The Aliens Have Landed! Reflections on the Rhetoric of Biological Invasions
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The Aliens Have Landed! Reflections on the Rhetoric ofBiological Invasions BANU SUBRAMANIAM Two years ago in a special issue on Biological Invaders in the prestigious journal Science, an article begins as follows: One spring morning in 1995, ecologistJayne Belnap walked into a dry grassland in Canyonlands National Park, Utah, an area that she has been studying for more than 15 years. "I literally stopped and went, 'Oh my God!' she recalls. The natural grassland—with needle grass, Indian rice grass, saltbush, and the occasional pinyon-juniper treethat Belnap had seen the year before no longer existed; it had become overgrown with 2-foot-high Eurasian cheatgrass. "I was stunned," says Belnap, "It was like the aliens had landed." (Enserink 1999) One ofthe ironies in the world today is that in this era ofglobalization, there is a renewed call for the importance ofthe "local" and the protection of the indigenous. With the increased permeability ofnations and their borders,1 and the increased consumption and celebration of our common natures and cultures, we begin to obsess about our different natures and cultures with a fervent nationalism, stressing the need to close our borders to those "outsiders." The anxieties around the free movement ofcapital, commodities, entertainment, and the copious consumption ofnatural and cultural products have reached feverpitch. In the realm of culture and the economy,2 nationalisms, fundamentalisms,3 WTO protests, censorship of"foreign" influences, calls for the preservation ofnational cultures abound.4 In the realm ofnature, there is increasing attention to the destruction offorests, conservation, preservation of native forests and lands, the commodification oforganisms, and concern over the invasion and destruction ofnative habitats through alien plant [Meridtans:/eminism, race, transnationalism 2001, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 26-40]©2001 by Wesleyan University Press. All rights reserved. 26 and animal invasions.5 "Development" is one area6 in which both the natural and cultural worlds implode.7 At the heart ofthe critiques is the fundamental question ofwhat we mean by nature and culture. Who gets to define it? Are nature and culture static and unchanging entities? If nature and natural processes shift and change over time, as most biologists believe, how do we characterize and accommodate these evolutions? Over the last two decades, feminist and postcolonial critics ofscience have elaborated the relationship between our conceptions of nature and their changing political, economic and cultural contexts. Nature and culture, they have argued, are co-constituted, simultaneously semiotic as well as material. Through Haraway's "material-semiotic worlds," (Haraway 1997) can emerge a history of "naturecultures," (Goodeve 1999) tracing and elaborating the inextricable interconnections between natures and cultures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the growing panic about alien and exotic plants and animals. Newspaper articles, magazines, journals, andweb sites have all sprung up, demandingurgentaction to stem the rise ofexotic flora and fauna. For anyone who is an immigrant or is familiar with the immigration process, the rhetoric is unmistakable. First consider the terminology: A species that enters the country for the first time is called an "alien" or an "exotic" species; after an unspecified passage of time they are considered residents; after a greater unspecified passage of time they are considered naturalized species (Earthwatch 1996). As Nancy Tomes argues, our anxieties about social incorporation (associatedwith expanding markets, increasinglypermeable borders and boundaries, growing affordability of travel, and mass immigration) have historically spilled into our conceptions ofnature. For example, she documents how our panic about germs has historically coincided with periods ofheavy immigration to the United States, ofgroups perceived as "alien" and difficult to assimilate. She documents these germ panics in the early twentieth century in response to the newimmigration from eastern and southern Europe and in the late twentieth century to the new immigration from Asia, Africa and Latin America. "Fear ofracial impurities and suspicions ofimmigranthygiene practices are common elements ofboth periods," she writes. "These fears heightened the germ panic by the greater ease and frequency with which immigrants travel back and forth between their old, presumably disease ridden countries and their new, germ obsessed American homeland" (Tomes 2000). THE ALIENS HAVE LANDEDI 27 I will argue in this paper that the recent hyperbole about alien species is similar to the germ panics and is...