The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

It’s Not Just About Climate Change, It’s About Ecological Collapse

Earthworm Edition:

…they estimated a decline in earthworm abundance of between 33% and 41% in the last quarter of a century, the period for which the best data was available…

Dr Matt Shardlow, of the charity Buglife, said earthworms were essential to healthy soils and productive ecosystems and the decline in UK earthworm populations – at a rate of about 15% per decade since 1960 – was “deeply alarming”.

“Devastated earthworm populations in arable soils are to be expected due to the widespread use of toxic pesticides,” he said. “But declines in broadleaved woodlands and pasture indicate that climate change and growing levels of animal-wormer pollution in soils are likely to be also driving this insidious facet of biodiversity loss.”

This always gets called “biodiversity loss”, but if you lose key species, you can have ecological collapse. For example, in the oceans, the most likely future scenario is that jellyfish become the dominant species.

Notice that we don’t really know how long this has been going on, and how deep it is. The “normal” gets set to people’s childhood, as with bug splat. For those too young to remember, it used to be that insects were so thick in the air in rural and wilderness areas that when you drove through them your windscreen would be covered with their dead bodies.

Not anymore.

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The Grand Banks off Newfoundland were once so rich with fish that you’d drop in a bucket and it would come up full. The passenger pigeon (not dodo as I wrote earlier) was so prolific that flocks would literally blot out the sun. My Uncle Jack told me that when he was a youth in the 20s and 30s in Northwest BC, he would take a line and an earthworm just out of the town of Prince George, and have a salmon in 10 minutes or less. Another Uncle, who had a small trawler, told me similar stories of decline, back in the 80s.

As with climate change, we’re screwing with systems we don’t really understand, but we do know that we are reliant on their proper functioning for food, water and breathable air. Rain water is no longer safe to drink, for the first time in human history. Major aquifers are drying up and being permanently damaged and many of them are polluted.

The scale of the damage we are doing the environment is staggering, and we are, like it or not, part of the environment. We understand so little that we can’t even create a close environment capable of supporting life more advanced than slimes. If we fuck this up, we can make it so bad we won’t know how to fix it.

And earthworms, as every gardener knows, are gold for soil fertility.


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  1. Kevin

    Mound-of-sound/disaffected lib used to do regular stories on this topic for years. A background feeling of horror and tragic loss have been with me for a long time. Not sure what’s happened to that blogger—he hasn’t posted in months, but i hope he returns.
    *not sure if it’s passenger pigeons or something else, but the dodo was flightless.

  2. StewartM

    But…but…but…the year-end profitability report is coming up soon! Surely nothing trumps that in importance? And aren’t belching smokestacks a thing of beauty and progress?

    (This is what happens, kids, when you turn over the reins of a society to a group of the most selfish, stupid, and short-sighted people imaginable, people who in their Dunning-Kruger moments think they’re the most brilliant).

    Less snarkily, I recall summers in the South where air conditioning was a ‘nice to have’, but not a ‘need to have’, because the high temperatures of my childhood were about 10 F cooler. Moreover, this is not just my imagination, look at the graph:

  3. Ché Pasa

    I’ve always been leery of broad terms like “ecological collapse” because I’ve been hearing and reading tropes like it all my life. And we can trace back the lineage for hundreds if not thousands of years.

    All the birds are dying; rivers are all polluted and/or on fire; the seas have been fished out; whales are gone; we’re headed the way of the dodo. Etc. There are too many of those people.

    Of course our rulership won’t respond to anything but the worst possible crises, and even then…. But perhaps, just maybe, they’re being given a different message. Perhaps they’re being told that, yes, certain environments are suffering and others may be nearing collapse. Yet there are many that are benefiting from climate change. And environments degrade and regenerate all the time. Nothing to be too worried about. Except, of course, for the prevalence of excess eaters. Something must be done about that!

    Earthworms and bug splat are declining to be sure, but is it catastrophic? Can’t something be done — if need be? Crab populations have declined or disappeared on the Northwest Coast, but can’t something be done? Aren’t there crabs elsewhere? What about lobsters? Are we all to go without, or can exceptions be made?

    Rainfall patterns are shifting, true; is it bad? For whom? Is it good? Where? And for whom?

    And so on. These are the kinds of things our rulers are really worried about; that and where they can locate with reasonable comfort and security. Beyond that, they really don’t care. We’ve been on our own a long time and if we wish to get through this unpleasantness, we’ve got to figure it out on our own. Somehow.

    On the major things there’s practically nothing we can do as individuals — except maybe move to where things aren’t so bad or getting worse.

