, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 81-88
Date: 11 Oct 2008

Environmental Harm: Political not Biological

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In their fine paper, Evans et al. (2009) discuss the proposition that invasive non-native species (INS) are harmful. The question to ask is, “Harmful to whom?” Pathogens that make people sick and pests that damage their property—crops, for example—cause harms of kinds long understood in common law and recognized by public agencies. The concept of “harm to the environment,” in contrast, has no standing in common law or legislation, no meaning for any empirical science, and no basis in a political consensus other than might be drawn from the Endangered Species Act. As a generalization, the proposition that INS cause “environmental harm”—since this concept is empty of legal, scientific, and political meaning—must rest on definition, diktat, or diatribe. As Evans et al. suggest, however, the idea of “harm to the environment” is not always and certainly need not be arbitrary; it might gather significance in the context of a particular place through a political process that weighs economic concerns with cultural, religious, aesthetic, and other relevant beliefs, practices, and commitments that people who care about that place present. It is not clear, however, that adaptive management, which Evens et al. propose, will provide that democratic political process.