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Bugpocalypse: Environmental Collapse Continues

2017 October 22
by Ian Welsh

There are two major, interrelated environmental problems today. The first is climate change, the second is environmental collapse. The ecosystem is a very complicated web, from single celled organisms on up to apex predators and humans. When you unbalance it, when you take out chunks, the consequences cascade through the ecosystem, and it is possible for ecosystems to collapse, losing the ability to support higher forms of life, while the makeup of the lower parts changes significantly.

(For example, there are predictions of jellyfish taking over the oceans, or in bio-habitats, slimes becoming dominant.)

Climate change will be catastrophic, and it feeds into ecosystem problems by changing climates faster than animals and plants can adjust, but it’s probably survivable for humanity. (Just because humans will survive does not mean you and your kids will survive.)

Probably doesn’t mean certainly; there are outside scenarios where some system goes into exponential overdrive and renders the Earth unsuitable for humans.

Ecological collapse has its own nightmare scenarios. Traditionally, the apex predators (and, yeah, that’s effectively us), don’t survive great die-offs, and we have induced a great die-off. We’re losing, basically, all the fish: We have been spreading areas of oxygen drought in the ocean. Anecdotal reports of insect die-offs now have some scientific confirmation:

The abundance of flying insects has plunged by three-quarters over the past 25 years.

This new data was gathered in nature reserves across Germany, but has implications for all landscapes dominated by agriculture, the researchers said.

This amounts to a six percent decrease per year, and it’s happening in nature preserves, which are the places one might expect to be effected least.


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Anecdotally, as someone who’s almost 50, I remember a lot more insects in cities when I was a child. I see hardly any now.

As humans, we have taken over so much of the land’s surface and replaced it with farms and a very few animals (domesticated animals like cattle, chicken, sheep, llamas, and so on). We’ve removed most of the great forests and jungles, and replaced them with plants and animals that are very close to being monocultures (especially as the animal and plant breeds have been reduced to a few strains, with heirloom strains being phased out.)

58 percent of all vertebrate wildlife was lost just between 1970 and 2012.

On top of this, we have massive use of pesticides, mass release of chemicals into the environment in general, and the vast pools of plastics, all of which have become ubiquitous throughout the environment–including microscopic particles in our drinking water.

We’re pushing environmental collapse, in other words.

It’s not as obvious as wolves growing too numerous and taking too many dear, then dying off themselves, but it’s very close to the same thing.

It isn’t, well, necessary. We could do agriculture in ways that didn’t create monocultures, didn’t use mass pesticides, and made farmlands not be wastelands for everything but our few chosen animals and plants, but we don’t. Our cities could be full of green things and life that isn’t harmful (or not very) to humans, but they aren’t.

In most cases, this might be more expensive and more work, but it would also be better for us. We do better where there are more micro-organisms, not less. We do better where there are more plants, and especially trees, not less. A flourishing biome is in our interest, despite some challenges.

But we haven’t. Driven by efficiency and the profit motive, we have chosen instead to strip ecosystems bare, and not create new ones or work to keep those remaining healthy.

This is a great danger to us, and to most other living beings on the planet. We are foolish to think we will escape severe consequences: We will not.

This intersection of ecosystem collapse and climate change contains the highest chance humans have to cause their own apocalypse. The only other threat as large is the use of nuclear weapons.

It may be that humans are simply incapable of handling the technology we can create.

We shall see. It is clear, at the least, that we will need a harsh lesson, with deaths of a billion or more, as a corrective.

Let us hope that’s all that happens, and that those who survive, learn from it and change. Permanently.


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27 Responses
  1. October 22, 2017

    Seven billion people on a planet that can barely sustain one. Do the math.

  2. Herman permalink
    October 22, 2017

    Most people still believe in the myth of endless technological progress and economic growth so the answers to these environmental problems will just be more tech. On the extreme end of this spectrum of thought you have the space colony people and the transhumanists who think we will be able to upload our consciousness onto computers or become cyborgs.

    Until more people start to question the absurd belief in endless technological and economic progress we will never be able fix our environmental problems.

  3. October 22, 2017

    One problem is the central thesis of extraction – the Republicans feel that they can everything, and charge every else for the privileged. This has been proven scientifically not be true.

  4. wiskybravvo permalink
    October 22, 2017

    With these huge systems on the decline, resulting in possibly enormous global death and destruction on an unknown level within and unknown timeframe, one begs to question what to do during this decline? What is important in life now? What to do with oneself? If we continue to drive at full speed towards the brick wall, what matters anymore? Does anything?
    Should I just meditate and meet my doom with a smile? Enjoy everything I can without accelerating the destruction process? Start prepping like hell?

    As a 32yo male with a 5yo son, I wonder not what should I be doing for myself, but what can I do for him, if anything?

  5. S Brennan permalink
    October 22, 2017

    Ian; thanks for the link on flying insects, I will share.

    Herman; I think it’s the other way round, we are stuck in a technological rut by corrupt political forces.

