Putting the life back in science fiction


California in the High Altithermal, Part 8: This time it’s different…

This idea seems to be sprouting like a weed in some odd places, including (reportedly) with a group of professors at UC Davis.  The general idea, as I’m hearing it second and third-hand, is a conglomeration of “this time it’s different,” “weeds are the new natives, you stupid nativists,” and “It’s now the Anthropocene, so the old rules are out the window.”

Let me start by saying that I’m really active in the California Native Plant Society, so my sympathies are with the native plants.  I’ll also say that many CNPSers still think that locally native means that everything belongs in its current place, that it “coevolved there for a long time,” that this means it best suited to that place, and at the extreme, that if we mix genotypes by, say, using seed from a different part of the state, this is bad.

I’m not that extreme in my views.  It’s pretty obvious to me that California’s native species have often migrated to deal with climate change, and that today’s communities don’t often look like those of the past.  Still, I work hard on saving native plants, because I think that every species has a fundamental right to continue living, to the degree that we can give it that right.  Furthermore, I don’t think that exacerbating a mass extinction is a good thing, especially if it means that we’re increasing the risk of Homo sapiens going extinct.

It is from this frame of reference that I say that these weedophiles are suffering from a bad case of craniorectal insertion syndrome.  Here’s what they’re getting wrong:

–They’re forgetting that we in a mass extinction event, and that this is a bad thing for any animal with our body size (judging from the fossil record).  Ideally we want to endure something like the PETM, not something like the K-T, or worse, the P-T.  California’s a biodiversity hotspot, which means extinctions happen here disproportionately.

–California managed to support something like 100,000-200,000 people solely on native plants for at least 1,000 years and possibly as much as 5,000-10,000 years.  While agriculture with non-native plants has managed to support upwards of 38,800,000 people in California (currently), it only got above 200,000 people around 1850.  While I don’t think you could support 38.8 million people on acorns and tule seeds, native plants are a nice fallback when our highly artificial agricultural system collapses, even in a changed climate.  Many natives are more useful than non-natives like Eucalyptus, let alone noxious weeds like Euphorbia terracina.

–They’re also getting the time scale screwed up.  Yes, the world will regain its full biodiversity complement after a mass extinction–in 10,000,000-30,000,000 years.  What happens in the interim is adaptive radiation.  If humans survive the mass extinction, they’ll enter into a coevolutionary mosh pit with an increasingly diverse group of species that have adapted to deal with humans in one way or another.  One way to keep this from getting out of hand is to conserve as many existing species as possible, since we’ve already spent 14,000-200,000 years coevolving with them.  Just as with a mosh pit, it’s good to make sure we’re not at the center of the action and targeted by everything else.

–A weed is a temporary thing. Many weeds become invasive because they outrun their predators, pathogens, and parasites–something known as the Enemy Release Hypothesis.  They grow so much faster because they aren’t being eaten, infected, or infested, unlike the plants they outcompete.  However, this freedom is inevitably temporary.  Weeds’ enemies inevitably find them (indeed, this is a central tenant of biological control), and when the weeds are reinfested, their populations often crash precipitously.  As a result, betting on weeds to succeed is betting on a bubble.  The weeds may be the new natives for a decade, possibly even a century.  Very often, they’ll then crash and become rare.  If the weeds have driven other species extinct before they crashed, what’s left is a depauperate landscape that will be seriously not fun to live in.

–Note again the timescales.  Weeds succeed on a scale of decades to centuries.  Natives last millennia, even when they migrate.  Speciation takes tens of millions of years.  As I noted in Hot Earth Dreams, it’s very common for people to screw up time scales, and that’s what these weedophiles are doing.   They want to cause extinction problems that will take tens of millions of years for nature to solve, for a few decades of advantage, just because they think that conservation shouldn’t matter right now in a changing climate.  And their solutions won’t favor humanity.  Hopefully they’ll get a clue, but I suspect they’re getting too much mileage out of being daring and controversial to care much about reality.

