By Jamie Steer 14/12/2018

OK, Number 1 – the first belief for us to look at: that they don’t belong here. With ‘they’ of course being introduced species.

Here are a couple of quotes from the feedback to my Kim Hill interview to lead us into this one.

‘We should round up all possums that have eaten more than a certain amount of native vegetation on an offshore island then send them back to Australia’

‘The Creator set everything in its place for the good of mankind. Why are we so arrogant, to think we are greater than He, to disregard His will?’

The first one, somewhat ironically, suggests that we treat possums in the same way that Australians treat their asylum seekers. And the second one, even more interestingly, replicates the essence almost exactly of an article that appeared in the Auckland Star newspaper back in 1893.

Here’s a quote from that article:

‘We have all our own places in creation and are only safe when we are keeping them. It is so with men, it is so with animals’ (Auckland Star, 1893).

That article was accompanied by an illustration of a workbench with each of the tools neatly slotted away in their respective compartments. The title of the article incidentally was ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’ which was and is a popular aphorism dating from the 17th century.

That aphorism and the thinking behind it was especially common during the Victorian era and a matter of fact for most colonial New Zealanders. It neatly portrayed the cultural notion that things have a place where they belong and to which they should ideally be returned when not in use.

And it wasn’t just animals that had their place at this time of course. Women, for example, also had their place. This was neatly summarized in another newspaper article around the same time entitled ‘How to educate a wife’. That place was in the kitchen, where they might enjoy ‘the art of wholesome and appetising cookery’ (Wanganui Herald, 1904).

The place of human races or ethnicities was also widely recognised:

‘The Yellow Peril is a yellow animal that lives in China, and if one is bitten by it certain death follows’ (The Press, 1904).

Chinese people at the time belonged in China, Indians in India, Mexicans in Mexico and so on. Funnily enough there was always a little more ambivalence as to where Europeans belonged though…

Now as we all know, over the course of the 20th century the supposed natural place of many things was challenged. As a result, the idea that women and races have natural roles or places has been comprehensively discredited. We see these sorts of ideas now as laughable; ridiculous.

It’s interesting then that in the context of wildlife the notion that everything has a place where it belongs still retains enormous currency. This came across to me very strongly in the interviews for my PhD. In fact, almost every interviewee of mine (and I sampled right across the industry) expressed some version of this belief.

Here’s a selection of them:

‘Everything has [its] natural place, I think, in the natural world’ and it is only ‘whether they fit into that environment that is the question’

The role of humans is to judge ‘ones that fit and ones that don’t’

‘We can put bits of the jigsaw back in’ to make a whole.

The illustration below is taken from a recent issue of Forest & Bird magazine. It depicts a native forest puzzle with each of the pieces, or native species in this case, fitting neatly back together to make a whole.

Illustration showing native plant species as pieces in a native forest puzzle (Forest & Bird, 2007).

This notion, that everything has a place where it belongs, would have still gone down really well in the 1950s and 60s. It wouldn’t have been out of place in the dialogue of a Mad Men episode. But in the year 2018 it strikes me as being awkward I’d have to say, if not embarrassing.

It’s also deeply hypocritical. My ancestors, for example, are from Cornwall in England. Does that mean that I belong in Cornwall, that that’s my natural place in this world? For me it’s not, it’s ridiculous. And I think most people would agree with me there (though there’s bound to be a few witty detractors, let’s face it…).

It’s interesting then that we won’t take it when it’s applied to ourselves but we’re very happy to dish it out to other species.

Read the next instalment here. Or begin at the start of this series.

Featured image: We are all immigrants. See Creative Commons.

0 Responses to “From Restoration to Reconciliation: Belief 1 – They don’t belong here!”

  • I’ve seen you deliver this as a talk – 5 or 6 straw men from your PhD thesis. And this is the first one. Still waiting for some substance, Jamie.

    • Sue – you’re fired up! Now can you direct that energy into some constructive criticism? Let me show you how it’s done.

      You’ve argued that I’m invoking a straw man. I disagree for two reasons.

      First, do you really think I’m trying to deceive the reader – as is implied? In my previous post I made it clear that I wanted to discuss this stuff. I’m just offering some starting points to build on.

      Second, and this is really important, when you accuse someone of a straw man you have to explain why (e.g., it’s a straw man because…). Otherwise it just sounds like you’re trying to shut down the conversation.

  • Thanks for these great articles Jamie. Just read through and look forward to the next one. I completely agree with you and find the analogy to human movements and evolution of migration very apt. Since the global picture is that humans are wiping out species across the board, we really need to wake up beyond this narrow mindset. We are also deeply missing compassion and understanding of the value of all creatures and this must change. Thanks and keep going with this!

  • Well, the last time I checked, it’s illegal for immigrant humans to kill humans in the countries that they immigrate to. We can’t tell foreign non-human organisms everything that they can and can’t do.
    If we could, then stoats, weasels, and ferrets would only eat rabbits, Australian magpies and rooks would only eat crop-damaging insects, little owls would only eat finches, and none of them would be pests!


    • Introduced species are not like immigrants Simon. They were captured in their native ranges and brought here in cages against their will, commonly for the purposes of commercial exploitation. A more accurate analogy is with the history of human slavery – but that’s for another blog post.

  • This is brilliant! Thank you for so articulating these vital ideas. The premise that introduced species are pests is so commonplace, so constantly reiterated by media and DoC, that it is has become completely accepted as normal. The xenophobia that is inherent in this ideology, the species-ism that aligns with racism, is never raised. The world is becoming increasingly globalised and we need to develop novel and more ethical ways of understanding the ecological world of which we are a part 🙂

  • Asha, I agree, it is refreshing to read these articles from Jamie Steer.
    Jamie, your writing is appreciated, thanks for putting the time in to talk about these issues.

  • Emma – I guess you’d also be opposed to the use of antiviral and antibiotic drugs, and herbicides, for the same reason. Or do you only want to give special privileges to imported animals.

  • Emma: Surely there are enough cautionary tales from around the world (eg Guam, Hawaii) where the impacts of introduced species have been so completely devastating to the original fauna that it is reasonable and normal to think of introduced species as threats/pests? It seems like a heck of a long bow, and very anthropomophic, to compare efforts to control the most pernicious of these threats as ‘racism’.

  • Sorry for the late reply. A straw man argument is an argument that your opponents didn’t make, but it’s easier to rubbish than what they actually said. I’m assuming that you want to dispute with conservationists and restoration ecologists, rather than with the various ideas of ordinary people who haven’t thought much about the subject. But from hearing you talk about your PhD thesis, it seemed to be a study of the odd ideas of ordinary people, plus some debunking of Victorian attitudes.

  • Question – are certain comments about this blog being filtered? Yes – No, If So, Why So, Thanks.