It bears repeating one more time: When the canary in the cage at the mine face drops dead, the lesson is not that we need to take better care of canaries. The lesson is that we need to get our asses out of that mine before it blows up. If, on the other hand, the miners are dumb enough to watch canary after canary drop lifeless to the bottom of the cage, and do absolutely nothing, well, then, maybe the right thing is to let natural selection run its course.
We are surrounded by dying canaries. Okay, they are not, strictly speaking, canaries, but they are playing the mine-face canaries’ role. The conditions that kill them are coming for us. And the funny thing is that, while it is news of a certain, not-quite-legitimate kind (“environmentalists are concerned that…”) when we notice the first of them dying, their continued dying — an indication that conditions in our mine are getting worse — is not news. Or, worse, it’s “old news,” an oxymoron.
Canary No. 1. Bees. It was first noticed in 2006 that bees were dying in stunningly large numbers. (You could tell it was serious because they gave it a name — Colony Collapse Disorder, which rapidly became an acronym, CCD. As in medicine, things always seem better when the problem has a name.)
Who cares about insects dying? Especially insects that sting you? Anyone who eats food, provided they understand that food is not manufactured in supermarkets. Most vegetables, nuts and berries, and all the food industries based on them, depend upon pollination by bees.
So the fact that the bees have been dying at the rate of about 30 per cent per year for five years — last year in some areas it was well over 50 per cent — is the equivalent of canaries dropping by the dozen. Sixty years ago, when we were a lot fewer, there were 6 million honeybee colonies in the US. Now there are 2.5 million. A few mainstream publications, occasionally (for example, TIME Magazine last spring) take note of the problem, and then move on. The miners go back to work.
When the general media do take up the subject, it is usually to seek the answer to the wrong question: what is killing the bees? Over the years that they have spasmodically dealt with this problem, they have landed on cell phones, genetically modified crops, loss of habitat, a mite, a virus, a bacterium, and immorality as THE cause of the syndrome. (Okay, I made one of those up.) One after another, each has been shown not to be THE cause. Too little attention has been given to the notion that it could be all of the above — that everything is connected, nothing in the environment acts alone.
This is a reality that human medicine is too slowly recognizing: that we all, bees and humans alike, live in a soup of toxic chemicals, hundred of thousands of compounds released into the environment for profit without any understanding of what any one of them does over time, let alone what the combination does.
Canary No. 2 – Bats. In 2006, the very year we noticed that the bees were dying, bats began to disappear. Coincidence? Of course. Keep mining, we’ll bury the canaries later.
Bats are also pollinators, and do a further service to agriculture by voraciously consuming various insect pests that harm crops. Since 2006, an estimated six million bats have died — they have virtually disappeared from habitats in 22 eastern states and five Canadian provinces. This problem, like that of the bees, was regarded seriously enough to be given a name — White Nose Syndrome — that became an acronym, WNS. It refers to the fact that the immediate cause of their deaths is a fungus infection, one hallmark of which is white patches that appear on the muzzle and wings.
But to know the name of the fungus that kills them leaves unanswered a very great question: why is the fungus able to kill them now? Loss of habitat? Malnutrition? Pesticide poisoning? A virus? etc.
As with the bees, the answer may well be all of the above. It is an answer a generalist can accept but an expert cannot: there is no funding available for a study of everything, no interest in a news story that blames everybody. One cause, one effect, that’s the ticket.
Don’t worry, keep mining, it’s old news. We’ll find some more canaries. Somewhere.