Invasions, beauty, and ecosystem services: a conundrum

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 (sheard@unb.ca) August 4, 2015

Related posts:


*^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!

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26 thoughts on “Invasions, beauty, and ecosystem services: a conundrum

  1. Manu Saunders

    Excellent post! I think the issue with the ES & biophilia concepts is not with their premise, but the way they have been communicated and applied over the years (see here for my thoughts on the ES concept: http://ecologyisnotadirtyword.com/2014/11/08/ecosystem-services-myth-or-reality/). I work on ES research, so of course I agree with the basic premise of the argument! But I also believe there are many nuances that have been overlooked in research and media communication of the concept, which have contributed to some of the misunderstanding of it outside of academic research. As you point out, some ‘bad’ species provide ‘good’ services…and some ‘good’ species can also have damaging impacts. Most non-scientists get this, especially farmers etc. that see ‘ecosystem services’ firsthand every day. The same thing applies to the ugly/beautiful dichotomy we love to apply to nature. These are facts that can’t be ignored. We have a couple of papers in review at the moment arguing for a greater focus on social-ecological contexts in ES research and policy. Some ES researchers have been arguing for this broader approach for a few years, but these arguments often get overlooked 🙂

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  2. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

    Thanks for the comment and the link – interesting piece. Whether the ES premise is flawed depends, I think, on what that premise is (and as you point out that may change over time and depend on the writer). If it is to recognize the economic value of previously unaccounted services, clearly there is no problem – even if sometimes those services may be supplied by a species or ecosystem that isn’t “natural”. If it is to motivate the conservation of natural systems, then _that_ premise I think is flawed – because sometimes better services follow disruption. But I admit I don’t know this literature well, and haven’t done justice to nuance in the ES concept. (People reading this exchange should go read Manu’s post, linked from her comment).

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  3. Paul Abram

    Hi Steve. Great post, as usual. You might be interested in a few recent books that seem to speak to the “invasives are not so bad/actually good” point (they’re on my reading list, but I haven’t gotten to them yet) –

    “Where do Camels Belong: Why Invasive Species aren’t so bad”
    http://www.amazon.ca/Where-Do-Camels-Belong-Invasive/dp/1771640960

    “The New Wild: Why Invasive Species will be Nature’s Salvation”
    http://www.amazon.ca/The-New-Wild-Invasive-Salvation/dp/0807033685/ref=pd_sim_14_2?ie=UTF8&refRID=0W6J6G7YG97XYMSKSXAV

    The latter was the subject of a… well, pretty scathing review by Daniel Simberloff, which is worth a read as well:
    http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(15)00673-9

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      1. Paul Abram

        Ditto – I suspect that the reason that they have stayed on my reading list is that actually reading them would challenge my worldview… and a challenge is not always what I am looking for after a long day of pretending to be writing my thesis

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    1. Macrobe

      I would be very interested in reading Simberloff’s review, but, alas, retired folks have little if any access to published papers that are not open access. If anyone would care to share an electronic copy with me, I would be a grateful 🙂

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  4. Arne Mooers (@ArneMooers)

    Great post (and great picture): this will definitely come up in my biodiversity class this fall. For biodiversity apostates with time (It stretches over 500 pages, and the final argument is itself 100 pages), I would recommend “What’s so good about biodiversity?” by the moral philosopher Donald Maier (Springer, 2012) to . It offers succour, and also a potential (though under-developed) idea that is based on non-meddling. I found it via Mark Vellend’s book review in TREE a couple of years ago: http://mvellend.recherche.usherbrooke.ca/Vellend_TREE_2014.pdf

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      You correctly saw that chatting with you last January influenced this post! I remember seeing that book (doorstop) on your desk and I skimmed a few bits. It is, unfortunately, not easy going… I recommend Mark Vellend’s book review to folks who want a micro-capsule-summary.

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  5. devinbloom

    This is a great and really interesting post.

