There are few better ways to separate wizards from prophets in our modern world than by their revealing attitudes toward mosquitoes. Your average wizard would be quick to swat a buzzing intruder, spray the area with some Raid, or maybe plug in one of those clever blue light gadgets that waft carbon dioxide to lure the little whiners into electroshock therapy.
Perhaps, if they were a Bill Gates, they would see Mr. Mosquito as the evil embodiment of malaria, deadliest scourge of all infectious diseases, and devise robot-bulldozer eradication of swamp-like habitats or some wizardly genetic alchemy to quash the plague and earn a Nobel Prize.
In any case, to technological wizards, we are at war with nature and mosquitoes are a corps of enemy. Stewart Brand has more recently revised his famous 1968 axiom, the opening Sentence of Purpose for the Whole Earth Catalog, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” to “We are as Gods and we have to get good at it” (coming soon to a theater near you).
Brand is also a champion of moral relativism, an anti-Pelageist, writing,
Certain knowledge of what to fight for, and what to fight against, gives meaning to life and provides its own version of discipline: never give up. That kind of meaning is illusory, I now believe, and blinkered. Fealty to a mystical absolute is a formula for disaster, especially in transformative times.
For prophets (like myself), a mosquito is as old as time and part of the greater natural order of things. If I don’t want to be bitten, I can screen my windows, drop a net over my bed at night, rub on some non-toxic repellent, or make sure there are no rain-catching knick-knacks in my yard. Like all living creatures, mosquitoes have their role amongst predators and prey. While they may be a nuisance to us and our domesticated animals (their prey), fewer mosquitoes also mean fewer bats and purple martins, fewer bluegill and catfish, fewer dragonflies and turtles (their predators).
Back in the 19th and 20th centuries, as the hegemonic meme of chemistry was crawling into bed with many different industries, “insect” was a word easily confused with “pest.” The synonymity was a cultural legacy tracing from the locust plagues of Pharoah’s Egypt, The Good Earth, and the indenture of farmers to slavishly produce monocultured field crops year on year, once they had cut down the forests and killed the game.
Buy a cheap copy of The Good Earth book by Pearl S. Buck. Nobel Laureate Pearl S. Buck's epic Pulitzer Prize-winning…www.thriftbooks.com
Of course, not all cultures cravenly clung to that kind of war footing. Aboriginal Australians had many different insects and larval grubs in their broad cuisine, as did their northern neighbors in Indochina, Korea and the Japans. Aboriginal elders might share a good laugh at people that find witjuty grubs revolting but salivate for jumbo shrimp in rotini pasta parmigiana.
In truth, our food has less to do with insects’ competing appetites than the gardening they willingly and gratuitously perform for us. In tropical countries like México (with a savory history of grasshopper and ant delicacies) about one-third of a world class gastronomic palette is derived from insect-pollinated plants. Any decline in forest-, field-, or desert-dwelling insects has devastating consequences.
Once any insect population drops, populations dependent on them collapse. The ecosystem cascades in search of a different steady state. Crashes in populations of aquatic insects can crash much wider populations of fish and amphibians. The domino effect knocks down dependent species up and down the food chain.
Biodiversity is a useful proxy for ecosystem quality, and so a sort of blinking warning light on Spaceship Earth’s control display.
Chances are, insects or their deeds touch your lips every day. The coffee or tea you brew in the morning. The honey, almonds, apples, cashews, cinnamon and sunflower seeds in your granola. Basil, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cherries, garlic, grapefruit, olive oil, onions, oranges, watermelon — all insect pollinated.
Even some vaccines require insects to come to fruition. The majority of flowering plants, the core of terrestrial life systems, depend on insects for pollination and reproduction. Below ground, insects are essential to the cyclical and reciprocal movement of nutrients. While less is mapped about the marine environment, we know the same processes happen there.
But there are troubles in paradise. Human population growth and urbanization — and not just by wizards — are leading to declines among insects, as well as many other lifeforms. Precipitous insect declines are being escalated as we overshoot critical planetary boundaries — biodiversity, climate change, nitrification, and plastic pollution. On average, the decline in insect abundance is thought to be around 1–2% per year or 10–20% per decade. These losses are seen on nearly every continent, even within well-protected areas like national preserves and biological heritage sites. In geologic time it is a biological super-volcano.
Research by scientists at the University of Toronto showed that hummingbirds exposed to systemic neonicotinoid insecticides for even a short period of time lose their high-powered metabolism. Ounce for ounce, hummingbirds in flight expend 5 times the energy of an Olympic sprinter.