    I think of so many who have literally spent their lives warning and agitating, lecturing and inspiring action with regard to one existential crisis after another, and I think of how little has actually been accomplished. So should they give up? No. At the same time, we’ve all got to become more realistic about what can be accomplished and more specifically how.

    If we don’t, there won’t be much to save.

  4. Gaianne

    “The Dodo was so prolific that flocks would literally blot out the sun.”–You probably mean North America’s passenger pigeon, hunted to extinction in the 19th century.

    A good, clear, concise summary, Ian!

    The insatiable destructiveness is a feature of Western Civilization (and perhaps a few other civilizations) in particular, not of humans generally. Unfortunately, it is an inherent feature. As such, Western Civilization will destroy itself. How much of the world will be left?

    Living in late-stage empire, one understands the early Chritians much better. The were facing problems similar to ours.


  5. capelin

    I’ve heard the phrase “would literally block out the sun” used in conjunction with the Passenger Pigeon. The Dodo was flightless. Along the east coast of Canada, another flightless bird, the Great Auk, (used to) form rafts miles long.

    In North America, especially in forest and the north, many earthworms are invasive, and have either out-competed native worms or moved into new territory, like forest leaf litter, breaking it down faster, thus reducing how thick that carpet is and altering the whole balance. Impact on fire resilience?

    “The scale of the damage we are doing the environment is staggering, and we are, like it or not, part of the environment. We understand so little that we can’t even create a close environment capable of supporting life more advanced than slimes. If we fuck this up, we can make it so bad we won’t know how to fix it.”

    Ian, I totally agree with this, and would respectfully suggest that this sentiment can and should also be fully applied to our headlong dalliance with MRNA technology.

    Happy Long Night, and Return Of The Light, to all northern hemispherians…

  6. dsrcwt

    I think you’ll find that dodos never blocked out the sun, as they were flightless. Probably thinking about passenger pigeon. Interestingly, earthworms were extirpated from North America by the glaciers and are now a pest in deciduous forests, deposited by fishermen, as they break down leaf litter too quickly.

  7. mago

    The rainwater stored in our aljibe way back when in rural Spain remains as soft and suave in my memory as if newly born. Lastima that rain falls toxic everywhere these days.
    And our bug splat friends gone gone gone to graveyards everyone.
    Pardon me. It’s the longest night of the year here.

  8. Willy

    I remember bug splat. My dad had one of those car bra radiator protector thingies he’d have to wash off after one of his work-related road trips. On the plus (considering), the birds where I live seem to have adapted to earthworms instead.

    I had a chicken neighbor once. Free range hens and a rooster. Every day after work right outside my naptime window, I’d hear em a-cluckin and a-scratchin for worms. I’d grimace helplessly since all my neighborly attempts at chicken containment had failed.

    After one especially exasperating corporate day something inside me snapped. I riled up the little long dog, grabbed the broom, then ran outside a-war-whooping. While I was busy sweeping hens over the fence the little long dog took aim at the rooster who’d always tormented him. Tackled and pinned him good. The neighbor came outside and profusely apologized. I calmed down and we gathered up our animals. But the little long dog got loose and made another go-run at the rooster, this time tackling and pinning him in one expert move.

    Back inside, I reflected on this. I’d never seen such a self-satisfied little dog before. Seemed I’d awakened something in him. And those neighbors, instead of retaliating, quickly built a chicken fence and became less troublesome in other ways. Maybe there’s a lesson in all that.

    I used to give their goats salal berries and Doritos through the new fence, which arrived just after the new fence did. Little long dog would press his face up against the fence in a threatening manner. One of the goats tired of this aggressiveness and POW! Knocked little long dog off his feet with one swift head butt.

    That was a long time ago. Locally, the salal are dying off but the Doritos remain. More lessons perhaps.

  9. different clue


    The birds who can adapt to earthworms have done so. Those who cannot adapt to earthworms have been silently loosing numbers.

    I remember decades ago on road trips seeing huge illuminated billboards at night beside the Interstate. The light-field reflected off the billboard would be full of visible insects and visible chimney swifts and nighthawks and bats flying in-and-out of the light catching and eating the insects. It occurs to me that I don’t see such fields of flying things in night-time lights any more. There are fewer billboards nowadays so I can’t be sure.

    But I know that in my own city’s downtown, I don’t see or hear the nighthawks flying in and out of the lightfields cast from our tallest buildings that I used to see. I have gone years at a time lately without seeing or hearing a nighthawk. Less chimney swifts too.

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