Here in Minnesota we experienced a week of civil unrest after the death of George Floyd. In Portland we’re seeing even more horrific events as even the Mayor gets teargassed during what should be peaceful protest. The announcement that federal troops may be deployed to other cities as well reminds me of the dangers when humans introduce invasive species into an ecosystem other than their native habitat.

As disruptive events have unfolded around the world over the past few weeks and months – from the pandemic to recent protests – I’ve begun to draw even more direct comparisons to our current landscape and the way in which Nature breaks down structures and “reboots” to a much healthier environment. However, as I view things from a living systems lens I’ve begun to realize that as humans – and part of our own natural “ecosystem” – we must take stronger action to reverse the impacts of a trend that is decidedly un-natural. Some might argue that federal troops in Portland represent an un-natural invasive species, as did the right wing agitators who invaded our Twin Cities in early June.

Sometimes natural, healthy change is created within the boundaries of the ecosystem. And sometimes that ecosystem gets invaded. This can happen primarily in two ways. A new species simply invades a local ecology and causes immense harm to the ecosystem. Invasive species can cause extinction of native plants and animals and significantly reduce biodiversity. This alters habitats and creates unhealthy competition with native organisms for limited resources. Invasive species are incredibly harmful to natural resources because they disrupt synergistic relationships and ecological processes.

Sometimes humans import a species in an attempt to solve a particular problem. Humans imported cane toads (Rhinella marina) to Australia in 1935 to control crop pests in their sugarcane fields. While this initially worked quite well, over time this invasive amphibian has created massive problems. To understand how certain “invasive species” are destroying our human communities as well, let’s focus for a bit on these warty critters first.

Cane toads have an amazing defense mechanism – they produce really dangerous, toxic ooze. Nature has adapted to create immunity for many predators in this big amphibian’s natural habitat in South America. However most animals in the cane toad’s new, non-native habitat do not have this immunity. Many animals, both wild and domesticated, have died from eating the cane toad’s toxic skin. In addition, just about anything that can fit in its mouth will be eaten. Obviously, with no predators available to keep their numbers in check, populations of cane toads in non-native habitats have exploded, We see this problem in Australia and more recently in Florida where they’ve labeled the invasive species an actual “plague. ” What was once touted as a solution to reduce pests has now become a massive problem of its own. Cane toads are taking their toll on native animal and plant species, to say the least.

Life thrives because Nature fits the species within its proper place, managed by the limits that are inherent within that ecosystem. Each context is unique and the diverse species that live within that ecosystem have an interdependent relationship with each other, creating an environment that adapts, evolves and thrives. Invasive species disrupt that natural rhythm and if introduced artificially can turn into a nightmare.

What species are invading our human communities?

Right now we’re seeing several invasive species in our human communities. One form that has proven real damage here in Minnesota and other cities in the U.S. are outside agitators like those that incited riots in the Twin Cities at the beginning of June. What should (and probably could) have been enormously productive peaceful protests transformed into many nights of burned buildings, injured humans and collective trauma for residents. We know this to be true because the first night of protests, people who were peacefully protesting protected the minority-owned businesses because they saw those businesses as part of the community.

Since I’m not in Portland, I can only speak to what happened here in our own state. Outside forces invaded Minneapolis and St. Paul and destroyed those properties. From white supremacists who came to town from as far away as Texas and Florida, to local teenagers from outer suburbs just looking to make trouble, these people who had a different agenda and zero relationship with the community. Just like an invasive species, they acted differently. Their actions not only diminished the resilience of the local habitat – they destroyed a lot of it.

Within our current political system we can see another type of invasive species that is destroying the natural habitat of our government systems. Dark funding has promoted politicians who support ideas and actions that are based not on the values of our country’s Constitution, but on self-interest and greed. These politicians, and their people, are driven to manipulate others to act on their behalf. They do not operate from political ideologies that align with the core values of a democracy.

Our President, and many of the Republicans in power represent an invasive species that is eroding our communities, creating unhealthy competition between people in their “natural habitat” and are threatening to decimate our once effective government ecosystem. I could draw the parallels between what they are doing to our human community, and perhaps irreparable damage they’ve caused to our Earth’s environment here as well but that would make this much too lengthy a piece.

Building Immunity in our Human Communities

So how do we look to Nature as a model and muse for a solution to our current form of invasive species? In Nature, an invasive species is curbed through predator and prey relationships. In human communities, we need to build immunity in a different way.

Our immunity to invasive ideas that diminish our communities, our humanity, and democracies must be noticed and consciously rejected. We must collectively dismiss those people and their ideas that weaken our relationships, destroy positive interdependencies, reduce common respect, and a host of other impacts.

Nature names this dynamic, and once named, strategies can be generated to mitigate the damage. Perhaps we can do the same, start naming the ideologies, the behaviors and the people that represent these “invasive species” diminishing our ability to evolve, adapt and thrive together on this planet we call Earth.