In general, species adapt to ecosystems in which they have greater chances of prospering, and abandon areas that are not conductive to survival and reproduction. Arctic species, for example, have specialized for harshly cold conditions and thereby made it very hard for themselves to live in desert or even temperate biomes. These are common trade-offs that occur with natural selection, and somewhat to be expected. But there are species in certain areas of the world that are not indigenous and still survive in those ecosystems. In many cases, these species have advantages over native ones and flourish. Termed “invasive species,” these organisms often replace autochthonous populations to the point of extermination (one could argue that humans are the ultimate invasive species), causing irrevocable damage to the original habitats.
John Dryzek defines the Promethean discourse in his book “The Politics of the Earth.” The metaphorical name comes from the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods; fire represents technology and the potential it gives for humans’ improvement. Prometheans are those who approve of a free market that unleashes human ingenuity on the world’s “unlimited” resources, propose liberalization, decentralization, and growth to improve human livelihood around the planet. Every one of these prescriptions, however helpful to humans, is practically a different form of poison for ecosystems in that they tend to greatly increase the numbers of invasive species around the world, contributing to rampant biodiversity loss and environmental degradation.
On the topic of invasive species, I consider myself a Survivalist, or one who believes that external limits imposed by a centralized state, such as taxes or other regulatory mechanisms, are key to resource management and environmental conservation (also from Dryzek), because I think that the Prometheans’ approach not only—whether directly or indirectly—encourages the creation of invasive species but also cannot present solutions to the situation, which they may not even see as a problem.
Many people consider the Survivalist discourse so much doom-and-gloom, remembering the “dismal parson” Thomas Malthus and his unfulfilled expectation that human population would soon overrun resource capacity. But invasive species’ effects on ecosystems are not theoretical expectations—they are fact. Burkhard Bilger noted in the New Yorker in 2009 that, “Every year, we spend well over a hundred billion dollars combating them [invasive species]—about a quarter of our gross national agricultural product is lost to foreign pests and weeds-and tens of billions importing and selling exotic plants and pets. Florida alone averages one new agricultural pest a month.” Many of these species are introduced accidentally, but quite a few, such as exotic animals (parakeets, monitor lizards, Burmese pythons, etc.) are imported.
Exotic-wildlife traders are entrepreneurs, like the men who introduced beavers to Patagonia in the hope of establishing fur production but left the animals to wreak havoc on the untouched forests of southern Chile and Argentina. Entrepreneurs of the free market, Prometheans, are bringing fire from foreign countries and setting it loose into the United States to burn out of control; the “fire of the gods” may be benefitting traders and smugglers, but it is causing serious harm to local ecosystems. Burmese pythons will eat practically any animal they can catch, and at 13-feet long that has even meant 6-foot alligators.
In Patagonia, the Chilean and Argentine governments have tried to incentivize the removal of invasive beavers (which because of their North American origins have no natural predators, hence their rampant expansion) by paying for beaver-tails. In a sense, this is an example of Survivalists using a Promethean tactic (market forces) to solve an ecological problem, but, as Dryzek points out, “Prometheans see little need for government to do much in the way of environmental and natural resources policy.” The problem is that without government intervention, nothing will be done about the beaver problem: forests will be felled, rivers dammed, and radical ecological change will take place. Based on Dryzek’s analysis of the Promethean discourse, it would seem that Prometheans may not see these changes as a problem: after all many of them believe that resources are unlimited, that “Nature is, indeed, just brute matter.”
Absolute regulation of invasive species is not possible. We cannot search every inch of soil that enters a country for microorganisms, dormant insect eggs, or plant seeds. But controls must be imposed, and more severe ones than currently in place. The intensely focused damage (biodiversity loss) that a male and female zebra mussel, emerald ash borer beetle, Asian carp, or fire ant can have on a vulnerable ecosystem is much greater than the thinned-out costs of higher taxes or more stringent customs inspections.
Maybe Survivalists do have a tendency to be pessimistic. Maybe we exaggerate the direness of the situation, and could benefit from a more encouraging opinion of technological power and potential. But I believe that our negativity only arises from the situation itself: we are a cancer, or a virus, “upon the body of the earth.” The Promethean’s rhetoric on infinite resources may make sense in a theoretical sense, but until economic growth is truly great enough to allow us to see matter as “infinitely transformable,” the resources we know now, the forests and fuels and ferrous deposits, are to be conserved; creation of invasive species is to be regulated by any means necessary (e.g., increased penalties and scrutiny); and current ecosystems are to be thereby protected as much as humanly possible.