“I have seen the future, and it lives in Miami,” says Alan Burdick of Discover magazine. Burdick, author of the recently released book Out of Eden : An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion, excerpted parts of the book for Discover in May’s The Truth About Invasive Species. Unfortunately the entire article is unavailable online, but here’s the gist: don’t worry so much about the importation of alien species. You can kill off species by killing them (pollution, habitat destruction), but it’s hard to kill them simply by mixing them together. Burdick’s comment about Miami concerns the fact that south Florida is the epicenter of a vast unplanned experiment: what happens when you dump hundreds of exotic plant and animal species into an unsuspecting and perhaps fragile ecosystem? Conventional ecological wisdom has been to predict disaster, but as always, nature surprises.
Man is a very efficient biological mixing agent, churning together everything he touches, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. The spectacular examples (hordes of hungry rabbits devouring Australia, proliferating Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, bird-eradicating snakes on Guam) are just a fraction of the biological chaos launched during this great era of human commerce, which some scientist have dubbed the Homogecene. Burdick has two messages for us: there’s no stopping it, and it’s not as disruptive as originally suspected. The ecological chaos of the Homogecene is real, but it’s surprisingly hard to put your finger on what the bad part is.
The intrusion of judgmental, xenophobic language into invasion science is particularly interesting. The whole notion of invasive species and the pristine habitats they ravage is built on the flawed idea of ecological stasis, that there was once a Golden Age in which God’s happy creatures dwelt together in harmony. Burdick deconstructs the loaded language used by some of the scientists: opportunistic aliens attack and destroy hapless natives. Natives? Since when? We all came from somewhere, and we’re all headed someplace else. It’s only a matter of when you baseline your time horizon. I’ve been a native of this chair for a good half hour, but now it’s time for me to go invade the bedroom. Good night.