Alien species are taking over nature. Rogue rats, predatory jellyfish, suffocating super-weeds, snakehead fish wriggling across the land–all are headed for an ecosystem near you. These biological adventurers are travelling the world in ever greater numbers, hitchhiking in our hand luggage, hidden in cargo holds and stuck to the bottom of ships. Our modern, human-dominated world of globalized trade is giving footloose species many more chances to cruise the planet and set up home in distant lands. Some run riot, massacring local species, trashing their new habitats and spreading diseases.
We all like a simple story with good guys and bad guys, so the threat of invasive species invading fragile environments and causing ecological mayhem instantly gets our attention. For half a century, conservationists have been in the forefront of the battle to hold back the invasive tide. And as an environmental journalist, I have written my share of stories about the mayhem they can cause.
Some of it is true. But do we fear the invaders too much? Do zebra mussels, kudzu, salt cedar and the rest do as much damage as is claimed? And what about the thousands of other visitors who fit in without trouble? Is our fear of invasive species little more than green xenophobia? In my new book The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation(Beacon Press, 2015), I explore these questions.
Most of us don’t treat foreign humans as intrinsically dangerous. Yet the orthodoxy in conservation is to stigmatize foreign species in just that way. Native is good, and foreign is bad. I believe it is time for a rethink—time to consider whether invasive species can sometimes be the good guys, and whether nature’s go-getters are actually rebooting ecosystems corrupted by human activity.
2015 marks the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. This could be the most dynamic year in environmental history. Economic growth and sustainability, once mutually exclusive, have begun a symbiotic relationship. Citizens and experts have set up defenses for their homes and the survival of other species from the encroaching effects of ecological devastation and extinction. New business ventures have transformed renewable energies into a viable market. As challenging and daunting as these issues are, it has become more apparent that we still have a chance of preserving our home. This Earth Day, we at Beacon Press are featuring titles that showcase individuals and organizations taking a stand for our home and encourage readers to take the stand with them.
Environmental journalist Fred Pearce presents a unique twist on a taking the lead on progress. In The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation, he implores environmentalists of the twenty-first century to celebrate the dynamic nature of invasive species and the new ecosystems they create. The case for keeping out invasive species is not only flawed, but also contradictory to the environment’s capacity for change, accelerated now by climate change and widespread ecological disaster.
California’s limited water resources have made headlines at the start of this year. It won’t be long until the rest of the country is affected by threats of shortage. Journalist Cynthia Barnett calls for the simplest and least expensive call to action in Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis. Selected as one of the Boston Globe’s top ten science books of 2011, it outlines a water ethic to reconnect Americans with our rivers, aquifers, and other freshwaters . This blue movement will turn us to “local water” the way the green movement turned us to local foods.
Most people know that the earth is warming, and as the dominant creatures on the planet, humans are at fault. Two out of three people believe climate change is happening, and 89 percent are "somewhat worried" or "very worried." After all, 14 of the 15 warmest years on record in all of history have occurred since 2000. Wildfires in the West burned out of control last summer, and they are expected to be just as serious this summer. The snowpack in California is about 6 percent of normal, and so the state is putting mandatory curbs on water use, for the first time in history. The effects of global warming are not predictions for the future; they are fast becoming the realities of our daily lives.
So why all the silence about climate change? Why isn't this topic filling our conversations, the way a tsunami would, or a major earthquake?
Count me in with the "very worried" group—actually, count me in with those who are feeling filled with fear, steeped in grief. Some of the smartest people I know think we will not be able to act in time, that we will continue to delay until we can't stem the rising waters, the droughts, the refugees, the failed states, the wars fought over precious resources like arable land, food, water. In a recent New Yorker article, novelist Jonathan Franzen writes, "It's important to acknowledge that drastic planetary overheating is a done deal...no head of state has ever made a commitment to leaving any carbon in the ground." When I asked a poet I know about our chances of averting disaster, she sighed and said, "Humans are a very flawed species."
In 2008, as the congregation worked to earn certification as a Green Sanctuary, members zeroed in on what they could do for water. They began with small steps—a water-efficient dishwasher in the church office, for one—and ultimately made real strides. The church invested in drip irrigation and switched out thirsty plants with natives. The congregation tapped a member to chair a local water taskforce. It sent others to testify at state Senate hearings on California’s “Human Right to Water” bill. The church’s green committee brought in speakers to talk about the importance of living with less water in a changing climate. They even got members to pledge to one less flush a day; the 1,000 or so gallons saved daily would add up.
