Chapter Three: The Social Construction of Introduced Species
In Chapter Two, I highlighted how theoretical insights from biopolitics, when taken in concert with understandings from the general constructionist literature, are helpful for interrogating understandings of nature. I showed that a focus on ‘exceptions’ is a useful way of directing attention to the potential injustices of biopolitical regimes. In this chapter, I draw upon this framework to show how introduced species have increasingly been cast as the exceptions to common understandings of legitimate wildlife. I argue that although introduced species have been routinely erased from considerations of worth, the ways that this has been achieved and the ends it serves are often contentious and disputable. In Section 3.2, I begin by highlighting the ways that nature has been defined by social constructionists. These show that nature is not a fixed, universal entity, but rather one that is malleable and dynamic. They also show that the way nature is defined often serves some groups over others. Nature is often employed as a form of rhetoric to promote certain ideas and beliefs about the world and these require constant revision to ensure that certain ways of seeing do not become reified.
In Section 3.2.1, I show how environmental discourses over the last few centuries have shifted from promoting a generally negative presentation of nature to one that is mostly positive. Importantly, this has been reflected in revised attitudes toward introduced species which have moved from worthwhile and valuable components of the biota to the status of ‘foreigners’ and ‘outsiders’ that require removal. I show, in Section 3.2.2, that this shift from worthwhile life to ‘bare life’ has coincided with the nationalisation of nature, particularly from the 19th century onward. Over this period, native species have typically come to be associated with national identity, with introduced species outside of production environments relegated to weeds and pests. However, in Section 3.2.3 I show that understandings of a ‘pure’ national culture have been challenged by notions of hybridity and belonging that resist recourse to past states and nativity in isolation. New understandings suggest that the changes wrought by introduced species may be able to be reconciled within new notions of local identity.
In Section 3.3, I show how introduced species continue to be presented as threats. These ‘otherings’ perpetuate retrograde social discourses that imagine a pure body politic imperilled by insidious outside forces. I argue that the routine conflation between introduced species and immigrants, for example, is not only dangerous but wholly inaccurate. Acclimatisation brutally removed species from their native ranges, generally for the purposes of commercial exploitation. For that reason, it might more readily be compared with the history of slavery. The key discursive distinction between ‘slave’ and ‘immigrant’ is the move from ‘victim’ to ‘perpetrator.’ In Section 3.3.1, I argue that this is important because it furnishes people with the agency to invoke war frames in defence of what they see as theirs. These war frames are also inaccurate, if not ridiculous, but nevertheless persist because of their immense rhetorical power. Alongside others, I suggest that future discourses on introduced species should seek to abandon these frames in favour of alternatives that are more consistent with sustainable visions of biodiversity.
In Section 3.3.2, I argue that the death of introduced species has come to be subsumed into capitalist processes of production. Pest management has become a multi-billion dollar worldwide industry. I show that the costs of this industry do not necessarily equate with benefits and, more importantly, that the industry itself is now a major impediment to notions of reconciliation. Many livelihoods are tied to the removal of introduced species meaning that there are substantial interests vested in the industry’s perpetuation, regardless of its validity. In Section 3.3.3, I show how many natural scientists are similarly vested in ongoing assumptions about introduced species that predetermine the ways that research is framed. However, in recent years many of these assumptions have been proven false and now require revision. Scientists have promoted a biosecurity apparatus in relation to introduced species that has worked to remove not only threats to native biodiversity, but also emergent threats. This has reproduced ‘racial’ fears from within the social realm, unproductively discriminating against introduced species that are frequently no more likely to precipitate environmental harm than natives.
