The New York Times ran a front-page story yesterday on "colony collapse disorder," the devastating and as-yet unexplained death and disappearance of millions of honeybees, and Marketplace followed it up on this morning.
I find this much scarier than the stock-market plunge that happened yesterday. As I write this, the market has clawed back 50 or so points, but nobody is any closer to understanding this bee holocaust which, conceivably, can threaten our entire food supply. The Times notes that "The sudden, myserious losses are highlighting the critical link that honeybees play in the long chain that gets fruits and vegetables to supermarkets and dinner tables" and quotes a Cornell study which estimates that those industries and well-organized honeybees are responsible for pollinating $14 billion worth of seeds and crops anually.
Since the role of the honeybee as a part of a giant fleet of pollinators is something that every sixth grader has learned, it's hard to believe that the implications of a devastating loss of their population could actually be surprising. Then again, we've forgotten a lot about the inter-connectedness and inter-dependence of our ecosystem since the sixth grade.
The natural world has evolved with brilliant resiliency, but there comes a breaking point when the practices consequences of industrialized agriculture do more damage than the system call tolerate. I am reminded of the classic line from "The Sun Also Rises" when someone asks Mike Campbell how he went bankrupt, and he replies "Gradually and suddenly." That's how we have arrived at this front-page New York Times story.
We worry about the vulnerability of an over-heated stock market. We worry vulnerability from terrorists. We worry about the long-term competitive threat from the Chinese. Those are the known knowns, to borrow a phrase from Rumsfeld. But what could be a more compelling demonstration of our vulnerability than this frightening mystery?