Spread across communities, ethical water choices do add up. In fact, a widespread ethic for water was the single-most important part of the answer for how parched metros such as Perth, Australia; Singapore; and San Antonio, Texas, turned around their water fortunes amid crisis. In Australia’s severe drought of the early 2000s, one of the nation’s best-known scientists, Tim Flannery, pronounced that Perth could become “the twenty-first century’s first ghost metropolis,” its population forced to abandon the city for lack of freshwater. In large part thanks to a new water ethic that has Aussies shunning lawn sprinklers and wineries irrigating grapes with recycled wastewater, just the opposite is true. Perth has become a worldwide model for adapting to its dry home.
Pictured, left to right: Burmese python, Tamarisk, Chinese mitten crab, water hyacinth
Most of us think in stark terms about invasive species: they are evil interlopers spoiling pristine "natural" ecosystems. But what if the traditional view of ecology is wrong—what if true environmentalists should be applauding the invaders? In his latest book, The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature's Salvation, veteran environmental journalist Fred Pearce argues that we should applaud the dynamism of alien species and the novel ecosystems they create. Recently, we talked with him about why he turned his focus to invasive species, what role humans have played in their rise, their benefits, and more. Read on!
Fred Pearce: Invasive species are often said to be the second most important threat to nature, after habitat destruction. And for a long time I accepted that claim. As a journalist, I have written plenty of stories about various “alien threats,” from zebra mussels and kudzu to water hyacinth and snakeheads. But I also like to question environmental assumptions. And when I delved into the world of invasive species, I found that—unlike, for instance, the warnings of climate change—there was little evidence to back up the fears. I saw little evidence that there was anything intrinsically bad about invader species. Their downside is often hopelessly hyped; and their potential benefits, such as increasing local biodiversity, are almost never researched.
Surely China’s President Xi Jinping would not support the commodification of tigers and rhinos if he knew all the facts.
What stands in the way of his enlightenment is the State Forestry Administration (SFA), which is his staff’s go-to ministry on the issue. And the SFA has a conflict of interest. It’s giving its all to enforcing China’s 1980s-vintage Wildlife Protection Law, which literally calls for the “domestication” and “utilization” of a long list of endangered species so China will have strategic reserves of them and their parts and products. But here’s the pivotal thing: Significant factors have changed since that law came into effect in 1986. Most importantly, the mainstream traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) industry does not need or want tiger bone and rhino horn anymore. The industry decided years ago that it wanted to go global, which was not going to happen in a big way if its practitioners continued to consume rare wild species the world adores. It was a solid strategic business decision.
Nitrogen-based fertilizer is one of the cornerstones of the cattle industry as we know it today. When World War II wound down, enterprising industrialists looked for new ways to use the ammonium nitrate that had fed the wartime armaments industry. Fertilizer emerged as the preferred peacetime alternative. This led to cheaper, more abundant grain crops, made even more profitable by generous government farm subsidies. Very quickly, cattle ranchers seized the moment, moving their herds off of pastures and into factory feedlots where corn became their primary fodder.
Crowded and confined, cattle in these concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, fatten up quickly but need hefty doses of antibiotics and other medications to fight off disease. The animals also produce such prodigious amounts of manure that conventional land application methods can’t keep pace. Wastes are pumped into fetid lagoons loaded with nutrients, antibiotic residues, and pesticides—all poorly regulated by state and federal agencies deferential to cattle industry pressures. Runoff into waterways from these open ponds has become one of rural America’s most nettlesome pollution menaces.
News of this new office is less significant when viewed in a fuller context. China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) has for many years talked about its support for saving wild tigers and stopping illegal tiger trade. What SFA officials did not say—and still do not say—is that they were and are investing significantly more effort and money in growing China’s tiger farming industry, upping its capacity to brew tiger-bone wine and seeking international approval for reopening legal trade in luxury products made from farmed tigers. The SFA’s Wan Ziming wrote in a 2009 magazine article that China would be prepared to appeal all the way to the International Court of Justice in The Hague should the UN treaty on international trade in endangered species (CITES) not give its blessing.
