigan to kill one fish, and ended up killing hundreds of thousands of others, the Natural Resources Defense Council cheered. Even the science writer for the New York Times has weighed in, suggesting mass killing and the eating of animals that do not pass the arbitrary litmus test of worthiness by environmentalists.
In a losing battle to return North America to a mythical state that existed before European colonization, they are proposing a slaughter with no end. Is this really what environmentalism should be? And is this the best we can aspire to when we examine what our role should be in relation to the other species of plants and animals who inhabit our planet?
To assert that the world must remain as it is today and to act on that assertion by condemning to death those species who threaten that prevailing order, does not reject human interference in the natural world, it reaffirms it. Simply because we are suddenly aware, as never before in our history, that change is occurring and that our presence on Earth has influenced that change, does not mean that suddenly, through that awareness, we can somehow stop it. Nor should we want to.
An authentic environmentalism would not advocate that humans seek out and destroy living things for simply obeying the dictates of the natural world, such as migration and natural selection. It would not condone the killing of those plants and animals who find themselves in parts of the world where, for whatever arbitrary reason—be they economic, commercial, or aesthetic—some humans do not want them to be. An authentic environmentalism would recognize that such determinations are not for us to make, because in seeking to undo what nature inevitably does, we merely exacerbate suffering, killing and the destruction of natural places we claim to oppose, with no hope of ever gaining the ends we seek. It is to declare an unending war on nature and our home.
When we rip out plants, when we spray toxic herbicides and pesticides, when we poison, electrocute and booby-trap natural habitats to kill those species merely acting in accordance with nature, we not only destroy habitats and beautiful natural places, we put all living creatures, including ourselves, in danger as well. And just as disturbing, we open the floodgates of expression to our darker natures, by teaching others disdain and suspicion of the “foreign” and reverence for the familiar and the “native.”
The same forces of nature which created the world we live in today are shaping it even now. They always have, and they always will. Our actions, and our presence, being as much a part of that system as any other living thing that ever was, will shape and mold how that future will look. That, too, is inevitable. Yet there is no compelling reason to assert that any one outcome would be more preferable than any other. Why is the starling less worthy of life and compassion than the spotted owl? Why does the carp swimming gracefully in a Japanese Zen garden inspire peace and serenity, but when swimming with the same grace and beauty in Lake Michigan, such horror, disdain, and scorn? Because some humans among us say it is so? Because they impact narrow aesthetic or commercial interests?
As perhaps the most intelligent and without a doubt the most resourceful species yet to evolve on our planet, humans have a moral obligation to ensure that we use our unique abilities for good, and not harm. We are obligated to consider how our actions impact the other earthlings who share our home. And to determine, with all of our gifts of intellect and compassion, how we can meet our needs in the most generous and considerate means possible. Sadly, as a species, we have yet to comprehensively and collectively determine how we might do this. But that, in truth, is our most solemn duty, and the end every environmentalist should be seeking.
On a tiny planet surrounded by the infinite emptiness of space, in a universe in which life is so exceedingly rare as to render every blade of grass, every insect that crawls, and every animal that walks the Earth an exquisite, wondrous rarity, it is breathtakingly myopic, arrogant, and quite simply inaccurate to label any living thing found anywhere on the planet which gave it life as “alien” or “non-native.” There is simply no such thing as an “invasive” species.
We must turn our attention away from the futile effort to hold or return our environment to some mythic state of perfection that never existed toward the meaningful goal of ensuring that every life that appears on this Earth is welcomed and respected as the glorious, cosmic miracle it actually is.
For further reading: Biological Xenophobia