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The Silence of the Bugs (nytimes.com)
87 points by cardamomo on May 27, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 29 comments

What does it take for people to see that for all the problems technology and markets have solved, they have unintended side-effects that, after enough time, can become global problems?

Pesticides and population growth expanding into more and more territory helped a lot of human problems in the past, but created new problems. Expanding into new territory escaped problems of poisoning, desertifying, or overfilling the land . . . until we populated the whole planet and the environment reached toxic levels of pollution.

You might say the environment isn't yet toxic to us (though some places are), but it appears so for some essential symbiotic life. If experts in the field don't know what's happening, then people who estimate carrying capacities for the planet don't either, raising the error bars downward for their estimation.

Systems perspectives predict outcomes like this and suggest systemic solutions, not technology or market solutions alone (though they are important), which are likely exacerbating them. A key leverage point I see are they system's beliefs and goals. They're hard to change, but such changes have happened before.

What does it take for people to see that for all the problems technology and markets have solved, they have unintended side-effects that, after enough time, can become global problems?

Pain. Pain on the personally detectable level, and someone they trust to explain to them why they’re hurting. As it stands now few people feel that pain, and if they do, there are legions of smug pricks telling them tall tales about the cause. If the Arab “Spring” and subsequent crises had been clearly and accurately framed as an environmental issue first, people would be freaking out. Instead it’s gotten every kind of spin short of the reality of drought leading to skyrocketing food costs in depressed economies.

What does it take for people to see that for all the problems technology and markets have solved, they have unintended side-effects that, after enough time, can become global problems?

It is fairly easy to see this and some portion of people see it immediately. Unfortunately, another who profit from these things ask "what does it take for people not to see and stop these things?" and the answer is fairly visible in the way global warming has been [not] addressed.

>technology and markets

While I agree in general, in this particular case, technology and markets today are trying to get more people onto less land and in arrangements that require less energy. Current public policy is holding it back.

Put the blame where it belongs. Public policy is being held back by powerful interests who profit from the status quo.

“Powerful interests” in this case is grassroots community organizers protecting their homes from unwanted change by pushing back against global capital.

While there's definitely a status-quo bias among myopic community folks, there's also totally deserved distrust of global capital. Global capital does not have the public interest as top priority and certainly isn't focused on sustainability and decades-long time-scales.

Global capital is overall profit-prioritizing, externalizes tons of costs, invests massively in lobbying governments for their interests, and focuses on relatively short-term growth figures.

It sounds like you are suggesting that if only grassroots push-back would go away, global capital is generally solving ecological problems. I hope that completely backwards view isn't what you're actually suggesting.

Maybe you are talking about knee-jerk anti-density, anti-development stuff? While that NIMBYism is a real problem, and there are real developers working in the right direction, we still have far more global capital and power behind fossil-fuel companies and pesticide manufacturers etc. than behind sustainable-development tech. Despite all the push for electric vehicles, car companies are pushing way-oversized usually-single-occupant vehicles (SUV's and pickup-trucks-that-people-use-just-for-commuting and such) as much as ever, and lobby for all the unsustainable public infrastructure for them…

At any rate, the org doing the best at combating both the unsustainable and corrupt capital growth-focused nonsense and the counter-productive NIMBYism is https://www.strongtowns.org (not sure what the best equivalent is for issues around pesticides and healthy biodiversity).

>global capital is generally solving ecological problems

Global capital is generally responding to consumer preferences, which in the context of housing means high-density structures in walkable and transit-connected areas, which are specifically good. Consumers also have lots of un-ecological preferences, like large vehicles, cheap meat, etc. which are not.

>unsustainable public infrastructure

Car infrastructure is problematic in many ways, but "unsustainable" is the wrong word. We're sustaining it just fine, unlike its alternatives. Empirically, our most important transit systems are incapable of maintaining previously-achieved levels of service for any amount of money, and the costs of implementing new service are escalating for reasons we don't understand such that even minor subway buildout is becoming an existential challenge to the resources of our richest and fastest-growing cities. Give it 30 years, and it's not clear that the collective productivity of all humanity will exceed the cost of a mile of New York City subway track. That's unsustainable. The environmental-friendliness axis is orthogonal.

Neil Postman's Technopoly was my first intro to these ideas.

"This alarming discovery (decline in insect population over time), made by mostly amateur naturalists who make up the volunteer-run Entomological Society Krefeld, raised an obvious question: Was this happening elsewhere? Unfortunately, that question is hard to answer because of another problem: a global decline of field naturalists who study these phenomena."