With the season’s snowfall now well past the 100-inch mark, no one needs to be reminded of how rough a winter it’s been for Bostonians. Ice dams are everywhere, gutters are straining to the breaking point, and leaks have become the prime topic of water cooler conversation. Yet amidst it all, residential solar power systems have soldiered on.
To be sure, there have been many days when the latest dump of snow has blocked the wintry sun from reaching the 23 solar panels mounted on the roof of our home and adjacent garage. But surprisingly quickly, the snow has slipped off our panels’ slick glass surfaces even as it has clung to the surrounding asphalt shingles. Soon enough our solar panels have resumed their work, generating a healthy flow of electrons.
So far in 2015, the world has seen two rounds of effusive headlines about tigers “roaring back” in the wild—first from India, then from China. Unfortunately, wild tigers are nowhere near “roaring back” anywhere. In fact, their numbers are down by half what they were 20 years ago, while threats to their survival continue to escalate.
Sure, everyone prefers good news. And conservation groups must show donors that some sort of success has been bought with their dollars. But hyperbole can lead to the widespread false impression that wild tigers are much better off than they are.
“India’s tigers come roaring back,” World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced on January 20. “India’s tiger population has significantly increased, according to the 2014-15 India tiger estimation report released today. Recent years have seen a dramatic rise in numbers….” The headline was parroted by news media around the world. But few, if any, that ran the story mentioned the fact that India’s tiger censuses are notoriously unreliable and sometimes dangerously wrong. In fact, just a month after the breaking good news, Indian and Oxford University scientists called India’s census techniques into question. “India’s tiger success story may be based on inaccurate census,” cautioned a headline in the UK’s Guardian. “Reports that India’s tiger population has risen by a third in four years are based on an unreliable count method,” said the subhead.
The United States is one step from bringing trade sanctions against China for its domestic trade in tiger bone and rhino horn.
The fact is the US has been one step away since 1993, thanks to a legal petition filed by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) with the Clinton administration. They did so under the Pelly Amendment of the Fisherman’s Protection Act, which gives the US mandate to punish countries whose nationals undermine international protections for endangered species. Not long after China’s State Council banned domestic trade in tiger bone and rhino horn in 1993, President Clinton put the sanctions on hold, where they remain today.
In July 2014, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) asked the Obama administration to revisit them, providing lengthy documentation to show that China continues to ignore international agreements aimed at stopping tiger trade and allows legal trade in tiger products from tiger farms. The US Department of Interior confirmed it is reviewing EIA’s request.
Now we get to feel what it’s like to live in extreme weather. The16’’ of snow we just received, on top of the 80” we already had—most of which arrived in the past three weeks—has changed the way we live and work. We are experiencing the world we’ve created by our collective failure to address climate change and invest in public transportation. Our offices have been closed 5 of the past 15 workdays.
Meanwhile, we adapt and our work continues. Since our warehouse and printers are located elsewhere, new books ship on time and we are staying in stock with reprints. Our publicity team reaches out to media about new titles, royalties and vendors are paid, new lists of books are launched and promotion continues. We held an editorial meeting via conference call and acquired two books.
Authorities in China seldom respond to the consistent flow of new evidence that Chinese demand for tiger products drives poaching of wild tigers. When they do, it’s important to notice what isn’t said.
The New York Times recently wrote a courageous editorial about China’s “plunder” of Myanmar’s natural resources. “China’s insatiable demand for tiger and leopard parts, bear bile and pangolins has helped to transform the town of Mong La, near the Chinese border, into a seedy center of animal trafficking, prostitution and gambling,” it said. “The people of Myanmar…want this plunder stopped.”
A few days later, China’s official Xinhua News Agency published a retort from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying. “We firmly disagree with the editorial,” Hua was quoted as saying. “We are committed to strengthening cooperation with our neighbors, including Myanmar, to tackle illegal activities, protect natural environment and safeguard the stability of border areas.”
A few years ago, I suggested to a coalition of conservation groups that we use crowdsourcing to engage the world in saving wild tigers and to come up with some fresh, out-of-our-box ideas because business-as-usual was not working.