    Ecological reform was underway in the 70’s, we had a [Tennessee based] up and running liquid fluoride reactor which would have ended the reign of coal, Nixon killed it in favor of a [California based] untried breeder reactor that failed miserably. Carter could have reversed this, but doubled down on coal and leaving [what he was comfortable with] nuclear industry unreformed. As manufacturing headed off-shore in the 80-00’s, coals pollution was hidden away from “reformers”, who in fact, were just nimbys.

  6. mago permalink
    October 22, 2017

    “. . . change, permanently.” Oxymoron.

  7. EverythingsJake permalink
    October 23, 2017

    I am continually baffled by how our leaders seem to have not even an inkling of necessary change. We are careening to our deaths under a system that doesnt make very many happy even if it didn’t entail the potential death of the species.

  8. Stormcrow permalink
    October 23, 2017

    It may be that humans are simply incapable of handling the technology we can create.
    I have believed for several years that this is the core problem, in one sentence.

    We do a couple of things that other animal species do: we use tools and we employ social communication. What we do that’s unique, is to place social communication at the service of toolchain improvement.

    This lets us improve our tools at rates many thousands of times faster than evolution can improve the biological human brains that manage them. And that difference in the scale of change is why we’re going to be extinct in another couple of hundred years.

    You mentioned a billion deaths. The thing about that sort of dieback that renders it more lethal to our species than it might be to bears or beavers, is that we’re capable of building fusion bombs and weaponizing viruses.

    That presumed billion deaths will take place in places governed by ruling elites that know how slight their own chances of survival will be.

    The Resource Wars that dieback will spawn will be total wars, with all that term implies. And they’ll take down technical civilization and the human species right along with it, even more surely than a third world war with the USSR would have done, but for the same reasons.

  9. Hugh permalink
    October 23, 2017

    There are things that we can do. Educate, organize, resist. Spread the message, start the debate. If nothing else, bear witness.

  10. breed permalink
    October 23, 2017

    Or we could, you know, reduce the population to a mere billion and develop a techno-utopia civilization with robots and travel in a smaller area… ahh but the breeding. Humans, all animals really, will breed breed breed until nature culls them, and with humans manipulating nature…

  11. Synoia permalink
    October 23, 2017

    S Brennan

    “we had a [Tennessee based] up and running liquid fluoride reactor which would have ended the reign of coal”

    Nuclear was never a solution, because the waste disposal problem has and will never be solved.

    Between Climate change, Ecological Collapse and the sixth great dying, we are proving that intelligence as we know it is an ecological dead, end.

    Civilization as we practice is is the destructive heat engine.

  12. S Brennan permalink
    October 23, 2017

    Synoia; your ignorance blisters my retinas.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_fluoride_thorium_reactor#Advantages

  13. Bill permalink
    October 24, 2017

    There is an entomologist, Doug Tallamy, who has written a book about gardening for biodiversity. If his lecture slides (on youtube) are any indication the results he gets in his home garden are dramatic. His book (original 2007 maybe) seems to be enjoying a resurgence of interest, or maybe I’m just late to this. Have a hold on the library copy.

  14. DMC permalink
    October 24, 2017

    There’d been some talk about the decline of “bug splat” on car windshields over the last 20 years but it was considered local and/or anecdotal. If the German results are indeed representative, then this is biggest ecological collapse indicator we’ve had in my life time. We may really be irrevocably hosed. It looked bad enough when it just seemed to be honeybees but the knock on effects of a broad based die-off of insects are going to be catastrophic.

    And S. Brennan beat me to the punch about the thorium reactors.

  15. Peter permalink
    October 24, 2017

    Civilization has been at war with bugs since the beginning but even with these frightening studies it’s probably too soon to declare victory. A better metric for understanding the little buggers populations would be to look at agricultural insecticide sales which I think continue to grow along with the bugs.

    Less flying insects in a city may mean the city is cleaner and has made progress cleaning up the filth and rot that attracts some insects and spreads disease.

  16. different clue permalink
    October 24, 2017

    All . . .

    I think “Peter” is just having his little fun with us. What do all y’all think?

  17. different clue permalink
    October 24, 2017

    For those who wish to be bummed out way completely to the totally ultra megamax, here is a blog devoted to studying the ongoing Treepocalypse to go along with the Bugpocalypse. It is called Wit’s End.

    Here is the link to the basic premise and links to research allowing the interested reader to follow various things up. It is called . . . BASIC PREMISE + Research Links about Dying Trees.

    http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/p/basic-premise.html

  18. October 25, 2017

    It is a remarkable difference. Must have been upgraded.

  19. Peter permalink
    October 27, 2017

    @DC

    A very frightening even catastrophic report from witsend but the people involved are CAGW snake-oil salesmen so buyer beware. If this claim of soybean yields already being dramatically reduced by high surface ozone levels is true the effects should already be evident in national soybean production.