-- This reminds me of similar to the decline of in-the-field reporters. The concept of an advanced society that seems to be shedding "situational awareness" in a variety of areas is disturbing.

It is very frightening that as a society, we are mostly unable to plan against the tragedy of the commons, especially for global scale problems.

While we're certainly seeing the rather horrible destruction of human kind's common heritage, I don't the "tragedy of the commons" model/metaphor [1 ]is at all adequate for describing this situation, which is driven by uniquely powerful and influential forces within our society rather than mere atomistic uncaring of the great masses (which is a factor but not the "driving factor").

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

I think that may be part of the trend to make the tool the target, i.e. forgetting about the deeper purpose of a given tool and instead treating that tool as the purpose.

I'm talking about money and finance.

It is supposed to be a tool to help allocate resources efficiently. That means the final outcome was/is supposed to be the real world outcome of where resources end up being used and what for.

However, in nearly all discussions the tool, money, is treated as if it IS the final outcome. If the real world outcome is bad it's never the tool (we used the wrong tool), it always is the real world that has to adapt to the tool instead! For example, now matter how at least modern countries clearly have more than enough food, if we have an outcome of not enough food for a lot of people it's never a question of if we are using the wrong tool, or misusing it.

Also, no matter how complex the issue, finance experts can talk about and solve everything! All discussions, whether it's housing or cancer research, are about where to get money from and how to deploy it. And then the problem magically solves itself. It has worked for all the nice and pretty economic text book examples, so we conclude it works everywhere, all the time. Plus, if we talk about finance, we have beautiful numbers!! We can use math! We can be accurate and precise! If we talked about the real world phenomenon instead we would have a mess, no or few or hard to interpret numbers. The joke about the guy looking for his car keys under the street light is about far far more than about a few poignant examples, it's how humans think much of the time, avoiding uncertainty even if that means leaving the actual problem space, and solve another, less uncertain problem instead.

What does that have to do with the parent comment?

Since we avoid the real world real world outcomes don't matter as much unless they can be measured immediately and easily. Instead, since "money" exists entirely in the human mind space, it's all about perception. Why make a quality product if you know most people won't notice? Or, e.g. because of lemon market stuff, information asymmetry, are unwilling to pay for it? Marketing, PR, but also accounting - manage human perceptions, a much more certain endeavor than dealing with the mess and complexity of the real world. We get more marketing, advertising and PR because managing perceptions of buyers/spenders is far more efficient in a money-based system than the much higher effort of finding out what's going on in the actual world, which also is only very loosely coupled to buying decisions.

Given that even at the very best of times "money" only represents a fraction of knowledge about the real world, if you manage by managing "money" you miss out on a lot. There are many people who have detail knowledge in their space - but they cannot use it! Because finance does not include their knowledge. If you know there is a problem with a product, but the rest of the world doesn't, or it's way too uncertain and long-term to price it in, than nothing is done.

The argument that long(er-term the market will price it in is moot - long-term the investors already got their ROI and don't care. Besides, many problems like the one this thread is about are not priced in even now that most people are aware of it, because how would that even work?

I think people have waaaayyyyyy too little freedom to make decisions based on what they know these days. We have to optimize for an artificial construct that leaves out huge amounts of information actually present in billions of distributed minds.


Here is a challenge:

For any larger problem such as this one, from poor people to health, try to ignore "money" while exploring it in your mind. Ignore finance, money- completely and utterly. Only think in terms of the real world stuff. "Resources" in terms of doctors, nurses, education to create them - all real stuff. Leave out "money" and "finance" from your thoughts completely. Just as an experiment. It is harder than you may think, we are soooo conditioned to not do that, to always think within this artificial mental system. In economics, everything is measured in "money" and we take that for granted.


Somebody mentioned "tragedy of the commons". Another model - which I think falls far short. Looking at myself and at other people I know and have met, we could and would be willing to watch out for "humanity" in our actions. But often we can't. For example, if someone at a drug maker decides that while the drug is okay for its original use the billions they made the last decade were due to more and more misuse of that drug, what happens if they do the right thing and scale it all back? So that they voluntarily sell only a hundred million of that drug, when they could sell billions. Could they? Individually you might be tempted to say they could but humans are selfish and that's the reason they don't. I would like to point out that, looking at countless examples from open source software to volunteering to research of what is important to people (when basic needs are met) that's not true, but that our system creates that outcome. Any company that does that is out-competed by those who don't, by those who maximize the profits. So even if "doing the right thing" happens, in the larger picture it will soon be overtaken. The "tragedy of the commons" now doesn't have only the original "people are selfish by nature" element that of course is true, I'd say it also has a huge element that we added by a system that maximizes some things and punishes others, and thinking of the "global good" certainly is not part of what it maximizes.

