As previously highlighted in this post on the work of Common Cause, there are a growing number of environmental organizations turning to conventional marketing methods in order to persuade the masses to adopt more eco-friendly behaviours. In the essay below our newest contributor Tania Katzschner,
a socio-ecologist based in Cape Town, explores a South African campaign that contained gestures of this kind.
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“Help stop them before they destroy earth. Become an AlienBuster!” (DWAF, 2000:7).
“It is time to reclaim our country! We need the public to join us in our fight to rid the planet of these deadly invaders!” (Saturday Star, 2000)
This call to arms was envisaged – perhaps surprisingly – from an ecological, green, ‘natural’ systems context as a creative intervention in the South African government’s management of environmental issues. The public campaign used strategies drawn from advertising and marketing in an attempt to persuade a broad South African public to join together in a fight against particular species of plants and animals in a race to go green and save the earth (Murray, 2005).
The campaign was conceived by the South African Department of Water Affairs and Forestry and developed by the interdepartmental public works programme Working for Water as a means of combatting invasive alien species, considered a primary threat to native biodiversity, cultural heritage, and economic prosperity.
The government literally declared war on green aliens. Plant invaders from other countries were called ‘green cancers’, and plants were declared unwanted and illegal. Here is some of the thinking and rationale behind the Alien Busters campaign, outlined in the original proposal (DWAF, WfW, 2000:3):
“Aliens are baddies whichever way you look at it. From Space Invaders to Mars Attacks, everyone loves to hate aliens. And with the huge popularity of scary-alien sci-fi films (from Men in Black to The X Files), the concept of AlienBuster Week will capture the imagination of the public in a big way.
Another thing: The parallels between invading alien vegetation and invading alien UFOs are obvious. Both are space invaders. Both threaten life on our planet. In both instances the aliens are the enemy who must be destroyed to protect life on earth.
So by latching onto the public fascination with (and fear of) ‘space aliens’, we can make them see the real danger posed by alien vegetation. And we can have fun while we’re doing it!”
The stories we tell
“’The universe is made of stories, not atoms,’ poet Muriel Rukeyser famously proclaimed. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Some stories become so sticky, so pervasive that we internalize them to a point where we no longer see their storiness — they become not one of many lenses on reality, but reality itself. Stories we’ve heard and repeated so many times they’ve become the invisible underpinning of our entire lived experience” (Maria Popova, Brainpickings)
According to spiritual leader Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, at the root of our ecological and economic crises is a ‘story’ crisis: a dysfunctional worldview about the universe and our place in it (2013:i).
The South African Alien Busters campaign is one example, among many, of good-intentioned storytelling gone awry. Working as an ‘environmental manager’ at the time (and accustomed to placing more trust in experts), I was a willing participant in the campaign not being fully aware of the underlying dynamics that I maybe felt intuitively a discomfort with.
The campaign organizers were telling a story that ironically is likely to reinforce and perpetuate the very worldviews that are leading to environmental destruction and disconnection in the first place: that we are separate from the environment, that we are separate from each other, and that we can fight our way out of our predicament.
We are separate from the environment
The focus on the eradication of invasive alien plants does not bring us any closer to understanding the ways that key aspects of our society and our economy cause their spread. Slippery military metaphors insist that specific places, rather than the larger culture, suffer from invasive species and that they can be fought and represented as outside of the very culture that produces them.
How is it possible for invasive species to be in so many places but remain outside society? Skipping over the cause of invasive alien vegetation erases the underlying politics of the disease and gives it an apolitical mystique. They are not a disease awaiting a cure. They are a constitutive aspect of our social life, economics and science.
I want to challenge the dominant understanding that environmental problems are issues that manifest themselves primarily in the environment itself and that natural scientists alone should research these problems and suggest solutions, aided by technology, economics, and policy. As Tim Ingold observed: “Something….must be wrong somewhere, if the only way to understand our own creative involvement in the world is by first taking ourselves out of it” (Ingold, 2000). It is disabling to offer solutions that can only conceive of human engagement as negative.
There are tensions that point to the vexed question of the relationship of our own species with non-human nature. Are we, Home sapiens, native or alien and how do we classify ourselves? Attributing either alien or native status to our own species destabilizes the alien/native framework. Such a framework can only be applied if we exclude ourselves. In Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (1996), a canonical contribution to the field of environmental history and ecocriticism, William Cronon writes “if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves” (1996:83).
We are separate from each other
South Africa is a very unwell, unhealed and unstable land, grappling with the alienation inherited from Apartheid’s cruel intrusions on social life. We are still confronted with the unfinished business of post-apartheid reconstruction.
Labeling plants as alien, malignant, dangerous, resource-sucking, and non-natural in opposition to native, life-giving, beautiful, pristine nature, mirrors the many levels of alienation and discrimination affecting my fellow South Africans. It is also reminiscent of the dangerous apartheid practices of distinguishing between insiders and outsiders, citizens and subjects. While Apartheid taught us that classifying identity by appearance is barbaric and ineffective, continuing with this same mindset begs the question whether we have not yet shed our colonial mentality.
Green (2014) argues that the work of decoloniality, in environmental management and conservation science, requires the courage to unpick the ways in which the logics of coloniality and race continue to inform the idea of ‘nature’ in South Africa, and as a consequence, inhibit the formation of an environmental public (2014).
As a German with mixed blood in my veins who lives and works in South Africa, I myself embody several of the native/alien tensions explored in this provocation. The fact that I am an ‘alien’ in South Africa helps me feel a sense of camaraderie with other aliens. Throughout my life I have slowly learnt that ‘belonging’ is not some static and absolute good and that our landscapes are hybridized. The fact is that all species are colonists. The history of the world is one of species migration and all countries are destination, transition and sending countries (Sichone, 2008: 261). The notion of what is an original species is impossible to define as it refers to a period in time while also denying that this time can be determined – it is a time before time (Brown, 2013:73).
