a warning on shifting baselines

It is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it. -Wendell Berry

The Guardian recently highlighted a very disturbing trend: the potential widespread loss of insects across massive swathes of the world (Germany in this study, but trends are similar in the U.S. and elsewhere). Subsequent Guardian posts can be found here and here. In sum, there was a 75% drop in insect mass within the last 27 years.

Insects (class Insecta), of course, are among the planets most successful group of organisms and form the base of the food chains for many vertebrates, like ourselves. The are millions of species, still millions of which have not been formally described by Western science.

One particular phenomenon we must guard against is the idea of “shifting baselines.” As a child growing up in the 90’s, I saw occasional monarch butterflies here and there during the summer. I did not see, however, the massive clouds of many thousands that would roost overnight at my grandparent’s Iowa farmstead. What I consider “natural” or “normal” is in fact a much diminished state, or may even be a temporary stopping point in a trend of long decline. Ask anyone over 50 years old about driving through the country in the summer… they would describe a windshield splattered with bugs, fireflies in great numbers, swarming moths around the outside lights.

(Here’s a TED talk on shifting baselines as it relates to ocean ecosystems).

We are trying our best to aid pollinators and insects in our land management. We are sowing filter strips along the waterways with native grasses and flowers. A pollinator patch is being installed. Additional plants species are being added here and there. On tillable acres it is more difficult.

Sr. Mary reaches for the seeds of Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum), a purple-flowered native plant that supports dozens of insect species.

I don’t want to dwell on the topic too long, for the news is not good, especially as I think of the baseline we’ve left for my kids to discover. Instead I should return back to the work there is to do. However, I came across another article that I thought provided an interesting addition to the news on insects.

Black butterfly wings offer a model for better solar cells.” The idea of biomimicry is imitated nature’s design into our human products, services, and systems.

Biomimicry has a history in many commercial products. Whether or not this particular design eventually turns into a commercial product is besides the point. I found the poignancy and symbolism of a solar cell based on a butterfly too powerful to resist. It encapsulates some of the fundamental challenges of our time. Fatalism can too often be an cop-out. The world we build is to a large degree our own choice.


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