This week is Halloween, a time when images of fanged, grimacing jack-o-lanterns bring to mind that most terrifying of security threats: killer plants. If, like me, you grew up in the 1990s, then your childhood nightmares may well have been inspired by that harrowing chronicle of vegetal threat, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which documented a gang of tomatoes that ‘came alive’ for the purpose of terrorizing and killing humans.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was, of course, a silly programme based on an even sillier premise – except in one crucial sense. Namely, it captured and satirized the widespread terror of ‘natural’ beings that breach the boundaries set for them by humans. This fear – paranoia even – is alive and well in today’s media.
For instance, did you know that the Northern hemisphere is currently experiencing an ‘invasion’ of terrifying ‘crop pests’? According to a Guardian article from September 2, 2013, a diverse group of these invaders (including insects such as pine beetles and rice blast fungus) are advancing north at the rate of 1.7 miles per year, carried through the transport of agricultural goods and by the weather. By raising temperatures in northerly regions, the article claims, climate change has made these areas more attractive to unwanted, ‘Southern’ migrants. It’s a good thing for those who feel threatened by migration that humans aren’t similarly affected by rising temperatures (oh, wait…)
Why are the movements of these fungi and beetles such a concern for international security? According to the article, ‘pests’ of this kind destroy crops, leading to loss of the amount of food needed to feed 8.5% of the world’s population. This prompts Professor Sarah Gurr from the University of Exeter to state that we need to “monitor the spread of crop pests and to control their movement from region to region if we are to halt the relentless destruction of crops across the world”.
Attack of the killer Slugs
As if that wasn’t bad enough, this year the UK also had to contend with an invasion of what the Guardian termed ‘giant killer slugs’. Apparently, “the gardens and fields of Britain were saved from a grim invasion this spring”, in which “millions of giant Spanish slugs… threatened to devastate plants across the country”. In the UK, it suggests, the slugs could have destroyed gardens and damaged the economy by munching on crops. This time, the temperamental climate was on ‘our side’: unseasonably cold weather killed large numbers of the baby slugs before they could wreak havoc on our lawns.
However, the report suggests that these ‘voracious Spanish slugs’ “may soon make an unwelcome return to our shores”. In response, Dr. Ian Bedford has created the website Slugwatch, which helps people to identify pleasant, hard-working British slugs (which help with composting and make good food for ‘native species, and of which only four of thirty species are considered to be ‘pests’) from these foreign invaders and to report them to scientists to be tracked and controlled. (These scientists might also consider designing wheel barrows with the words ‘Go home’ emblazoned on the side). Bedford urges the public to mobilize around this threat because, as he points out, bad weather has only saved us from the slug siege ‘for the time being’.
These kinds of threats, however, do not only come from external migrants, but also from the UK’s own underclass species. Take, for example, the spate of attacks on innocent British picnickers by ‘drunk and jobless wasps’, as reported by The Independent on 4 September, 2013. Having completed their dronely duties, male “worker wasps now have nothing to do but laze around getting drunk on fermenting fruit”. Hopped up on the sweet stuff and drawn by the smell of food, they attack and sting unsuspecting humans. According to a response on the Guardian’s Environment Blog, the same cold spring that saved us from the killer slug attack kept wasps in hibernation for longer than usual, unleashing them on us in the late days of summer. As in the case above, the extermination company Rentokil (whom I’m sure are motivated solely by a sense of civic duty) have set up the website UK Wasp Watch. The site encourages people to tweet sightings of wasps and displays the results in an interactive, thermal colour-coding (e.g. red for wasp ‘hotspots’) showing sightings across the UK and, oddly, the Netherlands.
But these creatures are not without their defenders. Stuart Roberts, Chairman of the Bees, Wasps and Ants recording society, claims that what the Rentokil map shows is actually people’s intolerance of wasps, rather than the threat of an impending crisis. Our problem with wasps, he claims, “is that they have a sting and are aggressive in defence, but honeybees behave the same way. And so do humans.” Roberts also defends wasps by arguing that they play the important role of “slaughter[ing] insects” like caterpillars and flies which wreck our gardens. In other words, the wasps are on our side in the fight against violent (in)sects.
Roberts also points out that we are much kinder to honeybees, which have become a cause celebre of late, featuring in more than one award-winning documentary. Honeybees are recognized as the silent, compliant labouring class which fertilizers the human food supply. But they are also linked to our survival: the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder has long featured in neo-apocalyptic narratives about human extinction. The moral of this story is that we’ll tolerate the creatures that are on ‘our side’ in the fight against violent attackers or mass extinction, but no others.
Securitization gone wild
Each of these three news reports securitizes the movements of particular creatures. That is, it identifies these beings as threats to human lives (or lifestyles), frames the threats as an urgent problem and tries to mobilize the public to act in ways that will constrain them. Securitization is intended to prompt swift, reactive responses to threats. By making these threats seem severe and urgent, it dulls our awareness of nuances and other possibilities, and masks the often disturbing ideas that drive it. The securitization of the ‘pests’, slugs and wasps reflects two troubling issues.
First, it expresses and condones the notion that humans are separated from ‘nature’ by an invisible border, and that any breaches of this border by the latter are of the gravest concern. Just as borders and regimes of domestic security are intended to protect the territorial boundaries of states, in these examples, ‘humanity’ is treated like a kind of meta-state whose role is to contain, constrain and arrest ‘nature’. As Sarah Whatmore argues, humans maintain a colonial form of domination over ‘nature’ by classifying, controlling and commodifying the creatures we place within it.