    You state that “They [lupine] establish on infertile soils where few other plants grow, and there they reduce erosion and enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen”. It occurred to me that this assumes reducing erosion and enriching the soil is a desired outcome. Diversity is the key to conservation (in my opinion), and habitats that naturally have high erosion and low fertility are likely a “great” niche for some species. The first example that comes to mind are sand dunes – but perhaps others can think of better examples!

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, such habitats certainly support species that aren’t elsewhere – like butterworts, for instance. But how do we come to a non-circular definition of when higher fertility is good and when lower fertility is good? “Whatever was there first is good” won’t cut it. “Whatever supports higher biodiversity” won’t either – we’d lose habitats with low diversity. This is what I tie myself in knots over! You are right, sand dunes are a really interesting example – we value things like marram grass that provide stabilization; but if they get _too_ stabilized they stop being dunes! Thanks for the comment.

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  6. Macrobe

    One if the premises from my small ecology class, which was before ‘ecology’ was a common term, and a premise that has remained an important foundation for the remainder of my undergrad and graduate education as well as my science/field career, is that everything should be viewed and considered in context. Rather than our modern trend to find universal explanations, ‘laws’, and solutions for all. As some of us biologists have learned, for many questions the answer is, “Well, it depends.”

    Are non-natives always ‘invasive’? Should we conserve, preserve, or let it be? Is higher diversity or low diversity better?
    It depends.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Ecology as a science has had a tortured relationship with the idea of general laws! There have been many commentaries on this – you are probably aware of the papers by Lawton (http://www.jstor.org/stable/3546712?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents) and by Simberloff (http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/420777?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents) on this. Neither is very new, and the second is paywalled, but for anyone who is curious about this issue they are a good place to start! Thanks for the comment.

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  7. angela moles

    Fantastic post. Next week, my plant ecology class will be discussing the topic “How severe are the impacts of introduced plant species, and should we be trying to exterminate them all?” – I have just posted a link to this post for them to read – perfect!

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      1. angela moles

        The main ones are:

        Gurevitch, J. & Padilla, D.K. (2004) Are invasive species a major cause of extinctions? Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 19, 470-474.

        Hulme, P.E., Pysek, P., Jaros, V., Pergl, J., Schaffner, U., Vila, M. (2013) Bias and error in understanding plant invasion impacts. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 28, 212-218.

        Vince, G. (2011) Embracing invasives. Science, 331 1383-1384.

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  8. Bob Danley

    Great post! The greater question, who, in the near future, will determine what community of plants/animals will live in an area? World seems increasingly homogeneous; humans love to tinker and create. The caveat, climate change might make the entire question moot. It is especially silly that we think the genie can be put back into the bottle. Besides, many natural processes are not very functional anymore (fire, flooding, grazing) to maintain “native vegetation”.
    Come to western Montana and find a sea (in places) of: yellow leafy spurge, purple musk thistle and red houndstongue…not beautiful in my mind, just yet, for photographs 🙂 Tremendous effort is being applied to reclaim the landscape in places. Is it working and for what price? How could one hedge ones hunches/actions? We sure could use some form of “derivative” (ala economics) model for conservation..

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  9. Jeremy Fox

    Nice post, all eminently sensible.

    Related: at least one outsider to ecology who’s looked at our usual arguments for conserving “biodiversity” always and everywhere has found those arguments seriously wanting:

    https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/questioning-the-value-of-biodiversity/

    But as evidenced by some of the comments on that thread, if you voice such heretical thoughts out loud, there are ecologists who will go out of their way to attack your professional integrity and competence. Those attacks led Brian to pen this post, on whether ecologists need to present a “united front” against our purported political enemies (answer: no):

    https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/scientists-have-to-present-a-united-front-right/

    I suspect that you might run into similar attitudes if it becomes widely known that you’re ok with some “invasive” or “non-native” species, or at least don’t see any knock-down argument against them.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, I worry that saying I don’t see the knock-down argument could be taken as not being “on the team”. I really want that knock-down argument, and I think that puts me on the team, but I guess it’s just possible that somebody on the internet could misinterpret and go off half-cocked 🙂

      Good links, thanks for adding to the conversation!

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