ESSAY: Praying for the Moths and the Beetles

“… insects as a group are in terrible trouble and the remorselessly expanding human enterprise has become too much, even for them.”

And instantly I’m beyond the realm of anything I know, as I consider the gradual disappearance not of whales but of… beetles, moths and hoverflies, thanks to the human enterprise we call civilization, as Michael McCarthy put it in The Guardian.

It’s too easy to isolate these deeply troubling matters… to focus on one, take aim and fire off blame… but in my uncertainty and aching sense of responsibility, as a full participant in the human enterprise, I find myself groping instead for understanding. We have to change course and I have no idea where or how to start, except in a million places at once, but all of these starting places have at least this much in common: reverence for the planet and life itself; acknowledgment and awe that the universe is alive and we are connected to everything in it; and a sense that even the small, mocked, discarded fragments of civilization are to be valued… that they are sacred.

The human enterprise of the present moment — the culmination of ten millennia or so of “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” — is founded on a polluted and perverted sense of the sacred. Money is what’s sacred, because money is the lever of power, conquest, control, dominion.

And thus, as McCarthy points out, dating back to the 1970s, “though unnoticed by the world at large, a whole giant ecosystem was collapsing. The insect world was falling apart. Today we know beyond doubt, and with scientific statistics rather than just anecdote, that this is true, and the question immediately arises: what caused it?

“It seems indisputable: it is us. It is human activity — more specifically, three generations of industrialized farming with a vast tide of poisons pouring over the land year after year after year, since the end of the Second World War. This is the true price of pesticide-based agriculture, which society has for so long blithely accepted.”

The disappearing insects pollinate plants and are food for numerous species of birds, “and their disappearance,” McCarthy writes, “is a principal reason why Britain’s farmland birds have more than halved in number since 1970.”

In other words, insects are valuable — a crucial part of the world we inhabit — because all of life is complexly connected. But to leave it at this is to reduce “value” to functional necessity. If life is sacred, all the fragments of it are valuable in and of themselves, and contribute to the whole in ways we cannot begin to fathom.

In our ten-millennia (and remarkably successful) quest for dominion, we have, I deeply fear, lost a sense of the whole, “that great, amorphous void,” as Laura Bridgeman writes, “which we draw individuals out of, pour refuse in to, and in which lives the nameless, faceless ‘biomass’ that we refuse any real legal or political consideration on a categorical basis. . . .

“Within capitalist models, individuals of other species are not only neglected — their very existence is denied,” she goes on. “They are instead relegated to the realm of property, only to be considered or ‘conserved’ when their bodies are seen as necessary for the health of an ecosystem of value; and then, they are lumped into ‘populations’ or ‘stocks’ rather than recognizing them as individuals with interests, deserving of their fair share of resources like any human being.”

For me, the big question that emerges — the question I don’t want to face — is how to live within a system and mindset that devalues and diminishes most of life, regarding it as, at best, a resource, and at worst, trash, to be landfilled, dumped into the ocean, tossed on the sidewalk. Even when I object to a particular situation, I utilize resources to do so — my computer, my car, my cellphone, whatever — that contribute to some serious and worsening ecological or social disaster.

How does one live in a world that needs to be reconceived at its core? I’m not a religious guy, but this when I stumble toward prayer.

“Many of us who grope toward praying today are like a city gutted by fire. Exhausted, overcommitted, burned out, we scarcely have the time or the energy to pray,” Walter Wink writes in The Powers That Be.

“Prayer may or may not involve regular regimens, may or may not be sacramental, may or may not be contemplative, may or may not take traditional religious forms. It is in any case not a religious practice externally imposed but an existential struggle against the ‘impossible,’ against an antihuman collective atmosphere, against images of worth and a value that stunt and wither full human life.

“Prayer is a field hospital in which the spiritual diseases that we have contracted from the Powers can be diagnosed and treated.”

And from this field hospital, I pray into a void in which there are no answers, just overwhelming silence. The silence is respect. The silence is humility.

And the wisdom that emerges is indigenous:

“When you go to dig your fields, or make a pot from clay, you are disturbing the balance of things. When you walk, you are moving the air, breathing it in and out. Therefore you must make payments.”

The quote is from Survival International, describing the philosophy of the Arhuaco people of northern Colombia. Is it too late to pay attention to this sort of knowing?

What could it possibly mean?

It can’t make the moths and hoverflies return, but perhaps it can make us notice and value the insects that are still here, and ask: What do they need?

Robert Koehler

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an award-winning Chicago journalist and editor.