Insectageddon can be avoided: But does human kind have the will power?

Earlier this week I alluded to the large scale extinction of insect species around the world and the consequences for human kind if this is allowed to continue. After 48 hours and some reflection, I see a window of time in which this could be thwarted, but like a real window, this one has a clearly defined frame outside of which it will be too late.

Whilst insectageddon – the name given for the mass extinction of insect species currently in progress – has terminal consequences for human kind, that is not to say the demise of humanity is imminent, though that is an eventual certainty. Humanity’s survival is dependent on radical action to protect the global biosphere, starting as fast as we can.

Humans created this catastrophe, just as we made possible the massive and on going large scale destruction of the biosphere. And at the same time the solutions to this and insectageddon are of human manufacture as well.

The real question is will power, and whether moneyed up interests can be put aside for what is – irrespective of social status, wealth, nationality or any other common denominator – a problem that affects quite literally every single person on this planet. We all need the biosphere to enable what my Year 9 science teacher said is M.R.S. G.R.E.N.

M(ovement) R(espiration) S(ensitivity) G(rowth) R(eproduction) E(xcretion) N(utrition)

All living things do it. All of us excrete. Somehow that all needs to be broken down, consumed and not left to contaminate the biophysical environment around it. Among the important crawlies that assist in this matter are dung beetles, which are pretty much world wide except for Antarctica.

Not all of the work saving our insects and their place in the food chain will be done by insects themselves. Human kind can contribute massively to this by changing how they do pest control on crops, stop the large scale deforestation for development of farm land. It is more simple than one thinks. Alternative sprays and other pest control agents to those proposed by agrichemical companies such as Monsanto are easy to devise. Another is to put honey bee hives in your back yard so that they can continue pollinating plants.

There will need to be a political sea change in thinking. Before one can have human activity, the humans must be well enough to do things. Before one can have human beings, there must be a biosphere that can support them. And before that biosphere can exist, there must be insects to pollinate our plants, clean up our excretement – who knew the dung beetle was such an important creature? – and so on. But do we have the will power to make that change?

The clock is ticking.

The research that has sparked concerns that the insect population might be wiped out is not new either. It was first suggested in 2017 that, based on prolonged decline of all species types, in the last 25 years in Germany, that ecological armageddon could be a thing in the near future.

But the interest in it becomes more serious knowing now that the demise of so much insect live will have catastrophic impacts on the entire food chain, with insect eating species such as spiders and fish being next.


End of the humble insect?

Yesterday I saw something truly terrifying on the news about insects. The humble six legged friend, nuisance, pest in all its many forms is in mortal danger and we not so humble human beings are playing a leading role in insectageddon.

The implications of this for ecology, for the planet and for humans is difficult to over estimate. Insects perform so many tasks that we simply do not recognize or understand. No doubt in cruder conversations you have probably heard the phrase “eat crap”. Insects eat that so humans and other species do not have to.

It is funny and yet sad that on one hand we have figured out how to use weapons to annihilate the human population and an awful lot more within a matter of hours – my extremely crude estimate of how long W.W.3 would last once the missiles start getting airborne – yet so many simple yet fundamental to the existence of the ecological system are not understood. Or they are understood, but the supposedly smartest species on the planet elected to ignore that understanding. Whatever the case the consequences are alarming in a way that climate change, whilst disturbing simply does not match.

We wipe out billions of insects each year. We have pesticides to control aphids, and other damaging insects. We have fly spray that we use on flies, wasps and an encyclopaedia range of others around our homes. We have invested millions in ensuring that cars, houses and so forth are bug free, using a variety of methods – repellent devices that plug into a wall socket, insect spray, netting on windows to stop them getting into the house.

The mayfly that you see buzzing around the river as you fish is no threat. Indeed its presence is used as an indicator for a healthy aquatic ecosystem, as they are prey for fish, beetles and other predators. The humble housefly that we kill millions of each summer, annoying as it may be and often is, important for the break down of nutrients in the natural environment. The cockroach, loathed by many and in popular culture as a disgusting creature has been depicted as being able to survive a nuclear war, are resilient and have a higher tolerance of radiation than do human beings.

But what if all of this and so much more is wiped out by human activity? Where does that leave the ecological system, the environment, and most importantly for human beings, humanity? What if I told you that 100% of all insect life could be dead in 100 years?

Well, that is I heard yesterday.

Doomsday much?

“Nuclear free moment” is still “Nuclear Free”

Sometime ago, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described climate change as her generation’s “Nuclear Free” moment. Yesterday I saw an article pointing out how wishy washy this all is.