Two prominent wildlife organizations nixed the idea. “That is not our brand,” one of their people said. “Our brand is that we are the ones who have the solutions.” Never mind that millions of dollars had been spent over decades of effort and wild tigers were still in dangerous decline.
This week, headlines joyfully called out India’s announcement that wild tiger numbers there may be up by as much as 30 percent. That is good news indeed, if the numbers are right. But here is the risk: Many people may take this to mean wild tigers are out of danger, and some organizations married to that we’ve-got-it-covered brand will be playing down the potentially fatal list of caveats.
President Obama delivered a fiery State of the Union earlier this week, immediately making headlines (and exploding the Twittersphere) for a now-famous ad-libbed line about winning both elections. Chatter about the unplanned quip, however, threatened to overshadow the more substantive parts of the President’s speech, in which he promised to tackle inequalities in income, education, and immigration as well as offering concrete measures for slowing climate change, benefiting veterans, closing tax loopholes, and the like. It was also, notably, the first time a President has used the word transgender during a State of the Union address.
For those looking for deeper insight into some of the issues Obama spoke about, we’ve created a State of the Union reading list, and highlighted a few specific titles below:
Two decades ago, international wildlife investigator J. A. Mills went undercover to expose bear farming in China and discovered a plot to turn tigers into nothing more than livestock. Now, a new video for Blood of the Tiger takes viewers deep into the heart of one of these tiger farms.
In 1991, while investigating the industrial farming of bears in China, I visited a fur farm in the country’s remote Northeast corner. I saw mink and other common furbearers along with a handful of tigers who turned out to be the founding breeders in what was the country’s first effort to farm tigers for their bones—for use in medicine.
By 1992, tiger experts declared China’s demand for tiger bone the main driver of tiger poaching, which was skyrocketing throughout the big cat’s Asian range. Then in May 1993, China announced a ban on trade in tiger bone. Conservationists celebrated China’s bold move as the death knell for the demand that was causing wild tiger populations to plummet. They assumed this also meant an end to tiger farming. They were wrong.
January is a time of new beginnings, fresh starts, ambitious goals. At Beacon, we publish some of our most exciting titles in January, books we think will have a long shelf-life. This January, we explore a geopolitical conservation effort, redefine the cause of hate and hate-driven violence, return Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to his radical roots, and expose the hypocrisy of “merit-based” admissions practices. These are books you will be thinking about and discussing for the rest of the year.
In our book The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food, we discuss the de facto moratorium on unconventional oil and gas extraction in New York State and the NYS Department of Health review of the process. On December 17, 2014, the NYS Department of Health announced that the public health review had been completed and the recommendation was made that New York State should not permit high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF). The acting commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said, “I have considered all of the data and find significant questions and risks to public health which as of yet are unanswered. I think it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done. I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.” The commissioner of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Joe Martens, added:
“For the past six years, DEC has examined the significant environmental impacts that could result from high-volume hydraulic fracturing. DEC’s own review identified dozens of potential significant adverse impacts of HVHF. Further, with the exclusion of sensitive natural, cultural and historic resources and the increasing number of towns that have enacted bans and moratoria, the risks substantially outweigh any potential economic benefits of HVHF. Considering the research, public comments, relevant studies, Dr. Zucker’s report and the enormous record DEC has amassed on this issue, I have directed my staff to complete the final SGEIS [Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement]. Once that is complete, I will prohibit high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State at this time.”
With those statements, months of speculation ended. This was a considerable victory for the grassroots environmental movement that grew up in response to this issue and indeed for citizens of New York State.
Protesters at the People’s Climate March, photo by Tom Hallock
Climate change is happening, and faster than scientists expected. Polar ice caps are melting faster, island nations are going underwater, the ocean is acidifying and warming. In the US, we are suffering catastrophic droughts from California to Texas, along with severe flooding in the East. The answer is to stop burning fossil fuels, but the World Meteorological Organization says that, in 2013, CO2 rates in the atmosphere were rising faster than ever. So what can we do? On Sunday, September 21st, hundreds of thousands of people from around the globe converged in Manhattan to show the world exactly how critical the issue of climate change is to them, and to demand action. Beacon’s Senior Editor Alexis Rizzuto and Associate Publisher Tom Hallock were there to bear witness. We recently spoke with them about their experiences at the march and why climate change is fast becoming one of the most important issues of our time.