Wilful Blindness

A dramatic demonstration of environmental ignorance as federal policy

When asked what science can tell us about the nature of the creator, the evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane replied “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” With almost 400,000 described species and perhaps an order of magnitude more awaiting enumeration, there are certainly plenty of beetles. So an entomologist faced with a book entitled The Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests will immediately wonder which beetle is under discussion. Andrew Nikiforuk’s “beetle” is actually a handful of species of bark beetle (a tiny fraction of the 6,000 bark beetle species). He casts his net more widely in one chapter where he waxes eloquently on beetles in general.1. But the book is more than just an enjoyable romp through matters coleopterological; it makes many important points of considerable importance.

To reproduce, bark beetles have to gain entry to the tree. The trees defend themselves with resin, sometimes resulting in “death by engooment” of the beetle. To overcome this defence, the beetles employ mass attack whereby pioneer beetles attract so many others that the tree’s defences are swamped—they cannot produce enough goo. The beetles coordinate their assault through both chemical and sound communication and normally only attack trees that are old or stressed: weaker hosts cannot defend themselves vigorously.

Bark beetles have been intermittent forestry pests since growing trees became an industrial scale process: methods for dealing with them were first implemented in Europe in the 1700s. But their recent depredations are unprecedented: “it’s hard to imagine that an insect the size of a grain of rice could become public enemy number one,” quotes Nikiforuk. Estimating the impact of their current onslaught in dollar terms remains impossible because their effects will last at least a century.

The book is replete with statements about the massive scale of the problem: areas the size of North Carolina or Switzerland being deforested (such allusions to scale can be somewhat irritating—is it common knowledge that the United States is more than three times larger than the European continent?). It is also full of anecdotes on changes in the biology of the beetles. They have increased the number of generations per year and formed massive swarms that migrate to uninfested forests (some swarms have been large enough to be detected by radar). The beetles are attacking younger and healthier trees and are moving to novel host species, thereby threatening the forests of the entire continent. Whole communities that relied upon the forest industry have fallen to the onslaught of the beetles, although some people have adapted by selling knick-knacks made from the dead wood that bears attractively geometric beetle burrow patterns.

What has caused the “empire of the beetle”? Unsurprisingly, the causes are largely anthropogenic. There seem to be three main reasons why previously comparatively innocuous beetle outbreaks have become country-sized areas of dead trees.

First is our penchant for simplifying the ecology of vast tracts of land to suit short-term economic interests. Whole generations of university students have unwittingly contributed to this while earning money for tuition through tree planting. When those trees age, the beetles find homogenized landscapes of weakly defended hosts where previously only small patches of suitable food existed.

Second, rapidly warming climates have weakened the trees, permitting the beetles to spread to regions that previously had colder climates and enabled them to survive winters in larger numbers. Mean January temperatures in some parts of the Canadian northwest have increased by a massive ten degrees in the last 50 years. Bark beetles rarely freeze to death there anymore.

Third, our own attempts at controlling the beetles often exacerbate the problem. Logging the forests surrounding a beetle infestation might work for a small patch at the beginning of an outbreak but is impractical for an infestation the size of Colorado (the land mass of which is more than twice the size of North Carolina). Increasing the number of logging roads around an outbreak assists the spread of the beetles through transportation of beetle-infested wood.

Of course, other control methods have been tried: various pesticides as well as interruptions of the beetle’s chemical communication systems. More novel approaches include electrocution and application of explosives (imagine applying electricity to trees in an area the size of a small country, or blowing all those trees up!). A recent innovation serenades the insects through iPods attached to trees to induce the beetles to eat one another. This approach was developed collaboratively by a sound artist, a retired trucker and an entomologist.

So what is to be done? Sprinkled throughout the book are suggestions that we should just leave things as they are. But that is impossible because we have modified conditions in the entire boreal forest. Perhaps it is time to employ a few generations of students to render the forested landscape more complex and less prone to rapid devastation. Certainly reducing our emission of warming gases would be a good move, but it is clear that Canada is wedded to oil and gas development on a massive scale, as Nikiforuk outlined in a previous book. But how about implementing energy conservation measures? The Harper government has twice cancelled such programs: the first time immediately upon taking office in 2006, the second time on April Fool’s Day 2010. Statements that “we cannot afford to combat climate change” ring hollow in the face of global warming–induced massive deforestation. But these impacts are only the tip of the iceberg: carbon dioxide causes increased temperatures, which in turn cause further warming (the loss of carbon-absorbing trees to bark beetle attack being just one example). The economic and environmental impacts of a runaway greenhouse effect are truly terrifying, although government scientists are not allowed to tell us about them.

This is the main take-home message. Ignoring science may be expedient in the short term, but biological processes are difficult to reverse. Politicians have learned nothing from the collapse of cod stocks and are ignoring the far more dire warnings of climate scientists.

Indeed, Environment Canada is being eviscerated. The only way a society can make sensible decisions is for its members to be fully appraised of the consequences of different choices. Suppression of knowledge is bad enough, but preventing the gathering of information by laying off scientists or weakening long-term monitoring programs is worse. The number of people employed to identify economically important organisms has dropped by one third since 1980 and the number of people assessing our forests is now a small fraction of what it was just a generation ago. In the 1990s the federal government downloaded responsibility for monitoring the health of our forests to the provinces and territories. This happened just as bark beetles were ramping up in numbers and the change in policy gave them the chance to build their empire while our backs were turned. We are being blinded to the environmental impacts of federal policies through the active promotion of ignorance.

In times of devastating loss, people often turn to prayer. This is becoming close to government policy in some instances: Nikiforuk quotes an Albertan government minister as saying “Pray for cold weather. Pray tonight … This epidemic could come our way if our prayers don’t work.” Prayer has never been effective in the face of human-induced calamities. It is even less likely to result in success against beetles: if there is a creator, then, as Haldane intimated, her inordinate fondness for beetles suggests that she might actually favour the other side.

  1. Nikiforuk makes a simple entomological error here: several pages are devoted to cochineal insects as if they were beetles; they are, in fact, scale insects, close relatives of aphids.