Posted inColumns, The Mesh: Everyday Ecological Awareness

The Mesh: The Struggle to Conceptualise Biodiversity Loss

Illustration by Grace Kirman

As warm spring weather comes and we can dig out our summer clothing, at last, it’s time to look forward to long summer days enjoying the outdoors. Personally, I’m daydreaming about camping under the stars, falling asleep listening to the incessant chirruping of crickets. Roaming through meadows, brushing through waist-high wild grasses, finding grasshoppers leaping onto my clothes, and perhaps a ladybird or two crawling on my arms or legs. Countless moths flying indoors through the open windows, drawn like magnets to the electric lights.

Insects. For many people, the “creeping things that creep upon the earth” are a compelling reason to avoid the countryside, close the windows, and invest in some fly-spray.  But for others, hearing their familiar buzz or catching sight of flapping wings is reassuring, almost nostalgic.  A soothing sign that the ecosystem is alive and well, that it can continue to nourish us, that we haven’t damaged it irrevocably. The eerie silence of standing on intensively cultivated farmland, where no birds sing and no bees buzz, is the sound of death.

The marketing industry has started to take notice of the emotional power that the very presence of insects now has for some sections of the population. Advertisements aiming to display products’ “green” credentials now frequently make sure to include some bees, butterflies, and beetles in the scenes of nature they depict—creatures that a generation ago would have been seen to make products seem less “clean”, and therefore unappealing to the majority of consumers. But now there’s a deep hunger to see nature thriving again.

The “Save the Bees” campaign has done a lot to make the public aware of the existential dependence of human beings on bees. Bees are responsible for 80% of the world’s pollination, which in turn accounts for 90% of human nutrition. Bee populations are declining significantly worldwide, with 9% of European species being threatened with extinction. But it’s not just bees: other insects such as butterflies, moths, and mayflies are key indicator species, which means that the drastic decline we are seeing in their populations predicts an overall deterioration in the health of the ecosystem.

For this column, I’m borrowing the image of The Mesh from Timothy Morton’s 2010 book The Ecological Thought, where he uses it to convey the “infinite connections and infinitesimal differences” that make up the ecosystem.  My starting point is that the “practice and process” he describes, “of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings—animal, vegetable, or mineral”, must be at the centre of any holistic attempts to respond to the environmental crises that we are faced with and that this requires a radical decentring of our thinking habits. This column will explore ways we can deepen our ecological awareness in our daily lives, and, most importantly, how to translate awareness into agency. 

The breathtaking intricacy of the connections between all the organisms that make up an ecosystem is demonstrated by extraordinary examples of coevolution such as the stunning bee orchid, which lures in pollinating bees with the promise not of nectar, but of love. The flowers have evolved to mimic the appearance of a female bee in the eyes of the male, leading him to attempt to mate. When he lands on the velvety lip of the flower, the pollen is transferred, leading him to fly off again in search of a more cooperative female and end up pollinating the next bee orchid he attempts. This is just one example of the remarkably complex interlacing of species’ life cycles and the radical interdependency between insects and plants. 

There’s a striking discrepancy, though, between the dire picture of insect death that the figures portray, and the business-as-usual beauty of nature that we see around us. Studies show that we have been losing around 9% of insects every decade since the 1970s. This evokes an almost apocalyptic disappearance of biodiversity which is difficult to conceptualise and even harder to visualise concretely. One reason for this disconnect is what’s called shifting baseline syndrome, also known as generational environmental amnesia. 

Just as we don’t notice children growing up if we see them every day, environmental degradation is occurring at such minute levels that it escapes our notice. This means that the accepted norms for the state of the natural environment become poorer and poorer with each generation. If somebody could be teleported from average 1920s to 2020s farmland, they would probably be amazed by the disappearance of insects and wildflowers. Similarly, the habitat loss caused by urban expansion can be tracked by maps and figures, but our collective memories struggle to keep up. You can’t tell what you’ve lost when it’s gone, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell.

The climate and biodiversity crises are often lumped together by politicians and by the media, but they have distinct causes and their effects can actually mask each other. Many butterfly and moth species respond well to warmer weather, for example, so global warming is actually skewing the evidence of population decline caused by other factors, most notably pesticide use, the transformation of farmland into intensive monocultures, and habitat loss. Environmental policy must therefore be multifaceted, and decarbonisation, as crucial as it is, shouldn’t be treated as a silver bullet for ticking the environmental box in political campaigns.

So what can we do? We mustn’t let awareness stagnate into hopelessness, but must channel it into action. The most important individual consumer choice we can make is to buy organic products and avoid using chemicals in our homes and gardens, but we can also use our voice to spread the word and advocate to ban pesticides and preserve natural spaces, calling for measures to protect the countryside and increase green pockets in urban areas. We can participate in Citizen Science projects such as the Big Butterfly Count to help document the current health of the ecosystem.

Awareness isn’t static—it’s continual and incremental. The first step is to commit to listening to that intuition  we feel when standing in a silent field, that something isn’t right.