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op eds

Bio-Politics Are Breeding Intolerance
by Sue Holloway

E Pluribus Unem. The Latin phrase, printed on U.S. one-dollar bills, is prominent in our midst. The words imply that our true wealth is our diversity and the practice of ideals that maintain this. From this diversity may emerge creative responses to challenges in the environment, education, the arts, politics, medicine, jurisprudence.

From the Civil Rights Era, we learned that tolerance and appreciation of differences in race, ethnicity, gender, and religion are central to maintaining social diversity. We continue to add to that list: special needs or conditions, sexual preference, etc.

Yet a troubling momentum in environmentalism may be undermining efforts for social justice by twisting the underlying premise. For social justice and the maintenance of social diversity, tolerance is a key practice. However, intolerance is being promoted in the name of maintaining diversity in ecological terms.

The targets: "alien," or not native, species, and "invasives."

The term alien as a designation for an entire species was coined in an Executive Order by President Clinton in February, 1999. It replaced exotic, the word formerly used in wildlife management to refer to introduced species. While the original term implies positive features, the replacement is intentionally alienating.

Just as our society once termed human immigrants that were not welcome as "aliens," now the term is being applied to non-humans, in the name of wildlife management. And it is normalized by coopting intellectuals who might otherwise question or condemn such a system.

Rachel Carson noted in Silent Spring how this worked, with regard to support for another toxic element of society: the use of intentional poisons on the landscape. Carson explained that, while it seemed odd that university professors would generally support the use of toxins, it was not surprising, where chemical companies were funding and controlling the terms of university-based scientific research projects.

Now the federal government is influencing academics to think of the natural world in terms of "aliens," by offering millions of dollars in grants to identify aliens, determine degrees of invasiveness, and develop control strategies.

In the past few hundred years, thousands of species have been introduced to this continent. Most were intentional, for the sake of diversity, beauty, and utility. But under a blanket designation of "alien," any introduced species becomes suspect and may become a scapegoat in someone’s favored project.

Under such a policy, the psychological, mythic, or spiritual value of a species, or an individual within a species, is denied. Yet we are meaning-making creatures, with the biological only one aspect of our existence. Will we forget the appreciation of beauty as a value in itself? Many of the main targets are very beautiful, including a rose, multiflora, declared "alien."

Attach the word "invasive" to "alien," and campaigns ensue.

Not just theoretical, but actual, local campaigns, targeted at conservation-related landscapes. For example, this spring, at a conservation site along the Connecticut shoreline, volunteers participated in an unprecedented activity of uprooting numerous clumps of barberry shrub and a wild honeysuckle. It was done for the sake of removing "invasives." Next will be the roses.

Some of those citizens were not offended by or concerned about the presence of such plants. Why did they participate? Once a species is dubbed "invasive," it is somehow assumed it is our patriotic duty to hate it and eradicate it.

In an interview, one participant referred to trusting "the intention of the people leading" the activity. This person felt the land couldn’t be "balanced" any more by natural processes, and therefore people "needed to do something." The violent removals were perceived as a way to preserve the land. Upon reflection, she reported feeling somewhat ashamed, realizing that violence – under whatever guise – remains just that: violence.

In essence, the system of naming "aliens" is promoting a form of prejudicial thinking. To stereotype, one assumes a blind spot, perceiving blanket negative traits for an entire group. This is true, whether the group is human or non-human. It is the same process.

In stereotyping human groups, for example, there is no regard for context or differences in individuals within the group. The individual, in fact, is not seen; but rather, assumed to have ascribed traits of the group, narrowly defined.

Similarly, as enacted for biological purposes, there is disregard for context and individual differences. Volunteers go into a nature preserve and demolish beautiful plants. It becomes a crusade. I inquired of a scientist, why remove "x" species if there is no current scientific evidence that the plants are actually a problem in that particular place? The person responded, "Oh, but they will be."

There are flaws in the biological logic and also in the psychology of seeing the natural world as filled with aliens. It is the opposite perspective as what Rachel Carson, in The Sense of Wonder, encouraged people to cultivate: a sense of awe and wonder for life.

There will be no such sense, if people are scouting suspiciously for "aliens"; if people are focused on despising and destroying certain species, under the illusion of doing good, of protecting life. We need to avoid being duped into a system that encourages bias, prejudice, stereotyping, and violence – whether it is a plant, creature, or human animal.

I believe an orientation of respect and wonder is integral to maintaining our humanity. While there are, indeed, certain species, which have caused considerable harm, such as the gypsy moth and the wooly adelgid and the oft-cited zebra mussel, it is wrong to imply that this typifies the thousands of introduced species. It is the exception, not the rule.

There is an alternative approach, promoted by an esteemed group of Nobel laureates who promoted the United Nations’ naming of the Year 2000 as the Year of the Culture of Peace. The UN defines peace as non-violence. And the number one objective is non-violence with the earth. We cannot pretend to cultivate peace with our human neighbors and make war on our plant and animal neighbors. Cultivating peace means with all aspects of our lives, all aspects of life.

Note: This is a revised edition of an op ed which originally appeared in THE DAY, a daily newspaper in New London, CT. (Sunday, July 30, 2000.) The part that is original content is reprinted with permission by THE DAY.

Sue Holloway, Ph.D., is an environmental journalist for several Connecticut shoreline newspapers.

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