microbes, food, soil

Mental frameworks for thinking about and understanding insects/bugs/microbes are undergoing a lot of changes currently, and will influence how individuals, societies, governments and science deal with environmental challenges.

Nausicaa image

In the movie Nausicaa two mental frameworks are contrasted, the Tolmekians represent the first and Nausicaa the second:

  • bugs and germs are dangerous and need to to exterminated – the toxic jungle, its insects and spores are fatal to humans and their agriculture.
  • bacteria and insects are necessary for our health and survival – i.e. the jungle, its insects and spores, are struggling to clean the earth from toxins/mismangement of humans.

The graphics of the toxic jungle and its insect residents explicitly call to mind the view through a microscope. The insects are gigantic, the plants look like microbes. The streams of gleaming, floating objects recall the movement of cells. This is both a post-apocalyptic fantasy future and a vision of our understanding of nature now. Marxist theorist David Harvey says that we understand nature through our technology – the microscope and the electron microscope have radically altered our understanding of the natural world. For connections between ideology, capitalism and environment. Click on his name and on the page you will find two relevant podcasts.

  • How Capitalism Works, Feb 14th 2020
  • Totality and Capitalism, Jan 30th 2020
Springtail (bug) image
Microscopic view of Springtail: credit Alex Hyde/SPL

Nausicaa was made in 1984, serving to remind us that people have been worried about the relationship between humans and the planet for a long time. The Tolmekians are so intent on power and conquest that they do not see the existential threat their way of thinking poses for human beings. They are so sure of their own superiority they cannot imagine the planet might fight back. Although made long before Haraway wrote “Staying with the Trouble,” Nausicaa illustrates similar concerns and ideas.

  • Nausicaa and “Human Exceptionalism” – the Tolmekian attitude is that they are superior to nature, outside it, and must, can and will subdue it.
  • Nausicaa and sympoeisis – the movie slowly reveals the complex, interrelated system which is the jungle acting to cleanse the planet.
  • Nausicaa and holobiont – the jungle is a symbiotic assemblage on a very large scale. In chapter 3 Haraway’s delves into the many ways biology and nature are best understood not as separate objects but as flows and interconnections. This grounds her argument that we need to use different mental frames to think about and make media/art about current ecological concerns
  • Nausicaa as a model – Haraway talks about models in biology. They are the animal, insect or microbe species that are generally used for experimentation. She argues that the choice of model animal reflects the kind of questions people can ask – and that current models are best used to study animals as discrete and separate individuals and are not so good for the understanding of collectivities, symbiosis and entangled systems of plant, animal, microbe. Can we think of a media work or genre as a model for understanding, experimenting and speculating with?

Nausicaa ends with an upbeat assumption that the People of the Valley and even the Tolmekians have learnt they must live in harmony with nature. Haraway addresses us in a time when many people think any struggle with nature is less important than man-made conflicts and assume that it is possible to dominate and subdue nature from a position of superiority. The biological thinkers and methods she evokes do not exclude stress and struggle – but they do go beyond trying to understand nature in simplistic terms of competition and dominance. She wants to take these biological lessons on board as we work to understand and act in the current climate, and as we speculate about and plan for the future.

Microbes – growing sense of their importance

Read through the material below – look at images, visit links, watch videos, listen to podcast. Think about the content: the ways our understanding of the micro and nano scale of life is changing our understanding of the relationship between ourselves and nature. Also think about the form: what messages are conveyed at this level?

In Chapter 3, Haraway refers to Lynn Margulis, an evolutionary theorist and biologist who focused on the role of symbiosis in evolution. Watch her in this video.

“There is no Truth,” Margulis said, “but science is the best way of knowing.”

Common mental frames often assume a clear boundary between human and nature, animal and insect, cell and bacteria. Margulis’s work introduced the ideas that:

  • Complex life forms (including us) are essentially and deeply symbiotic. We don’t just live IN nature, it lives IN us.
  • theory of symbiotic evolution/symbiogenesis as basis for complex life
    • one early life form engulfed another and they lived together
    • mitochondria in animals
    • mitochondria and chloroplasts in plants
symbiosis diagram

There is a growing medical realization that not all bacteria/microbes are harmful pests, and that to survive we and all other plants and animals have to live in symbiosis. It’s not just that all our cells are fundamentally symbiotic but we have to live in symbiosis with many other bacteria. For example a relatively recent area of research looks at gut microbes – the micro-organisms (bacteria/fungi) that exist as part of us and make possible our digestive processes .

Similarly, there is growing realization that the soil itself is a complex, symbiotic and sympoietic system. In the movie Nausicaa the people came to understand that the jungle had to be left to itself and to its cleansing task, this podcast argues that the soil needs to be left to itself. Soil Saviours – Costing the Earth, BBC podcast. 30 mins.

Just when you thought microbes were your friends: BE AFRAID BE VERY AFRAID. Do the stories below make you want to exterminate bugs or live with them?

Climate Change and spread of invasive pests

  • a study suggests “Crop pests and diseases are moving towards the poles at about the same speed as warmer temperatures.”
  • fungicides and pesticides have to deal with more pests
  • pests and diseases may become resistant to fungicides and pesticides

Antibiotic Resistance

  • Antibiotics developed since 1940s and widely used to treat infections
  • Bacteria becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics
Coronavirus Image from City of Philadelphia website, linked below

And of course for the last year we have been experiencing the lethal spread of the coronavirus covid19. The image above would not look out of place in Nausicaa’s jungle. Remember that these images are constructed. Image above is a model, below visualized data. Someone chose the color schemes.

An electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2 — also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19 Photograph: Niaid Rml/NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH HANDOUT/EPA