Photo: Lupines below Öræfajökull, Iceland (S. Heard)
In Iceland, in July, the landscape in many places is carpeted in blue. The fields of lupines (Lupinus nootkatensis) are almost impossibly beautiful*, and lupines are adored by tourists and by many Icelanders, too. But they’re not an Icelandic plant; they’re introduced and invasive. Thereby hangs a tale, and a conundrum for conservation biology.
I normally despise invasive species, as most ecologists do, but I have a lot of trouble hating lupines. Again and again I find myself smiling at a field of blue, and then catching myself with a start as I remember that they aren’t supposed to be here. I’ve had this reaction in Iceland, in New Zealand, and in my home of eastern Canada (and here’s a nice piece from Amy Parachnowitsch admitting to the same reaction in Sweden).
These beautiful lupines make obvious a serious problem in our efforts at nature conservation. It’s not a problem with conservation biology (which is the science of how to effect conservation, once we’ve decided to). It’s a problem of motivating conservation, and I think a deep philosophical one. That problem: why should we conserve natural ecosystems in the first place?
Now, to me it goes without saying that we should conserve nature. The problem is that I don’t get to set national policy agendas or allocate spending to conservation over (say) military equipment. Governments do, and in most countries governments answer at some level to the public, so if we’re to conserve nature as I’d like us to, we need to convince politicians and voters that conservation is important. Especially, we need to convince people who don’t already value conservation that they should. But I’ve never come across a logically consistent argument that should work. (I wish it were not so, and I hope you’ll use the Replies to supply the obvious arguments that I’m missing.)
Consider two common arguments: ecosystem services and biophilia. Lupines poke instructive holes in both.
First, ecosystem services. “Ecosystem services”, broadly defined, constitute the tangible (or economically measurable) benefits humans receive from nature. There’s an enormous literature, and lots of outreach, estimating the value of ecosystem services and arguing that we shouldn’t disrupt natural ecosystems because doing so disrupts those services at large financial cost. For example, just the service provided by dung-burying beetles has been estimated at $380 million/year for the US (Losey 2006); Costanza et al. 1997 famously estimated $33 trillion/year for all ecosystem services worldwide (nearly twice the size of the world’s conventionally-calculated economy at the time). Ecosystem services are extremely valuable, so we shouldn’t mess with nature. Right?
Well, here’s the thing. With respect to ecosystem services, the invasive lupines absolutely rock. They establish on infertile soils where few other plants grow, and there they reduce erosion and enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen. (They were introduced to Iceland deliberately for these very services.) They also sequester carbon in habitats that otherwise do little of that, provide resources to pollinators, and on top of all this they provide a cultural ecosystem service: people love them. To take the photo above this post, I had to contend with half a dozen other photographers jostling for the best lupine pictures, and that was just in one spot, at one moment, on one day.
So if lupines displace native species in Iceland (and a parks ranger assured me that they do), then in doing so they’re increasing, not disrupting, the provision of ecosystem services. If you live by the sword, you die by the sword: if we offer ecosystem services as the reason we should conserve nature, then whenever disrupting nature actually enhances ecosystem services, it follows rather obviously that we should go ahead. With lupines, we are hoist by our own petard.
The literature is rather quiet – I think disingenuously so – about this. I checked the top 10 Google hits for “invasives provide ecosystem services”, but even those hits were really about disruption. One did mention the huge value of services provided by non-native food and forage crops, but then waved its hands rather unconvincingly to say that wasn’t really what ecosystem services are about. Another admitted somewhat grudgingly that some invasives provide ecosystem services, but then argued that this doesn’t matter because “those who benefit do not pay the costs and those who lose are not compensated” (Pejchar and Mooney 2009; but I’d note that this is equally true of services from native species).
What about biophilia? E.O. Wilson popularized the notion that humans have an instinctive love for nature, and that conservation therefore ensures fulfillment of an important psychological need (presumably, even for those people not consciously aware of that need). Many people (I don’t know about all) do indeed find nature beautiful. But I find it implausible that what they love most is undisturbed nature – the nature I’d like to conserve. I rather suspect most people would prefer nature purged of leeches and carrion and brambles, for instance. And lupines make it obvious that many people love showy species – regardless of where they’re from, and regardless of what damage they may be doing to natural systems where they’re invasive.
If we leave conservation to biophilia, we’ll leave it to what people like most. If the choice is between a field of lupines and a plain of gravel dotted with clumps of moss and the occasional butterwort (and here in Iceland, that’s the choice), I’m sure the popular vote won’t favour the natives I’d like to conserve. It’s hard to blame people for making this choice – lupines really are gorgeous, and I love them too. The world, then, will be seeded everywhere with lupines (as in the wonderful children’s book Miss Rumphius)**.
So where do the lupines leave us? Ecosystem services and biophilia aren’t the only rationales for conservation – there’s religious stewardship, bioprospecting, the airplane-rivets metaphor, and more***. But the kind of holes that lupines poke in ecosystem services and biophilia are the kind of holes easily poked in these other arguments too.
I’m left in an agonizing position: desperately wanting us to value and work at conservation, and absolutely sure I’m in the right, but without any logical argument I can use to convince others to want the same thing. This drives me absolutely crazy, and I need to be rescued by a philosophical superhero. Please tell me there’s one out there?
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) August 4, 2015
- On Iceland: Where the Earth shows its bones
*^I know it seems I must have photoshopped the image above, but I didn’t. It really does look like that, only (of course) it’s even better in real life, filling your entire field of vision.
**^Whether you’re a lupine lover or a lupine hater, you should read your children Miss Rumphius. If you don’t have children, borrow somebody else’s and read them Miss Rumphius. It’s a beautiful, beautiful story.
***^UPDATE: Dawn Bazeley points me to one I hadn’t heard of: the issue of “human security”. This is nicely introduced here. To me this seems clearly related to ecosystem services, and perhaps vulnerable to the same lupine-based sniping – but others should read the paper and decide!