Scientists often use war metaphors to describe invasion biology and their efforts to control and prevent invasions. Larson (2005) argues that militaristic language is hurting efforts to manage invasive species because it leads to inaccurate views, social misunderstanding, xenophobia, loss of credibility, and counterproductive conservation strategies. However, his arguments do not make sense in the context of most invasive species.
For example, I have found several examples of war-like language in my own writing. In a post on miconia, a South American plant that is invading the Hawaiian Islands, I state, “Currently, over a quarter of Tahiti’s native species are threatened with extinction as a direct result of the miconia invasion” (Finn, 2011). In the post, I also use the words “takeover,” “kill,” and “eradication.” Though these words call to mind a fight against a threatening enemy, they do not exaggerate the situation. Indeed, the people of Hawaii have referred to miconia as the “purple plague” and the “green cancer.” In the context of the miconia invasion, combative language evokes an appropriate reaction to the devastating plant.
There are flaws in each of Larson’s arguments. First, he argues that militaristic language “leads to an inaccurate view of invasive species.” However, describing an invasive species in militaristic terms does not prevent a nuanced understanding of invasive species, including their potential benefits and connections to humans that caused the invasion. Contrary to Larson’s assumptions, a militaristic approach to fixing the problem of invasive species does not preclude the placement of blame on humans. In fact, painting over invasive species with a kinder brush could lead to a misconception that invasive species are a natural part of human life and cannot be avoided.
Second, Larson claims that militaristic language “contributes to social misunderstanding, charges of xenophobia, and loss of scientific credibility.” In reality, most references to invasive species are in regards to a particular species, rather than to invasive species in general (Bossenbroek et al., 2005). Beneficial species are usually not referred to with unnecessary militaristic language. Therefore, as long as readers do not generalize specific cases to the whole field of invasive species, there should be no harm in using militaristic language if the situation merits it. Additionally, for legitimate articles, charges of xenophobia stem from reader, not the scientists. Good scientific articles reference only the invasive species in question, not irrelevant information from that species’ home. It is illogical for a reader to assume an article is attacking the people from a specific location when, in reality, it targets a harmful species. Larson also argues that the war metaphor could lead to a loss of scientific credibility if it is not used discriminatingly. In any scientific pursuit, a statement that is applied incorrectly could cause the field to lose credibility. As long as invasive species remain a significant threat, the appropriate use of forceful language should not cause a loss of credibility.
Finally, he argues that combative language “reinforces the militaristic patterns of thought that are counterproductive for conservation.” Larson claims militaristic language creates a larger association between invasion biology and politics. This association is not necessarily counterproductive. More legislation needs to be enacted to successfully control existing invaders and to prevent future invasions. Furthermore, Larson’s examples demonstrating “polarization” with regards to invasive species reference opposition to control methods. Control methods often have opponents, but this opposition should not be blamed on the language in the literature.
Alternative language to war metaphors could understate the great damage that invasive species are capable of, thereby decreasing efforts to control and prevent their spread. We cannot afford to passively accept the presence of invasive species. Combative language may be the only way to effectively convey the gravity of some biological invasions and the need to prevent and fight their spread.
Bossenbroek, J.M., McNukty, J., and R.P. Keller. 2005. Can ecologists heat up the discussion on invasive species risk? Risk Analysis 25: 1595-1597.
Finn, C.B. 2011. Miconia: the purple plague. <http://sites.duke.edu/writing20_12_s2011/2011/01/23/miconia-the-purple-plague/>
Larson, B.M.H 2005. The war of the roses: demilitarizing invasion biology. Fronteirs in Ecology and the Environment 3: 495-500.