Endangered and Extinct Species

Contributing Op-Ed Writer: The Bugs Are Disappearing. But We’re Still Here.

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Did you hear the bugs are disappearing? Amateur entomologists tracking insect populations in Western Europe discovered that, at a number of survey sites, the biomass of flying insects caught in their traps fell by almost 80 percent between 1989 and 2014. For whatever reason, in a media landscape thick with catastrophe, this was the story that cut through for me in this moment. Flying insects pollinate our plants, including crops. They are food for birds and bats and frogs and things. If the almost-80 percent decline proves true, and bears out globally, and continues unabated, we may all starve to death long before Donald Trump has the chance to vaporize us in a nuclear holocaust.

Other stories that flashed in and out (always out! Bye!) of my news feed this week: Orca whales may be extinct within the next 100 years, on a beach in Wales dozens of octopuses walked out of the sea and died, greenhouse gases are spiking to an unprecedented record, an endangered lemur in Madagascar is hanging on by a thread because of climate change, and something about the Great Barrier Reef that I couldn’t bear to click on. In non-environmental doom, Facebook is apparently helping to enable horrific violence in Myanmar, the president’s supposedly moderating minder John Kelly said in an interview that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War,” and Mother Jones reports that artificial intelligence will render all human workers obsolete in the relatively near future and the desperate, idle populace will devolve into mass chaos while a few quintillionaire industrialists gaze chortling across their automaton armies. But at least Paul Manafort had a bad day, right? Yeah. Actually, that is something.

The part that knocked the wind out of me about the bug thing wasn’t really the story itself, it was the crystallization of how desperately, comically far we are from taking it, or anything, seriously as a planet. Instead of leaping into global collective action to mitigate the collapse of the biosphere and potential human extinction, America’s ruling party is currently squabbling about whether they should punitively investigate Hillary Clinton over a routine committee decision from 2010 or for somehow rigging the election she lost. Why do we tolerate this from our elected employees? How is our basic animal survival instinct not sending us into open revolt?

Even if we’d elected that bat from “FernGully” last year instead of a gaseous, smoke-belching coal baron who seems to feel personally wronged by fresh air, pulling the planet back from disaster would still be a nail-biting scramble at this point. I speak as a seasoned, professional procrastinator: It would still be the second-to-last day of the semester, and we have not remotely started the reading. Instead, we’re out in the woods burning our textbooks for warmth while we argue about whose job it is to chop down a tree to build a desk so we can start our kindergarten homework, and we don’t even know how to build a desk.


People watching election results in Seattle last November. Credit Jason Redmond/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This week’s indictments are satisfying, of course, and I feel faintly hopeful in a concrete way that I thought I’d lost. But I’m struggling to truly relish them. The efficacy of the Mueller investigation depends on so many unknowns, most pressingly whether the rule of law will hold after a year of President Trump’s assaults on it — and whether Americans across the political spectrum can find our way back to some common truth.

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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