I'm pretty convinced that this is due to drainage. Over the last 30 years ditches have been cluveted and ponds drained on all farms, irrigation is now an art - very tightly managed - and farmers round here have dug deep reservoirs to run it. Hedgerows and roads used to have long swampy bits that were ideal for insect breeding, but that's all gone. Farmers here now farm arable or intensive pig/chicken. The mixed economy farms are gone - and with them the small ponds and wallows that were common.

I've got two ponds in my garden, they are a source of head shaking from keen urban gardeners because they are shallow, muddy and a bit smelly - but they team with life and now, in the summer, the air is thick with insects.

For the past several decades there has also been a concerted effort to eliminate standing water almost anywhere practicable, in order to reduce mosquito breeding.

Good point. In Africa and southern Europe this makes sense, but in Germany and the UK and Northern France... not so much.

But clearly this is an effective way of reducing insect life.

Pretty easy(heroic estimate) to check this, You could link a few sets of time bounded landsat images of an affected area to see if the land use change correlates with the rise in this problem. Depending on the granularity of the data you could go pretty deep with something like quickbird images as well. Though I'm not sure how long they have been running off hand.

Very interesting... is there somewhere I can donate so someone with cheaper access to land can create a muddy pond for me?

I'd love to support biodiversity, but i've got a wife that hates bugs and space on my balcony comes at a premium... would be much more sensible to create a muddy pond somewhere outside of the city.

that's a great hypothesis i hadn't heard. interesting to consider... and a bit less scary than insecticidal effects.

How do you deal with mosquitoes? Also, have frogs/toads also made use of the still water?

We live with the mosquitoes as an annoying price of organic gardening. They are a pain, but they are...

The frogs and toads make plenty use of it! Also newts and grass snakes.

This is a weird article, because from what I remember of reading the study (or a contemporaneous related one) during another bug thread, the main culprit for loss of insect biomass in Germany seemed to have been habitat loss --- particularly the loss of hedgerows and expansions of fields and other featureless lots. Yet habitat loss appears nowhere in this article, and pesticides --- which might be a marginal cause --- are highlighted.

The author's field of study is lake habitats worldwide. They are also showing changes in the life inside the water. The author suggests the changes inside existing lakes, reduction in insect life around lakes, and general loss of insect life have a common cause.

Wildlife conservation for most people generally focuses on large animals we can more relate to, particularly other mammals. Humans generally regard insects and many other invertebrates in their urban environments as pests, or something to fear. It's no surprise that an invertebrate armageddon is occurring with so little fanfare, outside of problems with one economically important species of bee.

The largest clearly-identified issues leading to these declines are loss of habitat and pesticides, both urban and agricultural. There are simple things anyone can do to help. This organization in the US has a lot of great information: https://xerces.org/bringbackthepollinators/

What could tech do to make solving this problem easier? I stumbled on iNaturalist [1], a crowd-sourced platform for doing species identifications that is also (at least partly) open source [2]. What other tools could we either utilize more efficiently of create if they don't yet exist?

[1] https://www.inaturalist.org/ [2] https://github.com/inaturalist/inaturalist

I'm not sure species identification is the issue here. It doesn't matter if 100 species are at risk or 100,000, I think most people still aren't too concerned about the environment.

Maybe for anything to get done there has to be some immediate economic benefit to the person doing the preservation. But at this point I'm not sure what that would be, or who would fund it.

One of the things I noticed moving to the city is that windows don't have screens, because there's almost no bugs to keep out.

The XKCD "Land Mammals" (https://xkcd.com/1338/) is an infographic that shows that humans and our livestock outweigh all other land mammals by a huge margin. We have been turning oil and wild biomass into humans and food animals. (We're also stripping the oceans of fish.)

Well, the crazy part will be when we really embrace eating insects (there's NO good reason not to). Then, we won't see increase in biodiversity, but we'll see industrially-farmed grasshoppers and crickets show up on a much more massive scale. And for all the other issues, it will be supremely better than cattle.

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