Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Urban Ecosystems and Conservation Biology

Austin is a strange place. We are known as a liberal island in Texas welcoming all the weird and the left wing and the artists. But now we have made it clear that some are not welcomed in our city. Non-native invasive species are not welcomed - presumably excluding Willie and most of the musicians in town. We have a city council approved policy and now a Austin Invasive Species Coalition http://www.austininvasives.org/ with a list of offenders which are all plants. Rats, English sparrows, and a long list of insects have not made it into onto the Coalition's hit list, yet.

I am disturbed by this zealous effort at many levels, but I am thinking about science and the sociology of science this evening. As the Coalition thinks about urban ecosystems, it frames its conversation around the beliefs of conservation biologists. The loss of native habitats around the world is a depressing fact, and the struggle to protect existing native ecosystems is one that I have supported. However, to import the ideals of conservation biology into urban ecosystems seems both profoundly misguided and expensively impractical. The time and money spent on eliminating china berry (Melia azedarach) or Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) from the urban landscape will be excessive and perpetual. And for those of us who appreciate the character of these hardy species, it is offensive to see them targeted for removal without clear evidence that they are locally a problem or that native replacements for these species will readily grow in the city. Is the Homeland really at threat?

As I have argued elsewhere, much of this zealotry is based on unexamined beliefs about nature, ideas imported into the city and embodied in preserves and parks. But cities are odd garden ecosystems, or "hybrid ecosystems" as the trendy and largely unhelpful language has it. Conservation biology was not created to study gardens or cities. As we study urban ecology as its own hybrid system, we come to value the ecosystem services and aesthetic pleasure that non-native species add to a city, even Austin, Texas.

But, alas, they must all go under the knife, saw, and spray of a "citizen scientist" enlisted into the cause to defend Texas against invaders. Yes, the social history of such social movements is also unexamined, and I risk my welcome by questioning the Coalition. But what would Willie do? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7A7pevbD_A 

1 comment:

owlpost said...

Hey Kevin,

Thank you for so clearly articulating these concerns. Urban environment restoration does seem to be bit of an oxymoron