The quiet crisis is upon us

The phrase "invasive species" often conjures up images of 18-foot-long pythons prowling the Everglades or a pack of wild boar pillaging the forest. But invasive species exist all around us — many times in subtler but more pervasive forms. From the House Sparrows that fly overhead to the English Ivy that adorns our buildings, invasive species quietly choke our landscape.

Last week was National Invasive Species Awareness Week, a nationwide effort to better understand the ways we can better protect our native environment that is under siege from so many fronts. Invasive species are plants and animals unnaturally introduced to an ecosystem by humans — an inevitable product of today’s globalized economy. While introducing a species to a new region may not necessarily be bad, the problems start when invasive species begin to outcompete native species for habitat and prey. Left unchecked by natural predators from their natural habitat, invasive species use this advantage to drive native species to the brink of extinction. It’s no surprise then that 42% of species are endangered due to increased competition from invasive species. Unique ecological relationships developed over a millennium can be broken apart by just one problematic species.

Duke is uniquely positioned to address the challenges posed by invasive species given its status as one of the premier research universities in the South, a region that has been particularly hit hard by invasive species. Duke can fuse its Southeastern roots with its global network to address a problem that transcends academic disciplines and international boundaries. Perhaps more tangibly, Duke should update its landscaping choices to better highlight plants native to North Carolina and to reduce the risk of invasive species escaping into the wild.

With so much attention given to mitigating climate change, addressing biodiversity loss is often put on the back burner of the political agenda. For context, around 85,000 people attended COP28, the global climate change conference, while only 18,000 attended the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, the most recent global conference seeking to address our precipitous loss of biodiversity.

Unfortunately, Duke’s actions mirror this disconnect. The Duke Climate Commitment is backed with an initial $36 million in donations, while the university refused to work with willing donors to keep the Duke Herbarium open. Herbaria are critical bulwarks of biodiversity, serving as a backup plan in case a species is completely eliminated by invasive species. Additionally, species in the Duke Herbarium can serve as a useful baseline to study how native plants adapt over time to invasive species and other environmental stressors.

While climate change should still be of utmost concern, a net-zero future is not enough to restore ecological balance to our planet. Making the Earth whole is like fixing a car with a broken engine and a flat tire. You can replace the tire, but this will be futile unless the engine is fixed as well. In the same way, we can achieve a net-zero emissions future, but this will be in vain unless we simultaneously solve the biodiversity crisis.

Why is this so?

The existential threat faced by biodiversity loss is more difficult to visualize than that of climate change, but that does not mean it is any less important. Biodiversity provides ecosystem services, which are basic environmental functions, such as nutrient cycling that make life on Earth possible. For example, even large agricultural corporations still rely on bees to pollinate their crops. But as more species of native bees become threatened by invasive species, pesticides and pathogens, this ecosystem service we often take for granted is no longer guaranteed. Despite the complexity of our modern agricultural system, we are still reliant on natural pollinators like bees to feed eight billion people.

Invasive species also exact a heavy toll on our economy. Zebra Mussels, native to the Caspian and Black Seas, likely hitched a ride to the U.S. on ships. Once here, these unassuming mussels have rapidly expanded throughout the Eastern US. Their abundance clogs up intake pipes at power plants, costing the energy sector over $5,000 per hour. And this is only a small portion of the $21 billion that invasive species cost the U.S. economy every year.

So, what can we do about invasive species?

First, we must urge Duke to make campus a more friendly place for the native species under threat. Organizations like Bee Campus USA work to make campuses more pollinator friendly and pesticide-free. Despite both our Research Triangle-rivals NC State and UNC joining the bee campus network, Duke is still not a member. Encouraging Duke to join this nationwide movement to protect pollinators would be a step in the right direction.

Second, our individual actions really do make a difference in conserving biodiversity. Making the simple choice to replace your lawn with native plants makes a tangible impact on the local ecosystem. Depending on where you live, it may qualify you for some government rebates as well.

Finally, we must look at nature with a more critical eye to better understand how our actions have reshaped nature. Those "rare" deer you see behind Edens are probably only there because we eliminated apex predators, such as panthers and red wolves. Becoming more familiar with our local environment is the first step toward repairing our environment.

Even if we seldom encounter nature in our day-to-day lives, let us remember how utterly dependent we are on it. If we neglect mother nature, we diminish her ability to protect us too.

Aaron Siegle is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays.


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