Whilst the creatures brought under our control seem more or less harmless, those that remain outside of its scope are consigned to ‘wildness’, and pose a constant threat to the sphere of ‘civilization’. But this border only opens one-way. That is, humans are happy to intervene in ‘nature’ – for instance, by tweaking the genetic structures of plants and animals – as long as this helps to guarantee that we are safe and well-fed. But we’re terrified if plants or animals that might alter our habitats or change our lifestyles move into what we regard as ‘our territory’ (land cultivated by humans) or threaten the species with which we identify.
This line of thinking relies on severe inside/outside distinctions between the human and nonhuman. As we can see from the examples above, the creatures causing all the fuss are not only treated as menaces because they are nonhuman or ‘wild’, but also because they are considered to be out of place. As Tim Cresswell has argued, pejorative terms like ‘weed’ (or, in the cases above, ‘pest’) signify that a particular being has transgressed the borders of ‘nature’ into realm of ‘humanity’. These beings are uninvited, uncultivated and undesired. They threaten to crowd out the ‘proper’ or valued inhabitants of a space. They also raise the spectre of multiplication by breeding prolifically and spreading across space, undermining existing patterns of order as they move.
In each example above, the creatures in question represent alien others: the ‘southern’ pests, the ‘Spanish’ slugs, or the tardy, lazy ‘worker bees’ interrupting middle-class picnics. These unwanted ‘invaders’ threaten to destroy the economy and access to resources for those deemed to be ‘native’ species (human and otherwise). According to this viewpoint, they need to be separated from desirable species, and these latter creatures need to be actively and vigilantly protected from them.
Most importantly, perhaps, their presence and movement reflects just how poor human systems of control are at constraining ‘nature’ which, from the examples above, seems to be an untrustworthy ally – in fact, a volatile double agent.
I hardly need to point out the parallels between these kinds of attitudes and the current spike in public vitriol against immigrants (‘legal’ or otherwise), economic migrants, the working or jobless poor and the looming problem of climate-related migration. If anything, these examples show us that xenophobia is, for much of the UK public, an idea that crosses species (if only we could be so egalitarian in our ethical stances towards other species). But this is not always starkly obvious: the same person who claims to be open-minded about the needs of the poor might experience visceral disgust at the idea of a slug ‘invasion’. And the two ideas are not that far apart. By urging a privileged group (in this case, humans and their favoured species) to ‘close ranks’ when they feel threatened, this impulse entrenches deep and arbitrary divisions between beings.
Fear of change
The other element that comes across clearly in the securitization of these creatures is the human fear of change. Each of the examples above suggests that the movement of living things will alter the world to which we are accustomed. ‘New’ species may appear where they were never seen before, and in some cases, they might harm the species to which we’ve grown attached. They might also breed with these species, creating new hybrids (something else with which Westerners are typically squeamish, according to Latour). In any case, the movement of creatures signals future change, and suggests – as in the case of ‘pest invasion’- that changes already under way are beginning to take effect. Climate change, in particular, threatens to transform the face of the earth in ways that will make it increasingly inhospitable to humans and the species with which they identify. In the wake of the recent IPCC report, the picture seems both grim and inevitable.
This is typical of the kind of thinking that securitization promotes: black and white, pessimistic and often neo-apocalyptic. It treats the future as a dire given, leaving no space to consider alternatives. But even in the case of climate change, not all transformations will be bad, at least not for all beings.
A recent study by Chris D. Thomas, published in Nature, suggests that human-induced climate change may actually increase bio-diversity. Movements and migrations of the kinds described above may help to enrich ecosystems without necessarily disadvantaging the species regarded as ‘native’. According to Thomas, evolutionary origination is also accelerating in human-made surroundings. This means that species are evolving, diverging, hybridizing and even speciating at a higher rate.
Thomas calls attempts to control and suppress these processes – such as the campaigns described above or the European Commission’s plans to regulate species introduced to new places by humans – an ‘unwinnable war’. But it is also, he claims, quite often an irrational one. As he puts it,
“The response of people who find themselves ‘invaded’ by such ‘displaced’ species is often irrational. Deliberate persecution of the new — just because it is new — is no longer sustainable in a world of rapid global change”
The upshot of this study is a powerful idea: that the future will not look like the past, or the present. Species will change and intermingle. Human reliance on particular resources will have to change – so, we may need to look for different food sources just as we are pursuing alternative forms of energy production. At the same time, ‘new’ or hybrid species may emerge and interlink with other species in ways that we can’t predict based on existing knowledge.
Instead of clamping down and participating in the fantasy of control, we need to think more openly about the drawbacks and benefits – for us, and for other beings – of these transformations. And we also need to be flexible, creative and imaginative when thinking about our role in a rapidly changing world instead of treating all change as a harbinger of doom.
This is the kind of attitude we should towards the mobilizations and migrations that take place around us, whether human or otherwise. Thomas is not a climate change apologist or denier, nor does his study gloss over the harms that might occur to humans and other species as a result of climate change. But he also refuses to deny the fact that the world is in a constant state of formation and transformation – some of which is very positive.
This way of thinking is necessary if we are to resist the narrow-minded, xenophobic, reactionary thinking that the stories above exemplify. Yes, the world is changing and, yes, we humans will have to accept that different kinds of beings will enter and alter ‘our’ worlds. But, as Thomas’ work suggests, this is not necessarily something to be afraid of.