“Here, at the border between Tennessee and Kentucky,” begins a recently released video from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “the combined forces of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife, and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency are waging an uphill, downstream battle against an invading army.” With a brass-heavy military march blaring in the background, the video spotlights the human representatives of each of these wildlife bureaucracies, our heroes, before we glimpse their contemptible foe. The music halts dramatically as Asian carp leap in the hundreds out of the dark waters of the Cumberland River.
You may have seen videos of this spectacular habit of the Asian carp, who habitually launch themselves into the air at the sound of a passing vessel. Actually a set of four related species, Asian carp have become something of a poster child for the environmental “alien invasion.” Within the typology of invasive species, Asian carp are “alien” in that they are recent arrivals, and “invasive” because they have a detrimental effect on their new habitat, measured in terms of biodiversity loss or economic impact.
Even readers unfamiliar with the Asian carp have almost certainly encountered the notion of an invasive species in other contexts: be it images of landscapes in the American South blanketed with homogenous layers of kudzu vine, Australian ponds inundated with cane toads, or billboards extolling residents of New York and Philadelphia to “squash” the invasive spotted lantern fly on sight.
These invasions—when a species from elsewhere arrives, multiplies, and interacts with local environments—have become matters of immense concern. This is not entirely unreasonable, given invasive species’ diverse and prodigious rap sheets; many stand accused of running roughshod over fragile native species, reducing local and global biodiversity, and incurring commercial damages in the billions of dollars.
As a result of these manifold consequences, the enemies of invasive species make for strange coalitions: earth-conscious hippies and agricultural industrialists, liberal conservationists and conservative policymakers, urban cosmopolitans and backwoods anglers. During debate on the 2019 Wildlife Innovation and Longevity Driver (WILD) Act, Wyoming Republican Senator and former Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works John Barrasso declared that “few issues are more bipartisan than the need to protect our communities from invasive species.”
The animosity that invasive species elicit is noteworthy not just in the diversity of sources from which it issues, but also in its fevered intensity. Journalists describe these species with ominous diction: they are voracious, insatiable, unstoppable, incessantly breeding. The History Channel’s list of “7 Invasive Species That Have Wreaked Havoc in the US” [emphasis mine] catalogues each species’ “evil superpower”—including, in the case of the Asian carp, “out-compet[ing] native fish for food and habitat.”
Like the Fish & Wildlife video, there is an obvious subtext of fear and threat in these reports, often couched in militaristic language. The Washington Post warns that “Florida is full of invasive species,” then adds a phrase more appropriate for a pulp-horror tagline than environmental management: “They’re coming for the rest of us.” Even rather level-headed publications like Scientific American have put out martial headlines that verge on absurdity: “Invasion USA: Asian Carp Invaders Have Taken the Mississippi, Are the Great Lakes Next?”
On the back of this rhetoric, conservation organizations and government agencies have generated healthy investments in invasive species management programs. The National Invasive Species Council estimates that the U.S. federal government currently allocates around $3 billion annually to control these wayward flora and fauna. It’s safe to surmise that, combined with state, municipal, and non-governmental efforts, the cumulative funds directed toward managing invasive species far exceed this figure.
The expenditures have financed the work of erecting barriers, building dams, launching public education efforts, and deploying eradication campaigns. The latter form of eliminationist wildlife management has reached surprising extremes. In the Galapagos, conservationists have shot and killed roughly 80,000 goats from military helicopters; the USDA killed over 100,000 feral swine and nearly 800,000 European starlings in 2020 alone.
These forms of environmental management demonize specific species-on-the-move—and by doing so occlude our ability to identify, let alone challenge, the structural forces that actually precipitate their movement. In short, the invasive species paradigm transforms the traumatic effects of capitalism on the web of life into the regrettable consequences of a single species’ rogue departure from its supposed place of origin.
Let’s return to murky waters of the Cumberland River and trace the Asian carp’s journey to its current habitats in major waterways. Though it’s seldom mentioned, these fish did not arrive in the Mississippi of their own accord. Commercial fish farms intentionally imported carp from East Asia to the American South in the 1970s, hoping they might dine on algae, weeds, and parasites and thereby cut maintenance costs in sequestered ponds, fish farms, and reservoirs. Accounts of the Asian carp’s subsequent departure from these manufactured ponds often use active verbs like “escaped”—but it was flooding, not piscine deviousness, that took them to the river by connecting commercial fish farms to natural watersheds. The Asian carp’s liberation was more of a passive transplantation than a prison break.
