On integrated roadside vegetation management, habitats for butterflies, and the invasive species that try to corrupt the discourse
The noxious wild parsnip is a nasty competitor to beat. It has been in places like Iowa for a hundred years, and while it is possible to beat back its encroachment with mowing and spraying, those efforts also have consequences for flora and fauna that society considers favorable. Spraying to kill invasive weeds can also end up killing wildflowers and destroying habitats for birds and butterflies.
■ A more harmonious approach than mowing and spraying is the use of Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management -- the principle of which asserts that it often makes more sense to fill ditches with dense ecosystems of native plants that can resist the encroachment of invasive weeds than to try to engage in a nasty chemical war. While it remains important to train people like farmers and outdoor enthusiasts in how to identify and avoid the plant, on a mass scale, the biggest gains come from countering with a robust defense in the form of more desirable plants.
■ It all makes for an apt metaphor for the toxicity that creeps into the culture of a democratic society that makes a lot of space for freedom of speech and debate. It is all too common for a medium -- from cable news programming to social media -- to face the dialectical equivalent of noxious weeds. Self-government depends upon a lot of free-wheeling debate in the interest of persuasion.
■ But it doesn't take long for invasive species to show up in what people call "the discourse" when given the opportunity. Some people just have terrible ideas. Others are just out to mock earnest discussions. And some are tools of malicious propaganda.
■ The most reliable defense is to effectively thicken the habitat with the equivalent of hardy, desirable plant species. If we had more commentators who took seriously the job of sharing satisfying thoughts about the world -- and more audiences who gave their time and attention to them -- then there would be less room for those "invasive species" to work their way in. The temptation to think that volume alone is what counts tends to corrupt the "native wildflowers", which serves to explain why people are willing to torch their journalistic careers because they can't stop arguing on social media.
■ Self-government counts on the self-discipline of a public that cares more about choices that matter to the long term than which short-term conflicts do the most to boil the blood. We can run ourselves completely ragged chasing the trivial, or we can find more interesting ways to discuss the important questions in ways that are resistant by nature to the encroachment of weed-like intrusions.