Within two hours of exposure to the pesticides, hummingbird metabolism dropped significantly. While the control group increased energy expenditure between 1% to 7%, the low exposed group displayed a 6% average decline, the medium a 10% decline, and the high exposure group showed 25% reduced energy expenditure
— Graves et al. (2019)
Measures of species abundance, species richness and community composition are all in decline, although rates vary across distance and across families.
In the United Kingdom, 8% of resident species [of butterflies] have become extinct, and since 1976 overall numbers declined by around 50%. In the Netherlands, 20% of species have become extinct, and since 1990 overall numbers in the country declined by 50%. Distribution trends showed that butterfly distributions began decreasing long ago, and between 1890 and 1940, distributions declined by 80%. In Flanders (Belgium), 20 butterflies have become extinct (29%), and between 1992 and 2007 overall numbers declined by around 30%. A European Grassland Butterfly Indicator from 16 European countries shows there has been a 39% decline of grassland butterflies since 1990. The 2010 Red List of European butterflies listed 38 of the 482 European species (8%) as threatened and 44 species (10%) as near threatened (note that 47 species were not assessed). A country level analysis indicates that the average Red List rating is highest in central and mid-Western Europe and lowest in the far north of Europe and around the Mediterranean. The causes of the decline of butterflies are thought to be similar in most countries, mainly habitat loss and degradation and chemical pollution. Climate change is allowing many species to spread northward while bringing new threats to susceptible species.
— Warren, et al (2021)
Sarah Cornell, a scientist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, points out that we know very little about the extent or cascading effects of insect extinction, or even how this one might compare to others.
There might have been many more mass extinctions. It’s just that we only see extinctions with the things that leave a record… things with skeletons… When people [say], ‘we’re entering the sixth mass extinction.’ Okay, well, how do we know that? We might be entering the 17th?…We might make ourselves extinct before we even reach these hallowed glories of the sixth.”
The Dasgupta review, The Economics of Biodiversity (2021) recently revealed:
A general pattern is that rarer species and habitat specialist species are declining, whereas some generalist species are stable or increasing (Marvier, Kareiva and Neubert, 2004). For example, invasive non-native species are on the increase globally (Seebens et al. 2017). Larger species seem to be particularly vulnerable to extinction with direct harvesting for consumption as the principal driver of declines (Ripple et al. 2019). A global review of 166 long-term surveys of insect assemblages found that on average there have been declines of terrestrial species abundance by around 9% per decade compared to increases in freshwater insect abundance by approximately 11% per decade since 1925 (van Klink et al. 2020). These patterns were dominated by trends in North America and some parts of Europe, and it is suggested that improvements in water quality in these regions explain the increasing freshwater insect numbers. The 2020 global LPI shows that the abundance of almost 21,000 populations of vertebrates has declined on average by 68% (in terms of animal population sizes) between 1970 and 2016 (Almond et al, 2020). For freshwater vertebrates, the picture is worse, with average declines of 84%.
It should be worth noting that the study period cited by Dasgupta began in 1970. Silent Spring was published in 1962. We cannot hide behind our ignorance.
Biodiversity is a useful proxy for ecosystem quality, and so a sort of blinking warning light on Spaceship Earth’s control display. Unfortunately, we do not yet have a definitive list of species that exist on Earth because efforts to quantify and record them are still in their infancy. We instead rely on estimates derived from patterns — models based on what we think we know. In this way we estimate approximately 8.7 million eukaryotic species (animals, plants and fungi, excluding bacteria and similar organisms) of which 2.2 million live in marine environments and 8.1 million are animals and plants. We’ve estimated that 75% of eukaryotic species are insects. Compared to just under 6,500 mammal species, one million insect species are known and named.
Only about 2 million species of all forms have been catalogued. Around 2,000 new plants are added each year to some 390,000 named to date. There are probably more than 100 million species of prokaryotes (life forms not enclosed by a cell, such as bacteria and viruses) and 4 to 6 × 10E30 individuals (that’s a 4 or 6 with 30 trailing zeroes), but our lack of knowledge rivals that scale.
Other creatures’ activities are critical in processes ranging from helping you breathe, digest, and think to regulating the composition of the atmosphere.
And yet, species extinction is increasing faster than diversity, far faster than the cataloging process. According to Dasgupta, more than 32,000 species are threatened with extinction — 26% of mammals, 41% of amphibians, 34% of conifers, 33% of reef building corals and 14% of birds (Betts, 2020).
