Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Flight of the Honeybees

When you think of the past six years in Washington, do you get an ulcerous feeling in your gut? Do you feel that existential nausea and soul-diarrhea of Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Do you just feel like the entire Earth has got Krohn's disease and is ready to expel us in one violent abdominal retch?

Well, friends, now you know why it's Digestive Diseases Week in our nation's capital. If you have some time to visit and let out some wind with some friends over a Prilosec cocktail or two, check it out. And now, for some more news that may make you want to blow lunch...

Sierra Club

Flight of the Honeybees

Ignorance is the fuel of conflict, the force that keeps cruise missiles flying and torture camps operating and aircraft carriers afloat, aimed toward Iran. Ignorance has been the stock-in-trade, the defining mark of the Bush administration, perhaps nowhere more than in its open and malignant contempt for science. We are nearing a pay-the-piper moment on this score.

Science is not conducted on the "shock and awe" model, nor is it an American Idol entertainment, where you can go from a set of alternate hypotheses to a working theory or a practical solution in a single season. Science works according to a gradual process of testing and re-testing experience and refining understanding. Scientists are taught to be skeptical toward the overnight solution, the slam-dunk prediction, the cakewalk conclusion. For they know that understanding (let alone practical application) matures by degrees far larger than the instant fixes of Karl Rove's parallel reality or the six month victories of Dick Cheney's fantasy realm.

Read the conclusion to virtually any research article in a scientific journal, and you'll be likely to find something to this effect: "more research (or repeated study) is required to verify these findings and develop better understanding..."

That reminder, of course, is always ignored by the media who report any scientific findings of public interest or import, such as research into a new drug or the effects of a diet or lifestyle modification. But such a reminder needs to be noted, because it also contains a warning for all of us: the maturity of scientific understanding occurs as gradually as does the maturity of a person. And the problems that have beset us in this age simply can't wait that long.

We should have learned this lesson from the AIDS epidemic. A new disease entity appeared nearly 30 years ago, and it took some time to even understand the etiology (causative factors) and pathology of the illness. It required more than a decade for scientists to begin to develop and apply treatments that offered some hope to sufferers from the disease. It's not that scientists are lazy or lack an appreciation of the urgency of a condition like AIDS; it's simply that they know that the impulsive rush toward success is precisely what opens the door wide to failure. They know that effort, repetition, and above all time are required for understanding to mature and for real, enduring solutions to develop.

Now quite apart from the lesson that this holds for our government and its belief in the drop-kick, mass murder approach to exporting democracy, there is more that we need to take note of here. For one of the themes I've been reading and hearing from the media on the climate change issue (I prefer that term to the misleading or easily distorted phrase "global warming") is that our advanced scientific and technological know-how will doubtless bring us the solutions we need to prevent disaster, and that there is, after all, no need for any urgent, Kyoto-style guidelines from government or the corporate realm.

This reassuring pabulum, that our hi-tech, corporate-funded science will fix everything in time, is an anti-scientific attitude, based on ignorance. Scientists are barely beginning to understand the nature and scope of the problem; the distance from where we are scientifically to the point where a comprehensive solution can even be proposed, let alone achieve consensus, cannot even be estimated today.

A potentially related issue has recently appeared in a segment of the news market: the mysterious disappearance of the honeybee (also see Mark Morford's excellent meditation on the broader meaning of this occurrence). Here's an excerpt from Gerber's article:

90% of the feral (wild) bee population in the United States has died out. Recent studies in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have shown that bee diversity is down 80 percent in the sites researched, and that “bee species are declining or have become extinct in Britain.” The studies also revealed that the numbers of wildflowers that depend on pollination have dropped by 70 percent. Which came first, the decline in wildflowers or the decline in pollinators, has yet to be determined. If bees continue to die off so would the crops they support and with that would ensue major economic disruption and possibly famine.

No one, including the world's leading experts on these creatures, their history, and their behavior, has the remotest clue as to what the hell is going on. You could suggest (as Morford does in his piece) that it might be cell towers, and be on equally solid (or shaky) ground with the experts. There isn't even consensus on what is happening, let alone how, or what to do about it. The bees might be dying, they might be traveling to other lands or passing into parallel universes—the only thing that is clearly known is that they are disappearing.

The only other point of agreement for everyone who understands the meaning of this mysterious disappearance of the bees is that it bodes terrible misfortune for every person on this planet, as Gerber pointed out in the passage above.

Yet how dare we suggest that this could be the fault of a single President or an administration that has had barely six years of power? This has obviously been going on for decades. Point taken, and duly noted.

But before we absolve the Bush administration, let's be clear on this: the past six years have seen the hardening of a culture in which the mouth of inquiry was stoppered—in the media, in the halls of Justice, in the military, in Congress, in the inner circle of the White House, and in science. From climate change to stem cell research to AIDS to birth control to the study and management of natural disasters—from sea to shining sea—the spirit of scientific exploration has been quelled, its inquiring voice silenced, its funding cut back or revoked.

So, even if we had been aware (as, it turns out, some in the scientific community were), we would not have been ready to begin to understand the meaning of the disappearance of the bees. When Brittney's addiction or made-up mushroom clouds or Anna Nicole's funeral trump true awareness, there will inevitably be consequences. Perhaps, as Morford concludes, it is the very bed we have made, not just these past six years, but over the entire course of the industrial age:

See, the sweet, sticky ontological truth is nature doesn't really give a damn whether our species lives or dies. It is very possible that we are not nearly as essential or significant as we like to believe. Though I imagine if nature had her druthers, she might very well choose to eliminate us like a bad dream and let the honeybees and the ants and the trees and the whales take over.

Or, as Gerber concludes:

It could also be that our methods centred on mass production and factory farming are in conflict with nature, as we can see in the case of avian flu, we may be creating a world of pestilence having forgotten that we are part of nature and there is a natural order, balance and harmony that needs to be maintained in the dance of life. Like any species in nature that gets out of hand, nature has a way to keep it in check, and humankind may be the next species in line for severe adjustment or even step-by-step eradication.

We won't know until we begin to ask, examine, and understand. For that, we will need leaders who encourage, support, and fund a culture of active scientific inquiry, debate, and exploration--right here on the Earth.

There's more here on the disappearance of the bees. Once you get past the stuff about what the author named her cat, you'll find some valuable information.

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