There are several reasons why one can believe the threat of nuclear war is still the credible source of New Zealand’s “Nuclear Free” moment. They range from the departure of the U.S. from arms limitation treats such as the I.N.F., New START, and so forth; Russia and the United States actively upgrading their nuclear arsenals; upgrad the ability to deliver those warheads to the development of a new low yield nuclear warhead by the United States and the resumption of Star Wars. New Zealand might be far from it, but we will suffer as much as anyone else in a nuclear exchange of any size, duration or location.

But it is not just nuclear weapons that raise concerns. And it is because of these non-nuclear issues, that make Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s idea of climate being “Nuclear Free” a rather misleading one. When one considers the following issues, it becomes clear that no one man made threat is dominating in terms of what it means to humankind.

Climate change will eventually get humankind on the ropes, but I think we might be finished before then. Climate change will finish off what was already in progress. Before then biodiversity will decline to a level that cannot cope with large scale human activities, such as those which you see now.

Our biodiversity is dying at a rate that is simply not sustainable.

If you compress the life of the planet into a single day. Humankind has been on it for about one (1) minute. In that time the level of carbon in the atmosphere has risen to levels not seen for 3 million years. In that time acidification of the ocean has got so bad there are credible concerns for the future of coral reefs, urchins, shell fish and so far because they will not be able to calcify. Acidity in the ocean has increased by 26% since about 1850, which is ten times faster than the rate for the last 55 million years.

Some anthropologists believe the 6th Mass Extinction is in progress, with previous ones occurring. That might be debatable, but there is little disagreement over the fact that in the time since modern humans formed, the rate of extinction has increased dramatically.

If one combines the above with below, the case for Thomas Malthus conceived a theory of Malthusian collapse, whereby human over population exceeds production of food leading to a collapse of society. This may be achievable should our current socio-economic structure be allowed to stay standing and locking up large amounts of food and resources, which are consumed by the very rich and/or hoarded instead of being distributed to lower income and resource groups.

We already have the very rich locking up and hoarding resources. We already have a very sick planetary ecosystem with large numbers of species being wiped out. The sea, the air and the land are getting more and more toxic from industrial, farming and other pollutant discharges.

We can control this, but it would require a complete political revolution. The revolution would need to upend the laissez faire capitalist system that we operate in at the moment. It would  need a fundamental overhaul of how this country produces waste and disposes of it; a significantly tighter minimum flow regimes for rivers Would New Zealand have the gumption go through with recommended changes? Possibly not – it might well muddle through just like many other nations in this community of nations – for any number and/or combination of them. And even if New Zealand does have the gumption to do something radical, it will be meaningless if the nations of influence – U.S., Russia, China, India, key E.U. nations, Canada, Brazil and Australia among others – are not on board.

So, no. Climate change is not my nuclear moment. That is still the prospect of a limited nuclear exchange (India/Pakistan), or an actual larger scale exchange (W.W.3). But realizing that a Malthusian collapse is not so unrealistic as it sounds, is. Not least because there is good reason to believe it has already started.

Why I still have some hope though, will be described in the next article.

Escalating the war on waste in New Zealand

Just over a year ago I mentioned the decision by China to stop taking New Zealand waste, which was valued at over N.Z.$21 million per annum. It jolted people into realizing that we cannot and should not expect other nations to take our waste, or that we somehow have the right to shirk our responsibility to the environment. A year later, with an escalating push to remove single use plastics from our society, it is time to examine where else there has been progress made.

The drive to get single use plastics out of New Zealand stores is just a small part of what should be a much larger campaign. Much plastic waste such as the bags that components such as headphones, computer mouses and so forth come in, are plastic designs that simply get ripped open and are not usable again. Bubble wrap is another source, though if not torn it can be reused.

Cardboard and paper are major sources of waste, though perhaps one of the better known sources of recycling successes historically has been aluminium. When I was a child in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, there was an aluminium recycling programme. It simply relied on people collecting all of the aluminium they used and transporting it to a recycling drop off point, at which they were paid by the kilogramme. Unfortunately there was a collapse in the price of aluminium which made the programme uneconomic to continue. Having seen its success, this is one that I believe would be welcome to return. Aluminium production is hugely energy intensive and the New Zealand smelter at Tiwai Point requires 570 megawatts of electricity to operate.

From conversations I have had recently with Environment Canterbury (Canterbury Regional Council)and Christchurch City Council, there is a need for more Ministry for Environment leadership in terms of giving direction. Before that happens though, there needs to be an increase in internal resourcing at Ministry for Environment, whose website has a lot of information on it, but which in many cases has not been updated or reorganized for several years and is now dated. The reasons for saying this are because there was a distinct lack of direction on waste management under the previous Government, and during that time other countries noticed a decline in our performance as an environmentally responsible nation.

