The Covid Chronicles Part II: Invisibilities

This is the second in a series of blog posts chronicling research in the time of Covid19. In writing these pieces, we are exploring ways to try and use the pandemic restrictions as a means of thinking productively about our case study areas and the mobilities (and now immobilities) that are coming to bear on them. Stay turned for the next piece in the series!

Things to See in the Bavarian Forest

by Graham Huggan

In his 2017 article ‘Predicting zoonoses’, the American science writer Karl Gruber notes that global pandemics are ‘wicked problems’ in so far as the planet is ‘riddled by invisible pathogens that could jump into humans at any time anywhere in the world.’ The article is prescient, but pandemics like COVID-19 are very much part of our world, and they have been for some time now. It’s easy enough to blame the germs – that malevolent host of invisible enemies that perversely spawn and spread within us – yet it is not the viruses that are the villains, nor the various animals that carry them, but rather we ourselves for having created and consolidated the conditions under which they emerge. As my ‘Corridor Talk’ colleagues have already pointed out, the ironies begin to multiply when a research project organized around the relationship between human/animal mobility and boundaries is stymied by a pandemic in which invisible creatures effortlessly breach one kind of protective boundary (the human epidermis) even as another (national borders) is pre-emptively closed. The question of access is central here – who has the right to move or not, and the extent to which unwanted movements are controllable – but equally important is the question of visibility itself.

The relationship between visibility and invisibility is one that has been occupying philosophers for centuries. We are surrounded by things we cannot see, but whose presence we dimly intuit; the boundary between visible and invisible realms is as breach-able as any other, though whether we find this to be welcoming or threatening depends on the collective circumstances we find ourselves in as well as our individual readiness to accept the unknown. Invisibility, as COVID-19 has brought home, paradoxically makes things seen, revealing those who have power and those who do not; exposing those whose ability to resist is reduced by the sub-standard conditions they are forced to live in, or whose capacity to lead wholesome existences is curtailed by uneven systems of global governance. Perhaps more pertinent to our project, the different ‘regimes of invisibility’ – Bruno Latour’s resonant phrase – have important implications for contemporary conservation efforts. The history of conservation is connected to that of the various technologies that render environmental problems visible, so that they might be better known and therefore more effectively controlled.

This brings me to the ostensible subject of this blog: the European spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus). Bark beetles are certainly small – typically around a quarter of an inch across – but they are hardly invisible. In fact, there is no such thing as an invisible insect, although the popular insect imaginary positively swarms with miniscule creatures who are either grotesquely magnified – a good example is that Hollywood B movie staple, the ‘big bug film’ – or are imagined as being invisible, working their malevolent magic out of the range of the human eye. Insects are rarely harmful and many species are indispensable to us. That doesn’t prevent them, though, from being seen or imagined as distinctly unsettling. As Richard Leskosky observes, insects are about ‘as foreign to human experience as any familiar creature could possibly be. We encounter them every day, often in our own homes, yet they are inalienably different from us. There is no emotional connection between the human world and the insect world even though our existence arguably depends on theirs. They are the ultimate alien creatures and become only more so when they prey on us.’

A female of the European spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) © Gilles San Martin via Flickr

In the case of the bark beetle, this ‘alien’ status is ramped up by its commonly being considered a pest, though whether bark beetles are pests or not is a question of scale as well as of perspective. They are certainly – to borrow the standard ecological term – major forest ‘disturbance agents’, but the jury is out on whether such disturbances are just part of the natural scheme of things, or whether they require immediate human intervention as well as a fully worked-out system of eradication and population control. While bark beetles are visible to the naked eye, they mostly operate unseen, tunnelling beneath tree-bark in search of nutrients. However, what can be seen are the strangely beautiful tracings – the hieroglyphics of natural destruction – they create, which provide an all-too-visible record of the destructive duties they have performed.