Incidentally, it’s worth remembering that the phrase “This time it’s different”  is a classic warning sign of a brewing financial crisis.  I’d add that it’s a warning sign of environmental problems too.

Now, if you’re like me, you can imagine how the weedophile movement will play out in the High Altithermal

And yes, this is part of that ongoing series.   Here are links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5Part 6, and Part 7.

What did I miss?

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5 Comments so far
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I’ve admittedly oscillated from weedophile to a more reasonable conservation level as I’ve aged, but I do have to say that in your own scenario, I would think it would be better to help a plethora of nonnative plants move into California and Californian plants move somewhere else than try to keep the same native biota in a totally different environment. Now I don’t mean just let weeds go crazy, but try to help entire ecosystems shift with the climate belts, but maybe I’m off my rocker.

All of this though makes me wonder how exactly the Great Lakes will change over time. It might be worth doing an intense analysis on though…

Comment by Whachamacallit

Well, I sort of agree. There are two issues here:

The most important one is that my scenario is speculation. I hesitate to say that it’s inevitable, especially before election day in November.

The bigger reason is that my scenario stretches out over thousands of years. Conservation actions are critically important right now. It’s a rather stupid time to call for people to stop conserving nature. In coming decades, helping plants to migrate may become more important, but I hope you’ll forgive me for hoping that day doesn’t come.

Comment by Heteromeles

Oh no, I agree. I must have been fooled because this was written under the “California in the Altithermal” title. I always was a bit curious on what to do with exotic species that at least don’t seem too invasive. Is it better to take no chances and get rid of them? Or not waste the effort until we’re certain they’re a threat?

Comment by Whachamacallit

You’re right, it is peripheral to the previous part of the series. Still, it combines a couple of issues I’m wrestling with now, and this is part of my attempt to think through it and get feedback.

To answer your question, the people who deal with invasives (in California, Cal-IPC is the premier group) triage weeds and focus their efforts where they’ll make the biggest difference. A lot of non-native species get a pass, either because they’re not a big enough problem to matter (most of them) or because there’s little or nothing we can do at present to limit their damaging effects (cheat grass).

Part of the weedophile problem is in the permaculture community, in that Bill Mollison and his more doctrinaire followers promote the use of known weeds, like pampas grass and tamarisk, with the badly mistaken notion that they can always control them by planting still more aggressive plants to crowd them out. Since the group I belong to (CNPS) spends a lot of time dealing with species, like pampas grass and tamarisk, that were brought in originally for their utility and have since become serious problems, I think theweedophiles’ cavalier attitude needs to be confronted until they get a clue and stop doing things that trash other people’s land and cause permanent problems.

The second part of the problem is a California High Altithermal problem, that what we do about weeds will continue to matter, even as climates shift and nothing has a native range anymore. All along, we’ll need to focus on preserving biodiversity. Right now, it’s a general concern. Later on as things get worse, it will be a survival concern. If we’re careless now and allow the spread of nuisance species, we’re sticking our descendants with that much more trouble as they struggle to adapt.

For example, Mollison’s right, pampas grass makes a decent low windbreak, if you don’t mind it sheltering lots of rats and shredding your skin and clothes when you come into contact with it. Unfortunately it seeds prolifically, and its seeds blow in the wind. When its descendants start choking out nearby streams, they’re almost impossible to move without the targeted use of herbicides, and if you’re stupid with your choice of herbicide, you can poison the stream, which is why the work needs to be done by licensed sprayers. Where are you going to find this kind of control in the High Altithermal? All that for a species Mollison recommends as a windbreak.

For me this is a work in progress. I know that CNPS would be just as happy if we could work in harmony with the permaculturists. There’s a lot of crossover interests, and we really do have enough issues without having another set of activists pissing on us. Here, I’m not speaking for CNPS, but I am grappling with the issue. While I doubt any permaculturalists read this blog, if they do, they’re more than welcome to comment.

Comment by Heteromeles

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