American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species: Strangers on the Land

American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species: Strangers on the Land

American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species: Strangers on the Land

American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species: Strangers on the Land

Synopsis

Sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose, humans have transported plants and animals to new habitats around the world. Arriving in ever-increasing numbers to American soil, recent invaders have competed with, preyed on, hybridized with, and carried diseases to native species, transforming our ecosystems and creating anxiety among environmentalists and the general public. But is American anxiety over this crisis of ecological identity a recent phenomenon? Charting shifting attitudes to alien species since the 1850s, Peter Coates brings to light the rich cultural and historical aspects of this story by situating the history of immigrant flora and fauna within the wider context of human immigration. Through an illuminating series of particular invasions, including the English sparrow and the eucalyptus tree, what he finds is that we have always perceived plants and animals in relation to ourselves and the polities to which we belong. Setting the saga of human relations with the environment in the broad context of scientific, social, and cultural history, this thought-provoking book demonstrates how profoundly notions of nationality and debates over race and immigration have shaped American understandings of the natural world.

Excerpt

“The United States is having a problem with aliens,” announced the National Safety Council’s Environmental Health Center as the twentieth century drew to a close. “Not illegal immigrants or space invaders,” elaborated the Center—a division of a parent organization more commonly associated with efforts to enforce seat belt laws, combat drunk driving, and promote the careful use of fire extinguishers—“but plants and animals that reach the shores and stay.” a California journalist had adopted the same approach the previous year, opening his article about immigrants with the remark that “the strangers come from far and wide.” “Then they make themselves so much at home, helping themselves to food and water while producing offspring,” he went on to explain, with the result that “the original occupants are forced to move.” Then, once more, comes the unexpected twist: “These strangers are plants, not people.”

A host of similar pronouncements that play on words and subvert familiar notions indicate that discussions of undesirable immigrants in the United States are now just as likely to include flora and fauna as they are to involve the more conventional human variety. Organisms from elsewhere cause concern because they can be invasive species—which President Clinton’s executive order of 1999 on the subject defined as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Invasive aliens have affected individual native species through competition, predation, hybridization, and disease. Arriving in ever-increasing numbers, they may also initiate fundamental transformations in ecosystems, changing them almost beyond recognition. Thirty years ago, a biologist claimed that an international medley of overseas species had left Florida “biologically traumatized.” Thanks to this . . .

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