Extinguishing the Alphabet … of Bens and Bugs

Epiphany: Extinguishing the Alphabet … of Bens and Bugs
David R. Weiss – February 15, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #11 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

I encountered the Jewish legend decades ago in a book by Gail Ramshaw, Letters for God’s Name. The tale goes that a Jewish peasant is hurrying to finish his fieldwork to make it to the Passover service. But the sun sets, he cannot travel, and so he must spend the holy night in the field. Unable even to remember the words to the prayers, he decides in serene desperation to simply recite the alphabet and trust God to arrange the letters into their proper places.[1]

The image is one of faith and grace. Faith, that even our most meager efforts might somehow be sufficient—and grace, that God will not fail to work with what we sincerely offer. I affirm this as truth. And yet I want to push the story one bit further. What if the alphabet itself could not be found? What then? And before we rush forward to claim grace even in that extreme, I want to dwell for a moment in the terror … of an extinguished alphabet.

Because that’s what we’re facing ecologically. This past week, in the first global scientific review of the health of insects worldwide, we learned their precipitous decline is nothing short of damning.[2] Based on 73 different studies assessing insect populations, the review found that one third of all insects are now endangered. They’re presently going extinct eight times faster than mammals, birds, and reptiles (none of whom are exactly thriving!). We’ve lost 2.5% of the total biomass of insects each year for the past 25-30 years. With no recovery. Sit down and sit with that for a long quiet moment: compared to 1990, the year my now 31 year-old son turned three—over the course of his still young life—we’ve lost 80% of the total biomass of insects across the globe.

In words particularly strident in a peer-reviewed scientific paper (meaning that the phrasing had to pass by the watchful eyes of scientific peers not connected to the review itself) the study declares the very real possibility that “insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades. The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosysyems are catastrophic to say the least.” To say the least.

As Professor Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex in the UK explains, “Insects are at the heart of every food web, they pollinate the large majority of plant species, keep the soil healthy, recycle nutrients, control pests, and much more.” When the Psalmist says, “Let all creation praise the Lord,” (Psalm 148 and elsewhere)—well, in earth’s praise, insects are the alphabet. And we’re extinguishing the alphabet.

The cause is not a mystery. Broadly speaking it is the direct result of agricultural intensification coupled with the use of pesticides. “Intensification” describes the practice of eliminating all “wild areas” around farm fields: every bit of land is either left entirely bare or is treated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Together these forces have turned insects into a largely unseen population of refugees in their own lands—and have unleashed a planetary-scale genocide of these least of God’s creatures … with cascading consequences that threaten not only our survival, but the well-being of the rest of creation. In Germany, for instance, insect losses of 75% were recorded even in protected nature reserves. The web of being does not follow the boundaries we set for field and nation. And the holes we rip in that web run far afield.

Light pollution and urbanization add to the assault on insects, encroaching on the land and darkness that are essential for insect habitat. For its part, climate change is an “entangled” factor. In some places where industrial agriculture has not yet remade landscapes and farming practices climate change is still clearly taking a toll on insect populations. But even apart from this, the rise of fossil-fuel intensive agriculture (which is what industrial agriculture is) has been a primary contributor to climate change. The warming climate and the approaching end of insects are both linked to the oil that drips through the way we eat, from farmland to grocery store to kitchen table.

Is there no way forward? Which is really to ask, is there any way backward? Because backward is the direction we need to move. There are less oily ways to eat. But they presume skills, tastes, patience, and priorities that have been crowded out of our customs and character by the twin idols of “cheap” and “convenient. The stark imperative is to change the ways we grow, deliver, process, and consume food. These are daunting systemic changes. But they are probably the only changes that can save the bugs … and the world into which they are wholly (and graciously!) interwoven. There are, as well, small scale ways to harness empowerment through the pursuit of personal accountability and integrity.

For instance, organic farms continue to “host” far more insects, even as their farmers battle the worst plant pests in ways that protect produce without devastating entire insect populations. So now we know that buying organic is perhaps an essential spiritual practice, one that aims to honor the place of bugs in God’s creation choir. Similarly, ending our love affair with the grassy lawn may prove to be a revolutionary act. On The Rachel Carson Center’s blog one post invites us to “Make Meadows not Lawns.”[3] In so doing, we not only reclaim the ground around our homes as a sacred sanctuary space, we might also come to love our tiniest and most necessary fellow earthlings. (The word “love” is not gross overstatement; it actually hearkens to E.O. Wilson’s notion of biophilia, the demonstrable psychic and emotional benefits that accrue in a deep relationship with the natural world.) We might even remember that in our own mythic origins we were christened “humus beings”—fashioned from dirt and beckoned to tend the ground beneath our feet.

Re-thinking—re-making—our food choices and our yard choices also provides opportunities to build community (share ideas, trade/teach skills) within churches and neighborhoods. In fact, the alchemy of honest grief, passionate conviction, imaginative sharing, and communal bonding may be the only combination that carries us backward in a way that can also carry us forward. If God is to arrange the remaining letters of the alphabet into a prayer that might still heal the earth, we will need to embrace insects before they are lost.

The hard data in the scientific review is hard even for me (and I have a pretty close kinship with melancholy most days). Unless we make dramatic changes, of the 20% (of the 1990) insect biomass remaining from my son Benjamin’s childhood, only 10% will be left by the time he reaches eighty. By the time my grandson, who turns three this year and is also named Benjamin, reaches his eightieth birthday … insects may well be a memory. If they are, the odds of my grandson making it to eighty aren’t much better.

Climate change is not finally about reason or profit. It is about grief and love. And, right now, dammit, it’s also about the bugs.

[1] Gail Ramshaw, Letters for God’s Name, Seabury Press, 1984, p. i.

[2] All the background data in this essay comes from: www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature

[3] www.seeingthewoods.org/2018/12/20/make-meadows-not-lawns


PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith


*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey.In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

[1] Gail Ramshaw, Letters for God’s Name, Seabury Press, 1984, p. i.

[2] All the background data in this essay comes from: www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature

[3] www.seeingthewoods.org/2018/12/20/make-meadows-not-lawns

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s