The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation

Fred Pearce
- Reviewed by
Marilyn Freeman

Prepare to have your head turned inside out. Dump the idea that pristine nature is the only true wild and that nature invaded by alien species is something lesser that needs to be fixed. Instead, embrace the idea, especially in the age of the Anthropocene, that nature is and always has been in a constant state of flux and doesn’t care at all where a particular species comes from, especially if it’s doing a useful job.

British science journalist Fred Pearce has been writing on the environment, water and climate change for over 20 years. The New Wild is a very readable, approachable and thought provoking book. Setting out to upend the conservation worldview, he writes “when invaded by foreign species, ecosystems do not collapse. Often they prosper better than before. The success of aliens becomes a sign of nature’s dynamism, not its enfeeblement.” Abandoned farmlands, secondary forests, recolonized waste places, urban sprawl, and other novel ecosystems across the globe offer explicit examples of species from all backgrounds coming together to create functional habitats. This is the new wild.

His support for the new wild is “not a call to let it rip.” Instead, “conservation in the twenty-first century requires an open-minded assessment of what might work – not a sullen retreat into blinkered orthodoxy.” So, rather than try to stop the flux of nature (an act that is decidedly “anti-nature”), let’s see where it goes. Nature never goes backwards.

Of the most interesting aspects of this book are the many examples of how this is working around the world. Close to home is the example of the introduction of Zebra mussels from a ship from the Caspian Sea into Lake St. Clair. Shortly after, they populated Lake Erie. During the 90s there were enough mussels to process the lake’s entire volume in just one week! They didn’t mind Lake Erie’s pollution and turned out to be the best janitors. They became food for small mouth bass and the previously endangered lake sturgeon. We all know of the problems caused by mussel accretion like blocking water intake pipes and the fouling of their excreta but with the dramatic improvement in water clarity, light has penetrated to the point that aquatic plants have revived and become nurseries for yellow perch.

Another example is the remarkable wildlife revival on derelict land. Brownfield sites are as important for biodiversity as ancient woodlands. Nature is taking over old chemical factories, railway sidings, metal mines and oil refineries. Rare native species and novel exotics are being found in these bizarre human-made habitats. One defunct oil terminal at Canvey Island, UK, has more species per acre than any British nature reserve. These industrial hotspots of biodiversity are not recognized by conservationists. No field guide mentions them. The call is for these places to be developed in order to keep the bulldozers out of greenfields – greenfields that are often biologically sterile.

“Alien species encourage myth-making. We love a villain, but the vilification of aliens makes for counterproductive conservation.” It even leads to weird politics. After 9/11, Bush moved staff responsible for invasive species from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to the Department of Homeland Security.

“In the Anthropocene era, fortress conservation is a doomed enterprise. Humans are an inescapable part of the landscape. There are no pristine ecosystems and no blueprints for what they might be. Any vision of the pristine past that we choose will require constant tending. The old wild is dead. But the new wild is flourishing, and it will do better if we allow it to have its head.”

Pearce presents a controversial view. It’s very well documented. It even offers a vision of hope. One might question if it provides false comfort encouraging complacency. If the book seems one-sided, it’s just doing the job of turning orthodoxy inside out. Always an interesting endeavor!

Named one of the best books of 2015 by The Economist

ISBN: | ISBN 9780807039557  paper