Such floods, notably, are increasing in severity and frequency, thanks to the climatic effects of global fossil capitalism. Rising water temperatures, also owing to fossil fuel consumption, have made these streams and rivers all the more hospitable for the Asian carp. In light of all this, one could more accurately characterize the booming of the Asian carp population in North America as a consequence of a commercialized food system that operates principally by the incentives of profit, or as an offshoot of our dependence on greenhouse gas-emitting modes of energy production, moreso than a calamity owing to any inherent qualities (much less evil superpowers) of the fish itself.
In just about every case, a broader systemic evaluation reveals the conspicuous absence of certain influential actors and forces—of fishery executives, of fossil capitalism—in the dominant accounts of a given species “invasion.” For instance, demonizing narratives of the cane toad’s recent population explosion in Australia (like this one published in Nature about frog-on-frog cannibalism among the “noxious pests”) malign the toad itself as a “species notorious for devouring anything it can fit in its mouth.”
Yet we hear little about the sugar industry-funded research institute that imported the toads in 1935. Sugar planters shipped in the cane toad hoping it might eat the (native) grey-backed cane beetle, which threatened the profitability of their plantations. On that same continent, conservationists now consider invasive feral cats to be a major threat to native small mammal species. The cats’ numbers spiked, though, only after settlers purged the landscape of predators, like dingoes, that might have kept the cat population in check. Settlers systemically killed dingoes to protect their cattle—in the process of transforming huge swaths of Australian ecosystem into privately held ranches.
Paul Robbins, a political ecologist, has pointed out that most so-called invasions take place in ecosystems that have already been disrupted, their defenses enfeebled by human actions in service to the profit motive. We should not imagine feral cats entering and then upending an untouched nature—in truth, they arrived in medias res and occupied niches in a damaged landscape, its resilience compromised by human engineering of the land to produce cheap meat for profit. Robbins argues that we can better understand landscapes like Australia’s by identifying invasive “sociobiological networks,” like the European settlers’ ranches, rather than implicating singular species who are caught up in these systemic forces.
The tendency to swap a careful accounting of structural dynamics for a simplistic indictment (or sanctification) of an individual is of course a common ideological feature of capitalist thinking, liberal and conservative alike. From the praise offered to billionaires to the ire directed at petty thieves and the unhoused, the tendency is to discount the relevance of variables like the facts of intergenerational wealth and economic immiseration and to elide the complex structural patterns that reproduce those inequalities.
In the figure of the billionaire, the ideology of capital finds a self-made man to laud; in the thief, it sees a reprehensible and degenerate criminal. In fact, there’s a strong analogy between the archetypes of the criminal and the invasive species—their rhetorical function is to shift our attention from system to individual, from proposed solutions based in structural mitigation to ones that demand punishment. The right speaks of “criminals” to transmute poverty from the natural consequence of their own policies into the personal failing of individuals, who can then be policed and incarcerated.
Similarly, our dominant environmental discourse speaks of “invasives” to reduce the environmental disorders precipitated by capitalism down to the consequences of a few wayward plants and animals, which we can then exterminate. Remarkably, this analogy is almost literalized in the sizeable archive of invasive species “wanted signs” that government agencies and conservation organizations have produced over the last few decades:
The left should not cede this ground. We must stop ourselves from repeating villainizing narratives about invasive species without a second thought—especially because doing so comes at the cost of clearly implicating capitalism as the root cause of these and other environmental crises.
Not only does the invasive species paradigm tend to exculpate capitalism, it also fails us as a form of environmental management—in terms of both its dubious scientific bona fides and in its inconsistent, contradictory application. The invasion model presupposes, erroneously, that a high degree of nativeness among species is a sufficient condition for an ecosystem’s well-being; on the converse, it also assumes that the presence of non-natives will necessarily catalyze environmental degradation. This implication directly contradicts much of the scientific literature.
Eighteen scientists and academics from a range of institutions, for instance, recently published an opinion piece in Nature arguing that we should not “judge species on their origins.” The article, drawing on several other studies, posits that species arrivals typically increase local biodiversity, directly contradicting the notion that the introduction of new species necessarily destroys delicate existing relationships and homogenizes ecosystems.