This isn’t to say that all bark beetles are destructive, and a good case can be made for them as valuable catalysts, facilitating the regeneration of old-growth or secondary forests as well as fostering biodiversity in the densely inhabited transition zones they help create: part dead tree, part living forest floor. However, when whole swathes of forest are effectively laid bare, different rules apply, especially when commercial interests are at stake: timber supply, for instance, or the maintenance of attractive recreational areas for tourism. In such cases, the management of public perception is an important factor. One facet of our project involves two adjoining national parks, the Bavarian Forest and Šumava, both of which have been intermittently subject to bark-beetle outbreaks, which have become more regular and widespread as global temperatures warm. In both cases, park authorities have sought to maintain a working balance between pest-control, the preservation of natural ecosystems, and the need for human recreation. This balance necessarily involves a wide range of stakeholders – from local foresters to visiting tourists, from individual conservationists to national environment agencies – whose competing interests and motives may end up clashing with one another, triggering disturbances (social, economic, political) of a different kind.

One of the aims of this project is to gauge the extent to which the discourse of ‘invasion’ facilitates or impedes conservation action against bark beetles. Invasion discourse feeds, bark-beetle-style, off the ambivalent rhetoric of visibility/invisibility. Such rhetoric is as likely to be founded on myth as on fact, to trade on disseminated rumours as on accumulated evidence; and it is as likely to be motivated by fear as by the actual experience of difference, the invisible enemy being all the more frightening for being possibly fictitious (unseen because imagined) as well as fundamentally incomprehensible (unseen because unknown). Similarly, the popular discourse of invasive species, often couched in the emotive language of nativist threat, risks creating social as well as ecological animus that blurs the boundaries between ‘alien’ and ‘invasive’ species’, and that can easily be as destructive as, if not more destructive than, invasive species themselves. Over and against this, such language may help generate collective action against particular species that are manifestly destructive, and present-day invasion biologists, focusing on the destructive effects of invasive species, are quick to distance themselves from the potentially incendiary pronouncements of those swivel-eyed few who, operating on the extreme fringes of the conservation movement, view the wholesale eradication of non-native species as an ultimate goal.

Notwithstanding, the ‘native’ versus ‘invasive’ species debate continues to rage more or less unchecked, and bark beetles are inevitably mixed up in it. ‘Forget Brexit, fear the beetle invasion’, roars Sam Manning in an inadvertently hilarious 2019 letter to the Guardian (proving, among other things, that not all letters of this kind end up in the Telegraph or the Mail). In the letter, Manning luridly prefigures the imminent incursion of the European bark beetle on British shores and its shattering consequences. If this particular beetle were to end up in the UK, it would be classified as an invasive species, although ironically it is only across the Channel that invasive species are co-classified as aliens (the official EU-sanctioned term is ‘invasive alien species’). What’s more, there is evidence to suggest that bark beetles in Europe are sometimes popularly perceived as alien invaders when in fact they are not: Ips typographus, for example, is usually classified in the scientific literature as a native species, albeit one that over time has significantly extended its natural range. This is more than just semantics. The threat of alien invasion, after all, is the stuff of paranoid nationalism, and bugs – the word itself is tell-tale – have long been subject to hysteria, playing to trumped-up fears and anxieties that are as multiple, ubiquitous, and magnified in the imagination as the bugs themselves. To close this blog, let me make two larger points. The first is that the distinction between ‘native’ and ‘invasive’ species is both conceptually inadequate and open to all kinds of manipulation. ‘Natives’ are quite capable of invading, while ‘invasives’ may be entirely harmless, contributing to biodiversity rather than diminishing it. The second brings me back one last time to the visibility/invisibility nexus. How do we deal with environmental actors that are invisible to us? One way might be to better understand how the language of visibility and invisibility works; another is to better communicate the uncertainties that surround it. Epidemiology and conservation science may deal with very different things, but both of them are about devising ways of living with uncertainty. Both involve complex management strategies that recognize the limits of our knowledge while using what we do know in order to better protect others – and ourselves. What we see is so very little of what is actually there, and the chasm between seeing and knowing is widening. Apprehending that gap may not produce cures – or prevent deaths – but it is surely an important step in allowing us to find our place in a world that we share with multiple others, who deserve at least some of the attention that we lavish on ourselves.

Bark beetle tracings © Carola Ballat via Flickr

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