The construction of nature
In Chapter Two, I noted that the majority of biopolitical scholarship has been directed at the problematics of human populations, but that a rich vein of recent scholarship has begun to consider nonhuman populations through the same lens. This is understandable because biopolitical analyses centre on attempts to better understand how and why others have constructed certain roles for humans within their environment. Environmental discourses portray the considerable unease humans have with their overwhelming influence on the natural world, particularly the disadvantageous aspects of that influence. Concerns over the influence of human-introduced species replicate these same insecurities (Trudgill, 2001; Warren, 2011). As such, introduced species are ‘situated within broader deliberations about nature, naturalness and the ecological place of our own species in the ‘natural’ world’ (C. R. Warren, 2007, p. 438). These deliberations emphasise the need to understand what proper, rightful world they infringe upon. To understand constructions of the place or role of introduced species in the environment, therefore, it is important to first clarify the understanding of ‘nature’ itself. In this section, I undertake this through reference to four overarching themes that have emanated from the literature on the social construction of nature.
Firstly, social constructionists hold that ‘nature’ is not a fixed, physical object, rather it is a construction that assumes different meanings within different cultural contexts (D. Harker & Bates, 2007). This is not to deny that the natural world consists of material entities (e.g. rocks, trees) or that nature is merely a figment of the imagination. Rather, it is to suggest that prevailing interpretations of nature are the product of social interactions formed within a particular cultural milieu (Goedeke & Herda-Rapp, 2005). Nature takes on different meanings in society according to the way it is represented in social discourses. As Capek (2005, p. 199) wrote, ‘human beings constantly engage in the task of symbolically constructing nature as meaningful in particular ways.’ Nature embodies the various understandings and connotations groups ascribe to the environment to try to make sense of things and assign them to useful and meaningful categories. The social construction of nature is thus ‘intersubjective, reflexive and normative’ (D. Harker & Bates, 2007, p. 331). What is natural, what is not natural, and how people should act and think about nature are reflections of the way nature is constructed by society. In this way, nature is not simply something ‘out there,’ removed from culture, but embedded within culture (Midgley, 2007).
That nature is socially constructed is indeed generally accepted, even to the point that it is seen as a truism (Newton, 2007). What is more controversial is the suggestion that understandings of nature informed by science are also socially constructed. Scientific disciplines such as ecology, conservation biology and invasion biology are often presented as applied sciences bracketed off from cultural concerns. They are commonly referred to as objective, impartial fields, seemingly divorced from value judgements (Newton et al., 2011). Midgley (2007), however, showed that this perception is illusory as scientific knowledge is contingent on understandings of nature that are grounded in cultural and social assumptions about the place of humans in the natural world (see Chapter 4). As scientists present arguments for privileging some aspects of the environment over others, they construct their own versions of an appropriate nature. Seemingly objective positions on matters such as ‘ecosystems’ and ‘biodiversity’ are instead wedded to value judgements grounded in ideals of natural beauty, purity and the desirability of ecological change (see Sheil & Meijaard, 2010; Smout, 2011; C. R. Warren, 2011). As scientists Sheil and Meijarrd (2010, p. 566) admitted in an issue of Biotropica, ‘we suspect that most of us have a tendency to develop our pet ideas based on emotions and intuition and then use science for support’ (Ibid.). Constructions of nature, therefore, are culturally negotiated both within and outside of scientific discourses.
A third overarching point to emphasise with regards to the construction of nature is its inherent dynamism. Nature is not static. Rather, understandings shift through time and space (Schlaepfer et al., 2011). A broad western historiography of the term is plotted in Sutton (2004, p. 19), beginning in the 13th century when nature was seen as ‘the essential quality or character of something’ (Ibid.). From the 14th century understandings were broadened to include nature as ‘the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both’ (Ibid.). Sutton delineated a key change in the 17th century when nature began to be associated with ‘the material world itself, taken as either including or not including human beings’ (Ibid. p. 20). Where it was once seen as a process, it could now also be seen as a ‘thing-like entity,’ able to be managed and protected like other physical objects (Ibid.). This change, it is argued, was a contributory factor in the development of environmentalism with its emphasis on the delineation and preservation of ‘valuable things’ (Ibid.). Goedeke and Herda-Rapp (2005) elaborated on this, arguing that new conceptions of nature attached to the scientific revolution cast off more organic, pagan understandings of nature in favour of mechanical understandings that set nature apart from civilisation. As Hardt and Negri (2000) argued, this meant that nature could be moved from something external to the production process to something that might now represent merely a further accumulation frontier.
