Matt Chew is an assistant research professor at the Arizona State University Center for Biology & Society in Tempe. His specialty is anekeitaxonomy, a word he admitted to me he made up. It’s the study of where species belong (anekei is Greek for belongs), or where we think they belong, and how they got there, and how we have thought about it over time. The easy word for it is natural history. Chew is a critic of invasion biology, which puts him at odds with many of his colleagues in academia, and much of the mainstream political and economic establishment that have promoted the idea that certain species of plants and animals don’t belong where they currently are, and must be exterminated, before they “take over” and destroy everything. Which made him a perfect candidate to speak at the invasive species panel of the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) in March at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
The panel, called Weeding the World: The Destructive War on Invasive Species, was a follow-up to one called Environmentalism Gone Awry from last year’s PIELC, and featured Chew and a return visit from Syd Singer, an independent scientist from Hawaii.
Entitled Natives & Aliens – Not Even A Good Idea, Chew’s talk was originally called Law, History, Language and the Failing Paradigm of Biological Invasions, but he thought the title might scare away some prospective attendees. Showing slides of some local places from different perspectives, Chew got the audience thinking about how our concept of place fits into the real world. He went on to show slides illustrating the concept of belonging, such as a toolkit with a certain size screwdriver missing, and this exact tool laying near it. The concept of dynamism was relayed with slides of tectonic plates, wind, ocean currents, international air traffic, and cargo and freight routes. Nativeness was discussed in the context of the definitions of Darwin’s time, which are still used today. Putting all this together, Chew showed a photo of his backyard, which contains plants whose origin and distribution “is certainly a mystery to them.” Being rooted in one place, the plant has no concept of nativeness, nor even of the place they occupy, except that that’s where they are, he explained.
Blaming a plant for where it happens to grow is a personification, Chew told me, and certainly not a basis for an ecological assessment. Yet invasion biologists and ecologists do just that, he said.
Chew left his audience thinking about place, belonging, dynamism and nativeness, and he told me that discussions ensued after the session with many of the attendees. The message of the talk could be summed up with a saying from Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist, explorer and philosopher: “human history is an overlay to natural history.”
Singer’s talk, another one crafted to make the audience think about accepted norms, introduced the concept of alternative environmentalism. In a brilliant and insightful set of analogies, Singer set forth what could be a new movement.
A medical anthropologist, Singer is co-director (with his wife Soma Grismaijer) of the Institute for the Study of Culturogenic Disease. Stretching the concept to include the environment, Singer talked about human health as analogous to environmental health, invasion biology to germ theory, and alternative environmentalism to alternative medicine.
“After all, our bodies are an ecosystem, too. I realized that the medical model is being applied to environmental healthcare, treating invasive species like germs invading our bodies. The chemical industry seems to define the approach to both. So I proposed drawing on alternative medicine as a model for an alternative environmentalism, emphasizing the strengthening of health over the treatment of disease, and avoiding chemicals (antibiotics = pesticides) whenever possible,” he told me afterwards.
It’s fitting that 50 years after Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, exposing the effects of pesticides on eagles and other animals and starting the modern environmental movement in the U.S., here comes along Singer, exposing the fact that environmentalists now support applying pesticides to kill plants and animals (supposedly in order to save others).
“Hopefully, there will be a shift in the environmental focus from weeding the world to healing the planet,” Singer says. Sounds good to me.