In addition, these scientists point out, native species can be remarkably destructive in their own right, evidencing “invasive behavior” even within their own territory. “The insect currently suspected to be killing more trees than any other in North America,” they note, “is the native mountain pine beetle (dendroctonus ponderosae).” Most tend not to bemoan these “native invasives” but see their behavior merely as nature at work, like the Australian backyard gardeners who grow the native Victorian box plant (pittosporum undulatum) against the advice of environmental professionals.
Further complicating matters, we do not uniformly lament the presence of non-natives, even tremendously harmful ones, as evidenced by the millions of cattle occupying the American prairie within commercial ranches, dairies, and factory farms. Though non-native and environmentally destructive (to local species and to the global climate alike), these cattle are contained within those commercial spaces, and are, of course, immensely profitable. Accordingly, they are spared the stigma of “invasiveness.”
Given these scientific failings and glaring inconsistencies, our tendency to view species-on-the-move with suspicion speaks to an unfortunate prevailing cultural notion. Invasive species are easy villains, and reducing their activities to a discrete natural process tracks with the broader Western logic of enclosure and extraction. In the rational capitalist order, an implicit assertion obtains: that all things—people, plants, animals—have neat, bounded homelands to which they belong and should not be permitted to leave.
Though there is of course some scientific truth to the idea that a given animal may function best alongside species with which it has co-evolved, the picture is not so simple as popular understandings of nativeness tend to assume. Animals are not consigned to clear geographic boundaries: think of the bar-tailed godwit, the monarch butterfly, or the calliope hummingbird, among many others, all of which travel thousands of miles across migratory, intercontinental homelands.
The depth of geological time poses other problems. No ecological “homeland” remains the same across the epochs (nor, of course, do species themselves). To put it a bit cheekily: a Canadian restoration ecologist might have equal justification to advocate on behalf of the native grizzly bear, seek to repopulate the region with mastodons and Yukon horses, or consider both aberrations from the region’s true form: a landscape buried under two miles of glacial ice. Nature is too variant, too dynamic, to draw simple lines on a map and assume a given species can or should be confined there into perpetuity.
In short, the paradigm of the native and invasive species owes much of its popularity and persistence to its logical overlaps with the principal social fictions of capitalism: nation and race chief among them. Both segment organisms into putative cultural and biological categories with incontestable origin points. The overlap between the native species and the ideologies of racism and nationalism were clear enough at the beginning of invasion biology.
Scholars Matthew Chew and Andrew Hamilton, working in the history of science, have traced the prehistory of invasion biology, finding that the botanists who first arrayed “native” and “alien” in a single taxonomy appropriated these terms directly from English citizenship law. Scientific American’s strangely jingoistic coverage of the Asian carp’s migration makes a great deal more sense when we remember the concepts of native and alien themselves have their origins in geopolitics.
In the present day, points out Banu Subramaniam, a feminist science studies scholar, we can hear clear echoes between the discourses of native-species stewards and nativist xenophobes. From common terminology (“exotic,” “resident,” “naturalized”) to various shared tropes, like the idea that exotic new arrivals (be it plant or person) bear too many offspring, Subramaniam writes that, “for anyone who is an immigrant,” the rhetorical symmetries are “unmistakable.”
We see this relationship at its most obvious in various instances where right-wing campaigns for racial purity or exclusive citizenship converged with efforts to purge the landscape of invasive flora and fauna. In the U.S., the 1920s saw the federal government’s first attempts to manage the importation of alien species—contemporaneous with a ballooning of restrictive immigration laws and quotas intended to limit the number of Asian and Eastern European people arriving on American shores. The Nazis infamously sought to purify both “blood and soil.” Lebensraum, or land annexation, was of course the central aim of the latter. But their efforts also took on more of a naturalist than a nationalist fervor with the campaign to eliminate the impatiens parviflora, an unassuming flower they deemed a “Mongolian invader.” “As with the fight against Bolshevism,” remarked one Nazi Party-affiliated botanist, “so with the fight against this Mongolian invader, an essential element of this culture, namely, the beauty of our home forest, is as at stake.”
The point here is not that the paradigm of invasive species is outright fascist, but rather that the trope of the villainous invasive species comprises a set of coherent logics and symbols that parallels the structure of, and shares terminology with, ideologies of nationalism and racism, which find their most extreme incarnation in fascism.
