Justice for the Swamp: Why We Hate Some Ecosystems and Not Others

It's not just the rainforests that need saving.

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Apr 6 2018, 1:00pm

Image: Shutterstock

The past year has delivered the phrase “drain the swamp” abruptly into the public lexicon, taking its rightful place inside President Donald Trump’s very short dictionary of even shorter words. But the word ‘swamp’ is no stranger to public controversy—it’s been our most hated ecosystem for centuries.

The origins of one of Trump’s catchiest phrases are, well, murky. Though there were some rumblings of the phrase—meant to signify abolishing corruption in D.C. politics—before the Donald Trump’s presidential bid (and even as far back as a letter written in 1903), the real swamp fever began during the frenzied month leading up to the 2016 Election. Amid accusations that the race was being “rigged” in favor of Hillary Clinton, the soon-to-be president-elect tweeted: “I will Make Our Government Honest Again — believe me. But first, I’m going to have to #DrainTheSwamp.” From there, the phrase took off. There were memes, hastily scrawled campaign signs, endless rally chants, even a hardcover book written by Congressman.

Searches for "drain the swamp" spiked in the weeks prior to the election.

The message was clear: corruption in D.C. was the swamp, and the swamp should be removed. Everyone understood the slogan without any explanation, because the swamp, in the English language at least, is a bad place, a dirty and messy place that should be abolished.

But as “Drain the Swamp” swept through American politics, scientists were quick to point out that the use of “swamp” as a derogatory term was wildly ecologically inaccurate—Wetland Ecology Twitter even flooded the hashtag #ReigntheSwamp with the weird and amazing creatures the live in swamps. As it turns out, actual, non-political swamps, technically defined as forested wetlands that are dominated by woody trees, are incredibly valuable ecosystems, ones that provide services like water purification, protection from coastal flooding, groundwater recharge, and habitat for innumerable native species of plants and animals like beavers, frogs, crocodiles, and snakes.

Just like conservation funding often gets funneled to protect more larger, more cuddly species like pandas and elephants, “ugly” ecosystems also get shafted in comparison with more charismatic megabiomes when it comes to conservation

The world’s swamps and wetlands are also economically valuable, worth some $70 billion annually, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund. This value comes from functions like erosion control, groundwater recharge, waste storage, tourism and recreation, and the boggy soil of swamps literally soaking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

So with all of this value—aesthetically, monetarily, and as an excellent venue for a lazy river float—why do we continue to think of swamps as nasty, malevolent places where only “swamp monsters” and “skunk apes” hang out? (In case you’re unfamiliar, skunk apes are cryptids—a type of red-eyed, foul-smelling Florida bigfoot that are fascinating and definitely worth reading up on).

How we SHOULD portray swamps. Image: Shutterstock

The popularity hierarchy of ecosystems should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever watched a nature documentary like “Planet Earth”—rainforests, the charismatic darlings of biodiversity, get far more screen time than their less alluring peers like, say, mudflats or swamps. There’s data to support this—just like conservation funding often gets funneled to protect more larger, more cuddly species like pandas and elephants, “ugly” ecosystems also get shafted in comparison with more charismatic megabiomes when it comes to conservation. A 2006 review of two decades of conservation science found that ecosystem bias is real: marine, tundra, and desert biomes were least likely to be studied by scientists, while there was no shortage of research occurring in North American and European forests. The report found that aquatic systems were far underrepresented in their conservation attention in relation to their size, and swamps, of course, didn’t even make the list.

There are, I’ll admit, reasons why humans might be evolutionarily programmed to be averse to swamps, like the human predisposition to fear snakes and spiders. Mosquitoes, historically powerful disease vectors, lay their eggs in swamps’ stagnant waters. And the murky waters of wetlands prevent people from spotting dangerous predators like alligators before they strike. Wetland water isn’t usually drinkable, and hunting and navigation aren’t easy in small channels. Even the humid conditions in many swamps present a problem for human microbiome, which harbors more pesky microorganisms in moist conditions than in dry ones. Not to mention the quicksand! Still, as far as I can tell, there’s no evidence for swamp-hate as an evolutionary phenomenon. In fact, nowadays the greatest danger posed by a swamp to people living in developed countries is more likely the risk of building collapse on filled-in wetlands—or, the threat of more severe storms and flooding that come along with wetland loss.

In fact, draining and filling in swamps has been an American tradition for centuries, from the Florida Everglades, which has lost about half of its total area over the last few decades, to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. The latest national report by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimated coastal wetland loss at 80,000 acres every year—an amount just shy the area of the Philadelphia. Draining wetlands has been marked as a serious conservation problem, and has even led to saltwater creeping in to wells that were once meant for drinking, loss of fertile agricultural land, and even fires on newly barren peatland.

Even so, swamp-hate is, like panda-hugging, a cultural construct that is as much a product of exposure as it is of the physical conditions of the swamp. A short list of cultural artifacts in which swamps play a starring role include: the plant-human hybrid monster in “Swamp Thing,” the swamp creature in Stephen King’s “It,” almost all of the villains featured in the cartoon “Scooby Doo, Where Are You!”, and a string of TV shows with names like “Swamp Monsters” and “River Monsters.” In the same way that “Shark Week” paints sharks into vicious, bloodthirsty killers, the swamp media machine is pushing us to fear swamps, without even considering their ecological and economic value.

And so, what are we to do with this culture of swamp rancor? Well, a rebranding campaign, similar to that which has been taken on by shark conservationists in recent years, could be a good start. But for now, we can all do our part to encourage swamp stewardship by speaking fondly of swamps, rather than using them as an easy analogy for a hellish pit of political corruption. And definitely never, ever talk about draining them.