Using the Mediterranean Mussel as an example, researchers warn that catchy concepts and narratives such as "invasive species" might simplify complex phenomena in ways that hamper further understanding. Photo: F. T. Gort/Flickr

Sustainability narratives

Why people love to hate invasive alien species

'Invasive aliens' is catchy but fails to convey the complexity of environmental systems and change

Story highlights

  • Study looks at how the "invasive alien species" narrative has taken hold in South Africa
  • Natural systems are in fact characterized by change and complexity rather than balance and harmony
  • Catchy concepts and narratives might simplify complex phenomena in ways that hamper further understanding

It is often suggested that complex environmental problems need to be communicated in better, simpler ways. Solving the issues we face will not gain support if politicians and the general public do not understand them.

Therefore scientists need effective, catchy narratives to communicate their findings.

The narrative of "invasive alien species" is a successful example, resulting in policies and community activities aimed at eradicating the 'invading aliens.'

But why is this story so successful, and what can be the potentially problematic consequences of this success?

In a recently published study in the Environmental Humanities journal, centre PhD student Simon West together with colleagues examine the flipside of this captivating narrative.

The authors do not deny that some species may be undesirable in certain environments, but aim to highlight the importance of recognizing complexity and case specificity rather than placing all under the one label.

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Spotting the alien
In their study, West and his colleagues look at how the "invasive alien species" narrative has taken hold in South Africa. As an example the authors describe the case of the Mediterranean Mussel that is thought to have arrived on South African shorelines sometime in the late 1970's and has since become widespread in its new habitat.

They also look at the treatment of alien species in law and policy and the public awareness campaign "AlienBuster – Seek and Destroy."

However, the story of the Mediterranean Mussel as an "invading alien" is only one of many possible stories that might be told about the species, and the concept of invading aliens is not altogether that clear-cut, says Simon West.

"There are no objective criteria for what makes a species 'alien' or 'native', 'bad' or 'good.' Describing a species as one or the other requires drawing subjective boundaries in both space and time"

Simon West, co-author

"The narrative relies upon the idea of a natural and balanced state of 'pristine' nature. In South Africa the baseline for this ‘natural’ state is usually thought of as before the arrival of Dutch colonisers, but South African landscapes have included people for much longer than that. We also now know that natural systems are in fact characterized by change and complexity rather than balance and harmony."

The X-Files factor
The terminology used to describe "invasive alien species" helps to explain why the narrative has become so successful. In the age of The X-Files, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, who would not be prepared to fight an invasive alien?

However, parallels can also be drawn to discussions on human migration. In post-apartheid South Africa there is a strong desire to create a sense of shared national identity. In defining the in-group one must draw boundaries that will ultimately create out-groups, and over the past decade waves of xenophobic violence against human migrants have spread across the country.

Research suggests that South African concerns about identity and belonging might also have played a part in why the concept of invasive aliens has become so well established.

"This is not to say that 'invasive alien species' is a racist concept," says West. "But it seems that the way the concept makes sense to people draws on the same persistent and simplistic way of framing complex change processes and on bounding the world in strict, static and inherent identities."

Developing a more complex narrative
The authors argue that the notion of invasive alien species does not help us understand how nature works, promotes aggressive ways of relating to our environment, and potentially siphons resources that in some cases may be better spent elsewhere.

"The story of invasive alien species is powerful because it plays to pre-existing cultural fears, persistent yet out-dated ideas about nature, and a desire for order and control. But it does not help us navigate the rapid biodiversity changes we are experiencing," they conclude.

Though researchers need to find effective ways to communicate their research, catchy concepts and narratives might simplify complex phenomena in ways that hamper further understanding.

West and his colleagues believe that changing the way we act is not enough to solve complex environmental problems. We also need to change the way we think about nature. This means changing the stories we use to understand it.

To inspire new stories about species currently talked about as 'invading aliens,' the authors highlight that research shows that species movement can affect biodiversity in both positive and negative ways, and that approaches to environmental management that embrace complexity through participatory processes and social learning encourage multiple perspectives and understandings.

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Published: 2015-12-28



Lidström, S., West, S., Katzschner, T., Pérez-Ramos, M.I., Twidle, H.2015. Invasive Narratives and the Inverse of Slow Violence: Alien Species in Science and Society.Environmental Humanities, vol. 7, 2015, pp. 1-40

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Simon West is a PhD student at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Department of Systems Ecology at Stockholm University. He is interested in how social learning can be enhanced by deliberative governance techniques, how environmental knowledge is created and mobilized, and how different social constructions of environment affect management outcomes.


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