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Possum Products

Save a tree, wear a possum! Now there's a bumper-sticker with a message. The Possum Product competitions would do well to adopt it, encouraging environmental responsibility and reducing energy usage at the same time.

I like cute furry animals as much as the next person -- though I'm more partial to mustelids than marsupials -- but possums are a major environmental threat and something has to be done about them. Researchers are trying to come up with ways of controlling or reducing possum numbers, but they seem to be fighting an uphill battle. One common frustration for them is the public perception that the use of control strategies such as the poison 1080 is somehow not "natural".

Perhaps there would be less public opposition to 1080 if the scientists called it by another name, stressing the natural origin of the substance. After all, Compound 1080 is based on a naturally occurring poison, fluoroacetate, found in a variety of plants. "Wall-flower dust" may be a more acceptable name to those who believe that Mother Nature is best.

However, one should realise that it is somewhat naive to believe that "natural" always means better or healthier, despite it being a widespread belief. Some 99.99% of all pesticides in the human diet are natural ones courtesy of Mother Nature, but people only seem to worry about the 0.01% that is synthetic in origin.

There is also the idea that one should not attempt to counter Nature. I heard Sharon Crosbie on National Radio voice her indignation that a 53-year-old woman recently became pregnant through in vitro fertilisation. La Crosbie argued that it was unnatural to become a mother at that age, that menopausal infertility was a sign from Mother Nature to give up on child-bearing.

Using similar logic, one could also argue that it is "natural" for older people to suffer from arthritis and cataracts, it is "natural" to die from appendicitis-induced peritonitis and it is "natural" to be overrun with possums. For the sake of our health, and the health of our country's ecosystems, we should encourage a degree of independence from Mother Nature's apron strings.

Vicki Hyde is the editor of New Zealand Science Monthly.