Lastly, it should be highlighted that the discursive construction of nature has significant consequences. Reflecting on the now dominant, positive construction of nature in Western societies (see Section 3.3), Hansen (2006, p. 813) wrote that ‘appeals to nature or to natural qualities are…powerful because they invoke genuine, eternal and non-negotiable qualities’ noting that, among these, ‘it is perhaps the ‘non-negotiable’ that is the most important in terms of exercising discursive or rhetorical power.’ There is a real sense to which calling something natural makes it right and that doing so negates arguments to the contrary. As Sutton (2004, p. 13) commented, ‘for many contemporary environmentalists ‘nature’ or ‘the natural’ has something of a sacred character and should be treated, like all sacred things, with reverence and respect.’ Far from uncommon, such views may even represent the majority view of nature5. Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that this now dominant view of nature does service to some actors and disservice to others (Scarce, 2005). Hytten (2009, pp. 18-19) wrote that:
…particular attention must be paid to the ambiguities and inconsistencies within discourses in order to determine how particular definitions of nature may serve the interests of particular groups and disempower other groups, other species, or other aspects of the environment.
Indeed, the pursuit of nature conservation has been branded as elitist and ethnocentric (Coombes, Johnson, & Howitt, 2012; Larson, 2007a; Lowenthal, 2005). Conservation activities in both the United States and Britain, for example, are said to reflect the narrow set of concerns of the white, middle-class 5 In truth, the ability of ‘wilderness’ to achieve this kind of transcendental awe has been in evidence since antiquity. More recently it was displayed in the works of 19th century romantic authors such as Henry David Thoreau (e.g. see Thoreau, 2004 ).
Chapter One: Introduction
1.1 Debates over the construction of introduced species
1.2 Moves from restoration to reconciliation
1.3 Contributions of biopolitical theory
1.4 Research objectives
1.5 The ‘exception’ of game species
1.6 Structure of thesis
Chapter Two: The Biopolitics of ‘Biosecurity’ and its Utility for Understanding Social Constructions of Nature.
2.2 Biopolitics, or the politics of life itself
2.3 The contributions of a social constructionist approach
2.4 The biopolitical construction of ‘biosecurity’ 0
2.5 Resistance to the murderous inclinations of biopower
Chapter Three: The Social Construction of Introduced Species
3.2 The construction of nature
3.3 The threat of introduced species
Chapter Four: From Restoration to Reconciliation
4.2 A shift to reconciliation
4.3 The irreversibility of ecological change
Chapter Five: Introduced Species in New Zealand
5.2 The acclimatisation of biota in New Zealand
5.3 Case studies: The exception of game species
Chapter Six: Investigating the Discursive Construction of Introduced Species
6.3 Discourse analysis
6.4 Ethical considerations
6.5 Research methods
6.6 Analysis of ‘texts’ .
Chapter Seven: The Importance of the Death Function to New Zealand’s National Identity and Economy.
7.2 Are humans a part of nature?
7.3 The sustainable death of introduced species: An important industry
Chapter Eight: Problematizing Notions of Purity
8.2 Hybridisation and its discontents
8.3 The erasure of evolution
Chapter Nine: The Reconciliation of Useful Species
9.2 Scientific research on introduced species: For whom and at what cost?
9.3 Reconciliation: Beyond death?
Chapter Ten: Introduced Species: Reconciled?
10.2 Synthesis of empirical findings
10.3 Key contributions to the literature
10.4 Limitations of the study and personal reflections
10.5 Recommendations for future research
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The Reconciliation of Introduced Species in New Zealand: Understandings from Three ‘Exceptional’ Case Studies