A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Replenish the earth

Female dust mite, Wikipedia

There are mites in your eyebrows!

Every so often I run across a meme, an ad, or a click-baity headline that reminds me – dramatically, hyperbolically, photographically – that I live in a world that is utterly saturated in creepy-crawlies.  My couch is inhabited by hordes of pale, eyeless critters happily munching on my dead skin cells!  My countertops are reproductively active!  My water is wiggling!

I’m supposed to be horrified.  Instead, I find myself comforted.

I’m a biologist.  Most of the time, I work in the field of climate change adaptation research, but I also get a chance to teach.  As the professor for “Natural Resource Measurement and Inventory”. I torture students with data analysis, statistics, and experimental design.  Type one and type two error?  Correlations that mislead? Graphs that lie?  I like teaching that stuff; it brings out the scientific hardass in me.  But I love it when we get to take a step back.  Way back.  I love it when we get to look at the Earth as a great big ball of green, growing, oozing, pulsating, sticky, messy, many-legged life.

Having spent much of my adult life as one kind of environmentalist or another (after having spent much of my childhood rescuing ants and climbing trees), it’s easy to become depressed about just how much of Earth’s life we humans are destroying.  The numbers are staggering.  The losses are irreplaceable.  Measuring by sheer mass alone, we’ve already wiped out 85% of the planet’s wild mammals and birds, and replaced them with ourselves and our livestock. 

Eighty-five percent.

According to UN estimates, the human population of the earth will reach eight billion people this week – on November 15th, 2022, to be weirdly over-precise about it.  We’re an infestation.  In the face of this horror, I find it immensely relieving to know that at least we’re still vastly outweighed by insects. 

We’re even more out-hefted by bacteria and fungi, including our own microbiome.  The person in the mirror is a big sack of microbes; most of our own cells are not actually our own cells.  But those little beasts are cooperating with humans, a shady alliance, so perhaps they are not entirely to be trusted.

Plants outweigh us even more dramatically, but those guys – from lowly single-celled algae to towering redwoods – are the producers, not the consumers.  We’re not in their league; even if we humbly take a few steps down from the pinnacle of the food chain to enjoy a nice vegan stir-fry, we’re not going to be any good at photosynthesizing.  I take immeasurable solace in the green things, but it’s our hardy little competitors over here in the animal kingdom that offer a different and more perverse cheer whenever they remind me that we don’t really hold dominion over all the animals, regardless of whatever it is the bible says we are supposed to do with arks and whatnot.   

“Holding dominion” is clearly not in humans’ skillset.  We are, seriously, sooooo bad at it.  The insects will do a better job.

No one really knows how many insects, arachnids, and other crunchy-leggy little contenders there are in the world.  We don’t even have a clear sense of how many species there might be, let alone how many individuals.  But rough estimates suggest that for each human, there are about forty metric tonnes of arthropods. 

Forty tonnes. 

They’re in your couch.  They’re on your countertop.  They’re in your eyebrows!

Thank goodness.


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