Birds, mammals, amphibians, corals and cycads are moving towards extinction most rapidly. Half a million animals and plants may become extinct because the loss and degradation of their habitat has already taken place — a so-called ‘extinction debt’ — meaning, even if all destructive practices stopped today, species would still go extinct due to past habitat loss. Only habitat restoration — and that includes climate restoration — can slow the damage.
While we have gone a long way towards extinguishing zebras, tigers, and elephants in the wild, we keep their token brethren alive in zoos to remind us of their former wild greatness. In a warped sort of way, we may begin doing the same with insects, only their confinement will have less in common with a zoo and more in common with a dystopian novel. We will examine that prospect more closely in our next installment.
Pasta con Camarones
Marinating time: 30 minutes minimum, or overnight
Prep Time: 20 Minutes
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
- 4 cloves garlic, finely minced or pressed
- 1 tablespoon Shiro (white) miso
- 2 Tb minced hot chile such as Habanero, Serrano, or Jalapeno, or to taste (seeds and ribs may be removed)
- 1 pound sustainably caught medium shrimp, peeled (or you can substitute grasshoppers, sauteed, if available)
- 1 qt water
- 1 tsp oliive oil
- 1 tsp salt
- 8 ounces penne or rotini whole-grain pasta
- 2 tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
- 8 cherry tomatoes, halved
- freshly ground salt and black pepper, to taste
- 1 green onion, thinly sliced
- Whisk olive oil, garlic, miso, cheese and chile. Combine shrimp or sauteed grasshoppers.
- Mix well and marinate, chilled and covered, for at least 30 minutes to overnight, stirring occasionally.
- Heat water on high flame with oil and salt until boiling in a 2-qt or larger pot.
- Stir in pasta. Check for doneness every few minutes while starting other prep.
- Drain pasta when just al dente and keep warm until needed.
- Heat a large skillet or wok with olive oil over medium high heat. Add shrimp with marinade, tomatoes, and nutritional yeast, and toss until shrimp are pink, about 2 minutes. Do not overcook.
- Add drained pasta and mix well.
- Serve immediately, garnished with Parmesan and green onions.
Almond, R. E. A., M. Grooten, and T. Peterson. Living Planet Report 2020-Bending the curve of biodiversity loss. World Wildlife Fund, 2020.
Betts, Jessica, Richard P. Young, Craig Hilton‐Taylor, Michael Hoffmann, Jon Paul Rodríguez, Simon N. Stuart, and E. J. Milner‐Gulland. “A framework for evaluating the impact of the IUCN Red List of threatened species.” Conservation Biology 34, no. 3 (2020): 632–643.
Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring. 1962.
Dasgupta, P., The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. (London: HM Treasury, 2021)
Graves, Emily E., Karen A. Jelks, Janet E. Foley, Michael S. Filigenzi, Robert H. Poppenga, Holly B. Ernest, Richard Melnicoe, and Lisa A. Tell. “Analysis of insecticide exposure in California hummingbirds using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 26, no. 15 (2019): 15458–15466.
Marvier, Michelle, Peter Kareiva, and Michael G. Neubert. “Habitat destruction, fragmentation, and disturbance promote invasion by habitat generalists in a multispecies metapopulation.” Risk Analysis: An International Journal 24, no. 4 (2004): 869–878.
Ripple, William J., Christopher Wolf, Thomas M. Newsome, Matthew G. Betts, Gerardo Ceballos, Franck Courchamp, Matt W. Hayward, Blaire Van Valkenburgh, Arian D. Wallach, and Boris Worm. “Are we eating the world’s megafauna to extinction?.” Conservation Letters 12, no. 3 (2019): e12627.
Seebens, Hanno, Tim M. Blackburn, Ellie E. Dyer, Piero Genovesi, Philip E. Hulme, Jonathan M. Jeschke, Shyama Pagad et al. “No saturation in the accumulation of alien species worldwide.” Nature communications 8, no. 1 (2017): 1–9.
Van Klink, Roel, Diana E. Bowler, Konstantin B. Gongalsky, Ann B. Swengel, Alessandro Gentile, and Jonathan M. Chase. “Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances.” Science 368, no. 6489 (2020): 417–420.
Warren, Martin S., Dirk Maes, Chris AM van Swaay, Philippe Goffart, Hans Van Dyck, Nigel AD Bourn, Irma Wynhoff, Dan Hoare, and Sam Ellis. “The decline of butterflies in Europe: Problems, significance, and possible solutions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, no. 2 (2021).
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.