The conversations with ECan and Christchurch City Council revolved around electronic waste, which continues to be one of the lesser known, but rapidly growing waste sources. Earlier articles published here indicate the depth of the problem and some of the potential solutions. Both councils were in agreement that it is a major and growing problem. They had concerns though about how easily waste could be recycled given the costs of transporting and processing, how to dispose of the more toxic substances such as cadmium from the cadmium nickel batteries that are now found in a lot of devices.

There are some positive, albeit relatively small scale, projects happening such as the Queenstown Airport runway and apron resurfacing, which is using a composite mix of waste printer toner and recycled glass. Others include a tyre recycling project at Rolleston which will involve the construction of a plant that manufactures diesel from the roughly 1.5 million waste tyres around New Zealand. It would eventually become the processing centre for tyres from around the country.






Lake Wakatipu e-coli scare symptomatic of bigger problem

A few days ago there was a report about the dying aquatic ecosystem in Lake Wakatipu, which is the water playground of Queenstown, the lake whose waters the steamer T.S.S. Earnslaw travels laden with tourists seeking a farming experience and the lake which feeds the Kawarau River. Whilst all might have seemed fine to tourists, Queenstown locals are aware of a growing problem with the fresh water quality.

In late 2017, just before Christmas, Otago Regional Council announced tests were being done for E-Coli, after it was found in Frankton Bay, which is very popular with tourists and locals as Queenstown’s water front. In March 2018 further concerns were raised about E-coli in Lake Wakatipu after high levels were again found. Now, days after a damning report into the state of the Lake Wakatipu ecosystem was released, there is another E-coli alert. Before we look at the critical factors in fresh water quality, it is important to know the role of E-coli.

E-coli is an important bacteria in ones intestine as it helps produce Vitamin K and prevent colonisation by disease causing bacteria. However it has two strains that are problematic to humans, called STEC and VTEC. The latter is not so common as STEC, which causes the vast majority of E-coli related health alerts in New Zealand. Most STEC cases in New Zealand stem from instances of people being in farm environments, drinking untreated water or consuming unpasteurized milk.

E-coli is just one problem afflicting Lake Wakatipu though.

It is important to note a host of other sources including:

  1. freedom campers,
  2. a major increase in tourism,
  3. industrial area run off that has not been adequately treated and
  4. a possibly unsustainable growth in the population around Queenstown.

Queenstown’s infrastructure struggles to handle the fluctuations from Summer to Winter in population and the resultant demands placed on it. The rate payer base are often business and property owners as many locals find it too difficult to live in a town where rent sometimes swallows their entire pay, and where many of the day to day population are transient people who are on work visas and will only be around for a few weeks to a few months before moving on. All of this limits Queenstown’s choices for infrastructure that can cope. Whilst Queenstown struggles to afford appropriate infrastructure, pollutants will continue entering the lake from sources that should be better contained.

Freedom campers are generally people looking to travel New Zealand whilst spending as little time as possible in official camping grounds. They often park in places where camping is not permitted and do not always dispose of rubbish properly.

The rapid growth of tourism in New Zealand over the last few years has become unsustainable in many respects. From a huge growth in the rental car industry and the associated increase in rental vehicles on the road, through to problems with rubbish, demands on infrastructure and a reluctance among politicians to introduce fiscal or other measures to address the problem, all of these factors are combining to cause a major headache.

With Queenstown’s growth, associated light industry has been established to support the town’s economy. However with that growth industry there does not appear to have been a matching growth in efforts to contain “grey water”, which is a nick name for storm water and industrial runoff. This winds up in streams, of which Queenstown has several nicely landscaped ones running through the town, which wind up in Lake Wakatipu.

But the biggest problem facing Lake Wakatipu might actually be Queenstown itself. Constrained as it is by its geographical features, Queenstown is spreading into side valleys and along Lake Wakatipu. In an attempt to keep the town from stagnating new developments are popping up in all directions. Nearby locations such as Arrowtown and Wanaka are becoming dormitory suburbs of Queenstown. With this growth comes an increase in artificial land cover that acts as a surface to collect pollutants; an ever more constrained infrastructure network, to say nothing of more tourists as the towns reputation grows.

Good for the economy. Crap for the environment, which ultimately as one of Queenstown’s biggest draw cards, might be crap for the economy.

Do you see a nasty cycle here?