Is “Invasive Species” a Capitalist Term?
Invasive species: An organism not native to an ecosystem, they grow, reproduce, and spread aggressively, harming the environment, the economy, or human health. Such a term feels awfully applicable to COVID-19, not just in concept, but in suggested solutions as you are recommended to help “curb the spread” of one invader and “flatten the curve” of the other.
This language of invasion is often employed to rally support, the “us versus them” mentality it conjures encouraging active participation from the listener. If you don’t want to be overrun, you need to act. However, such language does not come without its share of dangers. While there is no plant or animal actively waging a war against human existence, once hit with the label “invasive species,” they might as well sound a battle cry. Regardless of how concerned you may have been with an ecosystem before, when you hear an enemy has appeared on the front, you know you need to defeat it to protect those land and those with the right to live on it.
But how do you decide who has such a right? The “not native” portion of the definition implies time is the determiner; however, one look at America’s history of colonialization and you should know that isn’t always the key factor. Take the wild mustang. A symbol of Americana, the horse has lived on the soil here longer than any white American, and yet, today it has to fight to live, its label as “invasive species” making it the target to some horrific eradication campaigns. Why? “If the horses get to be too numerous,” says rancher Jackie Ingram in an interview with the New York Times, “it affects the sage grouse, the elk, the antelope and us. All of us depend on the grass.” Ingram claims the wild horses leave so little grass to eat on the Bureau of Land Management land that it has caused other wildlife to disappear and forced her family to cut back on their cattle herd.
There is not enough grass to go around.
That fear is not only central to Ingram’s sentiment, but to the American identity. With every update on rates of unemployment or homelessness, you are reminded to keep working, that it will be your labor alone that protects you from economic despair. It seems hard to believe that this world of fear and suffering is one humans created for themselves, certainly no other species made a priority in its construction. Are you, as Ingram suggests, simply the victim of a lack of supply? Not according to Deanne Stillman, author of Mustang: The Saga of the Horse in the American West. “We have plenty of wide open space in this country; certainly there is room for wild horses and grazing at the same time. It’s already happened WITH heavier regulations,” say Stillman, “There really isn’t a clash, other than the one that is commercially driven.”
Commercially-driven—that’s the key. While there may be more than enough land for mustangs and cattle to co-exist, there is not enough land for mustangs and the massive amounts of cattle necessary to feed our industrial agriculture system—a system that has led to the Dead Zone in the ocean and even driven some populations of grizzly bears and wolves (key predators to horse) extinct. Given such extensive destruction, it seems obvious you should target the industry and promote small farms and ranches. But that locally-sourced beef is pricy, and with the current economic instability, can you really risk the added expense? Will it make any difference if you do?
It can be demoralizing to realize how little effect you have, which is why the competition embedded within capitalism can appear so seductive. If you can’t touch those on top, you need someone or something to control and prove you still have power. And whom better than those villainous “invasive species”? While you may not rally behind the “eradication of the mustang,” you can certainly get behind “curbing the spread of an invasive species.”
Unfortunately, such language is not applied to plants and animals alone. In a poem titled “Super-Insensitive Species,” Korean-American poet Ed Bok Lee parallels the portrayal of immigration in the U.S. against that of the Asian carp consuming native ecosystems. Before I moved out to California, I remember seeing evidence of this “Asian-American-as-Invader” narrative in online comments that described cities like Irvine as “nice until Asians overtook the place.” And it is this narrative Donald Trump capitalized on when he referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” While he may not have used the words “invasive species,” he encouraged the same sort of “us versus them mentality” to redirect attentions onto a non-white population and away from his crumbling economy, the ecosystem where he so readily thrived.
In a capitalist society, you are taught to compete, and if you want to win, you need to choose an opponent you can defeat, i.e., someone society has disadvantaged more than you. Should this raise ethical concerns, dominant classes can placate them, writing populations off as “invasive” so you know you are fighting the good fight. More and more, you separate yourself from everyone around you, until you believe you only have you to rely on. Place us in a pandemic, however, and we can see the harms embedded within such a mindset. As people wear face masks and practice social distancing, we can finally see how interdependent we are, a perspective we must not only use to combat COVID-19, but to create a world where more than a few can survive.
Works published in Los Angeles Review of Books and Entropy and upcoming in Terrain.org and Crab Orchard Review, Sam Risak is a Florida transplant pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English Literature at Chapman University.