I was leading the Open University’s Friday Thinker today – as I can be seen peeping out from a photo on the OU’s Facebook page captured here.
Each week an academic takes charge of Friday Thinker and poses a question to the 12,500-strong audience of the OU students taking Social Science modules. The discussion with students – who are distributed all over the UK and have various ‘day-jobs’ alongside their OU studies – was extremely interesting. I was delighted to see so many of the OU students engaging in discussion and debate.
The question I posed was about invasive species (naturally, they have been on my mind quite a lot lately!). The discussion started off by asking how we should respond to alien invasives. This sparked off some debate on whether it is our moral responsibility to make space for ‘native’ flora and fauna by removing ‘alien’ invasives, or whether we need to find new ways of living with the invasives and accepting them as part of our natural world. Some very strong views about how the natural world should look like were voiced, informed perhaps by people’s own values of nature and a slight discomfort with what is seen as not natural.
The discussion then focused on invasive species as potential source of food and exposed uneasiness about the idea of ‘eating aliens’, but it also brought up questions about the necessity of such extreme measures for global food security. Jackson Landers’ book and FAO’s report on the need for eating insects came into discussion as radical solutions for global food security. This was just around lunch time, and looking back, the thought of ‘eating aliens’ might have put several people off their lunch – oops, mea culpa!
One question that I couldn’t tackle on the Facebook forum was that of money. Substantial sums of money have been spent on eradicating invasives, but with little success. Could we use those billions of pounds, dollars, euros somewhere else? For example, education programmes, poverty alleviation programmes or healthcare provision? How can we weigh-up our moral responsibilities towards other species (native flora and fauna) and towards other human beings? These are difficult questions to answer.
Alien invasive species perhaps expose many of our own innate anxieties. The fact that they are where they shouldn’t be makes us react in some pretty visceral ways, as the emotive language we use to describe them shows. The idea of ‘eating aliens’ also exposes our anxiety about what is and what isn’t acceptable source of food. And most importantly, invasive species pose some very challenging moral dilemmas about the natural world. As one student rightly said, “[we] habitually elevate ourselves to the position of some imaginary ‘Fat Controller’, the custodian of the natural world”.
The (almost) uncontrollable nature of invasive species perhaps challenges this image we have of ourselves and leads to what Paul Robbins and Sarah Moore call ‘Ecological Anxiety Disorder’. In using the emotive language to describe them, one wonders: are we projecting our own anxieties on invasive species?