A further problem with the invasive species paradigm is that, by attaching the threatening stigma of “invader” to a species-on-the-move, we foreclose the possibility that we might someday establish more than a thoughtlessly antagonistic relationship to these plants and animals. In her book Fresh Banana Leaves, Indigenous scholar and scientist Jessica Hernandez notes that the banana, though introduced to Latin America via plantations in the 16th century, became an integral part of ancestral foodways in common meals like tamales.
She mentions too that her father, forced to fight as a child soldier in El Salvador’s civil war, credited the trees with providing him food and protection from bombs. Criticizing a paradigm that would render bananas “foreign,” she argues that “Like me and many Indigenous peoples in the diaspora, banana trees have also been displaced… forced to adapt to our new environments and form new kinships with our new land.”
Nicholas Reo, a professor of Native American and Environmental Studies and a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe, has written similarly of Anishinaabe approaches to invasive species. Alongside anthropologist Laura Ogden, Reo’s found that “instead of problematizing ‘invasive species,’ Anishinaabe teachings portray the arrival of new plants or animals as natural processes resulting from migrations by other-than-human nations,” adding that it is humanity’s responsibility to discern the usefulness of the species. In the case of an invasive cattail species in Anishinaabe territory, this meant exploring the plant’s potential as a heating source and experimenting in test kitchens with the hope of turning the plant into a food source.
Much like Paul Robbins, the political ecologist, the Anishinaabe people that Reo and Ogden interviewed tended to see any harm related to species movement as a consequence of “the imposition of Euro-American property ownership regimes, ‘command and control’ forms of environmental management, and a worldview predicated on the separation of people from nature.” As Indigenous writer Nick Estes has pointed out, such an ethic is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism.
While the kin-based approach to non-humans calls us to something quite grand—something which might only be able to flourish with the end of the regime of profit—it also, in the here and now, opens new possibilities for relating to non-native species. Recently, some Australian conservationists and Aboriginal land stewards have intentionally introduced young cane toads, in small numbers, to ecosystems just past the species’ current range. Though toxic at full size, as adolescents, the toads will sicken a predator without killing it, giving it an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson before the larger toad population makes a full entry into the habitat.
Rather than purging the cane toad, this project hopes to find a way to instruct their neighbors on the oddities of a new community member. Put less playfully, the goal is to build an ecological niche for the cane toad that is livable for others—that redistributes duties and responsibilities in a way that maximizes collective well-being in the context of our battered planet.
In pointing to Native scholars who ask us to reconsider our relationship to so-called invasives, I do not wish to handwave the reality that these species can indeed infringe on existing sacred relationships between Native people and the plants and animals that have historically shared their homelands. Indeed, I do not contest that many recent arrivals, species that have been moved to and fro in the belly of ships or the cargo of trains, do harm the ecosystems into which we have loosed them. In some cases, I’ll admit, good environmental relations may require targeted killing.
However, we must remember that the seductive promise of restoration that eradication campaigns appear to offer is ultimately a false one. Though such programs may succeed in terms of body counts, they do not fundamentally alter the environmental conditions that produce and exacerbate so-called invasions. Indeed, they misdiagnose and obscure those conditions.
The invasive species is one concept among many inculcated by capitalist ideology, sublimating our intertwined social and ecological crises, transforming them into problems amenable to various kinds of security regimes. From border walls to fish dams, from militarized police departments to invasive species eradication campaigns, the capitalist state can only do so much to tamp down the mounting symptoms of an economic order at war with the planet’s ecology, and therefore its own survival. Consigned to leaving the roots untouched—that is, to ensure the reproduction of capitalism at all costs—the masters of humankind are vigorously pruning the branches that support their own weight.
We on the left should offer them no help in this. Certainly, we should not villainize species-on-the-move; they, like us, are merely beings caught up in the vortex of capital. The far horizon of socialist environmentalism should not conjure sophisticated systems for keeping species in place or purging those who move. Instead, we must build a sustainable society with a healthy embeddedness in the life cycles of our planet—a society that nurtures ecosystems so that they are robust enough to rebuff or to integrate new animal and plant arrivals. We must pull up the roots of this blighted world-organism we call capitalism and marvel at what grows in its place. ♦
John Favini is an environmental anthropologist with a PhD from the University of Virginia. His writing examines how culture and ideology shape scientific knowledge.
Cover image: “Old Railroad Bridge with Kudzu,” by Vicky Somma. Licsened under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.