    The USDA report on soy yield states that yield and production are either at or near record levels and soy yield and corn yields have been stedily increasing since the 1960’s.

  20. different clue permalink
    October 27, 2017

    @Peter,

    It merits further study, that’s for sure.

    I remember from several decades ago reading about how surface level ozone generated in the photochemical smogs over Los Angeles would sometimes drift east on the winds and injure or kill whole forest loads of Ponderosa Pine trees in the mountains east of Ell Ayy. (The San Gabriel Mountains? I forget the name of the particular mountains.)

  21. Peter permalink
    October 27, 2017

    @DC

    If the smog of LA was so deadly it would seem that LA wuld be a total zeroscape denuded of all its greenery. This is why trying to make this type of cause and effect judgement appears faulty and even agenda driven. None of this pollution is good for living things but most plant life seems able to resist this assault and some people think that the extra CO2 in the mix may be helping plants become more vigirous.

  22. different clue permalink
    October 28, 2017

    What I remember reading is that the smog from LA diluted when the wind was right and broke up and blew away to the east the thermal inversions . . . and that diluted air-smog mix reached those mountains and the Ponderosa Pines began sickening and dying after marinating in that air often enough long enough. Researchers discovered that Ponderosa Pine was more susceptible to ozone damage than many other tree species and was one of the first to sicken from ozone.

    Pollution controls imposed on L A reduced the production of smog and its derivative ozone enough that the air blowing east started containing below-maiming-or-lethal levels of ozone and indeed the pines stopped sickening and/or dying at that time.

    What they have done more recently is unknown to me. Perhaps I will see it mentioned in one of those many links the blogger offers if I take the huge number of hours needed to click and read all those links.

    If this is all as true as the blogger thinks, then slow ozone killoff of forest loads of trees all over the world is a separate standalone problem from carbon skydumping. If undamaged trees could suck back down all the carbon which is skydumped, then the carbon skydumping would not be a problem. If undamaged trees could suck down half the carbon which is skydumped every year, then carbon skydumping would be half the problem it is today.

    So if this is correct, then stamping out the particular kinds of pollution which generate earth-surface ozone in tree-altitude air should be done as fast as possible so the forests can re-recruit themselves into the carbon skydraining mission. Because after all, the CO2 and H2O which the trees cannot re-work up into carbohydrates represents the “just that much” O2 which the trees cannot re-release back into the air. Push that process far enough and we all end up with a hypoxic atmosphere to live in or die in.

    Perhaps the atmosphere will become just hypoxic enough that we-the-peoples of the lowlands will die off and the Tibetans, Andean Indians and Ethiopian Highlanders . . . who are already lower-atmospheric-O2-adapted . . . will inherit the lowlands. Perhaps any Tibetan, Andean and/or Ethiopian Highlander intellectuals reading this thread should think about ways to get Tibetans, Andeans and Ethiopian Highlanders to meet and mingle so as to start breeding up a population of people containing ALL THREE sets of low-O2 adaptations. Such three-way descendants might be even MORE pre-adapted for the hypoxic atmosphere conditions of the future.

  23. different clue permalink
    October 28, 2017

    By the way, and not related at all, when I click on “all the collected Ian Welsh images” on the web, the very first image that shows up is for Mustapha Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey. Here is the link.

    https://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images;_ylt=A0LEVwmTCPRZ_7oAaQZXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTEydjg0NGVvBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDQjM5MTlfMQRzZWMDc2M-?p=ian+welsh&fr=sfp

    Why is this happening?

  24. Peter permalink
    October 28, 2017

    @DC

    I’m sure these researchers mined this alarmist story for more research grant money to produce more superficial alarmist stories.

    You don’t seem able to wait for the imaginary CAGW to kill billions of people and are dreaming of suffocating the lowland masses with your dark hypoxic nightmare.

  25. different clue permalink
    October 28, 2017

    @Peter,

    Thank you for your most recent reply to my comment. I am always happy to hear from you. Please let me know if you have any other concerns.

  26. ultra permalink
    October 29, 2017

    “There’d been some talk about the decline of ‘bug splat’ on car windshields over the last 20 years but it was considered local and/or anecdotal.”

    Motor vehicles are a major cause of death to both flying and crawling insects, not to mention frogs, salamanders, snakes, and other vertebrate animals. The solution to this problem is: Live in a city and either 1) walk, 2) ride a bike, or 3) take mass transit, like subways. So yes, there are things that can be done to reduce the ecological destruction that is occurring at the present time.

  27. Peter permalink
    October 29, 2017

    @Ultra

    You can’t escape your part in the bugpocalipse by living in cities or riding buses. Billions of dollars are spent for you by cities to kill bugs so you don’t wake up itching and covered in roaches. The bug fogger trucks run in the middle of the night spraying poison so you won’t be swatting the bloodsuckers the next day.

    If all 6 billion people in the world kill just one bug a day that’s over a trillion bugs killed each year and except fot these questionable studies and anecdotal observations bugs seem to thrive because of civilization even with their loses.

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