Weeds in the Anthropocene

“By the test of unwantedness, there can be no weed in the absence of man. Ecologically, we suggest that man is equally necessary for weeds to be weeds.”   Harlan and de Wet, 1965

The Anthropocene has not yet been formally recognised as a unit of geological epochs, but that hasn’t restrained its rapid spread and use in the humanities and social sciences. The term is catchy because it conveys the enormous impact that we — going by the title of the famous 1956 collection edited by William Thomas Jr., Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth — as humans have made not just on, but to the Earth.

In a paper recently published in the Open Access journal Conservation & Society by lead authors Lesley Head and Jenny Atchison and a group of scholars (including Christian Kull and myself), the Anthropocene is used to highlight the reality of managing ‘environmental weeds’ in landscapes that have been enormously transformed by humans. Drawing together research and discussions held at the Wollongong Weeds Workshop in February 2013, the paper argues that rather than focusing on behaviour of ‘invasive’ plants to the exclusion of their equally invasive human agents, it is far more important to see how people actually go about managing the presence of weedy plants in their landscapes.

The key message is that most people (including those working for government agencies that are responsible for environmental and land management) recognise the futility of waging ‘constant war’ against weeds or trying to restore nature to ‘pristine’ conditions. Instead, they have developed adaptive strategies that establish boundaries of cohabitation between these weedy plants and their human counterparts. This recognition, along with the methods and strategies they have adapted and developed for managing environmental weeds, represents a sensible approach to living in the Anthropocene.

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