Further it is important to note that the status alien changes over time, with the possibility of reclassification, and in relationship to function and human use and value. Science, values, ethics and public policy all intersect on these issues of species behaving badly. No species is inherently alien but only with respect to a particular environment at a particular moment.
In today’s world the native/alien dualism appears old-fashioned and obsolete in its naïve simplicity and certainty and clashes violently with contemporary social ethics. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a seamless ethical framework across all human and non-human communities?
We can fight our way out of our predicament
I am suspicious of the manic language of war, which mutes more serious issues rumbling just below the surface. Themes of competition and war complement each other so well we hardly notice. I’m struck by this creeping normalcy.
Current militaristic language contributes to the belief that invasive species are a generalized ‘enemy’ rather than a problem to be tackled on a case-by-case basis. ‘Aliens’ are homogenized and called by a generic name – ‘alien’ which does not help us focus on context or relinquish the illusion of control. Thinking in opposites does not allow for gradation and nuance – it promotes domination, victimisation and control.
Evoking a militaristic framework also implicitly endorses the militaristic worldview rather than questioning that worldview. The concept of war in discussions and actions of public concern is so commonplace (i.e., war on poverty, war on cancer, war on AIDS, war on terror) (Davis, 2010). Should we not be more cautious with language that contributes to polarized militaristic ways of conceptualising difficult situations? We are waging battles we can’t win, battles against ourselves that are run by unexamined scripts rather than ongoing reflection.
Crafting a new story
Philosopher Isabelle Stengers talks about the idea of ‘Cosmopolitics’ – the need to pay attention to the furious consequences of any idea we care for but do not know how to take care for (Stengers, 2013). The call is to ‘pay attention’ and for a more participatory science.
I believe that in order to switch on the capacity of people to contribute fully to positive futures, we need to move beyond simple messages to build layers and layers of understanding of complex environmental concepts and reflect on the interconnections between individual, social and ecosystem health.
Altering our perceptions about ‘invasive species’ and seeing them instead as helpful messengers could open us to what they want to say. Rather than eliminating them, what if we paid attention to their struggle to survive and what it can tell us about the state of our state? Larson invites us to become more intimate with invasive species and see them through a lens of appreciation (2008). In this way we can better face hard questions about our place in nature and in our spread of these species (2008). This might lead to more cautious behaviour and a little less enthusiasm for dramatic intervention.
I believe that cultivating an attitude of attentive love towards the green spaces in and around our communities is also essential. By encouraging the public to engage with them in ways that actively bring joy, we can create a happier, more cohesive future and celebration of place. We need approaches that connect to many sensibilities- head and heart, perception, intuition, feeling, imagination. People don’t change their beliefs and behaviours based on evidence; they are impervious to evidence. They change through lived experience. We need to actively celebrate our green spaces so that we fall more deeply in love with them. Only then will we create incredible coalitions to defend them.
I will end with a quote from Allan Kaplan and Sue Davidoff who explore a practice which they call ‘a Delicate Activism’, a path that demands a thorough reappraisal of the role we actually play in social and ecological change. A delicate activism is truly radical in that it is aware of itself and understands that its way of seeing is the change it wants to see (Kaplan and Davidoff, 2014):
“Really paying attention means paying attention to the whole. It means always looking for the larger integrity within which the parts find their meaning. It means seeing simultaneity rather than cause and effect. Paying attention to the whole means looking for meaning, it means finding the interconnectedness, the relationships, the necessities of becoming, the dynamics of belonging and separation, that lie between things, as the activity, the flow that unites them.”
Brown, Duncan (2013) ‘Native, Natural, Indigenous, Indigenised?’ in D Brown, Are Trout South Africa? Stories of Fish, People and Places. Johannesburg: Picador Press. pp 64-78.
Cronon, William (1996) ed Uncommon Ground Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Davis, Mike (2000) The Ecology of Fear. London: Radius.
Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (2000) Working for Water Alien Buster Week Proposal.
Green, Lesley (2014) ‘Ecology, race and the making of environmental publics in South Africa: A dialogue with Silent Spring’, in Resilience, Vol. 1, no. 2.
Ingold, Tim (2000) ‘Culture, nature, environment: Steps to an ecology of life’ pp.13-26 in The Perception of the Environment: Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill. London: Routledge.
Kaplan, Allan and Sue Davidoff (2014) A Delicate Activism – A Radical Approach to Change, Proteus Initiative.
Larson, Brendon (2008) ‘Friend, Foe, Wonder Peril – Invasive species are all of these’ in Alternatives Journal, volume 34, 1, pp. 14 – 15.
Murray, Sally-Ann (2005) “Working for Water’s ‘Alien Busters’: Material and metaphoric campaigns against ‘alien invaders’”, in pp. 127 – 149.
Sichone, Owen (2008) ‘Xenophobia’, in Shephard, N & S Robins (eds) New SOUTH AFRICAN Keywords, Jacana/Johannesburg: Ohio University Press/Athens, pp. 255-263.
Stengers, Isabelle (2013) “Cosmopolitiques. Civiliser les pratiques modernes” in Isabelle Stengers, Une autre science est possible! Manifeste pour un ralentissement des sciences, Paris, La Découverte, 2013, p. 113-141.
Vaughan-Lee, Llewellyn (ed) Spiritual Ecology – The CRY of the EARTH, Point Reyes, California: The Golden Sufi Centre.
‘War declared on aliens’, in Saturday Star TGW Region Gauteng 14 October, 2000, p. 20.