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The other day I reread the amazing New York Times magazine story, “The Insect Apocalypse is Here.” I’d read it some time ago, hastily, on my phone, then more slowly and carefully in print. (Having the Sunday paper delivered is one of my vices.) It’s an extraordinary story, well told, and very alarming, as are most things we read these days about the despoiling of our natural world. Apart from the implications of a drastically reduced number of insects living on planet Earth – the decline is staggeringly large – I was struck by the fact that some of the most important data on the decline in insect populations comes from the records of a society in a small town in Germany that, since its founding in 1905, has industriously collected, cataloged, and counted bugs. These are old-fashioned practitioners of natural history, carefully trained by fellow aficionados to do the long-term painstaking work, handed down through generations and enduring through two world wars. These are not university-credentialed etymologists, all of them, but they are more than mere amateurs. They are highly trained, serious, dedicated and unpaid citizen scientists participating in a long-term project out of love for insects and for the place they hold in nature. A paper that summarized some of their work last year called attention to something nobody else apparently had documented: insects of all species are dying at an astonishing rate, and not just where there is habitat loss. Both the conclusion and the data they had collected to support it surprised even the experts.
At a time when experts are automatically distrusted for ideological reasons, I don’t want to pile on. We need expertise, and it deserves respect. But it’s fascinating to me that ordinary citizens are willing to devote so much time, effort, and hard work to collecting information that tells a story that otherwise might go untold, and to do it so thoughtfully for years on end. For more than a decade I’ve hung out online with a community of people who love crime fiction, and the combination of love and deep knowledge that they develop over time is pretty impressive. I once heard papers given at an academic conference that had plenty of theory, but so little basic knowledge of the genre that the scholars’ conclusions were seriously off. The fans could have set them straight in no time, and the theory wouldn’t have been over their heads – it just would have more judiciously applied. My online community has faded because the digital platform is crumbling in a combination of competition and corporate neglect, but there are still outposts of amazing volunteer knowledge-gathering, such as Karen Meek’s Euro Crime website. Karen is a library worker in a country that is shedding its public libraries at an alarming rate. Maintaining the site and the cadre of volunteer reviewers who help populate it is not part of her job. It’s done on her own time, out of love. This is not austerity-politics volunteerism. Some 8,000 librarians have been sacked in the UK, with libraries either closed or told they can only stay open with unpaid volunteers. This is something very different, a passionate devotion to a particular subject, a deep well of arcane knowledge, and a willingness to collect and share it.
I thought about this kind of expertise when I listened to the latest episode of Kitchen Sisters, a podcast about archivists, librarians, and obsessives who collect stories - or, in this case collect things that tell stories. The podcast profiles an exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library through January 27th about 21 collections, including photos of men standing in lines, matchbooks collected from L.A.’s gay and lesbian bars, and the inmate-painted scenes of nature used as backdrops for portraits taken in prisons. It turns out these odd obsessions tell us a lot. Thanks to a quirky curiosity, we have a time series of images of masculine group self-representation, ephemeral memories of places that no longer exist, a record of yearning for an imaginary outdoors among the incarcerated. All of these things may seem a bit odd, but they are a kind of vernacular scholarship that may fill in gaps we don’t even know are there, just as we didn’t realize we may have lost three-quarters of the world’s insect population without really noticing.
As I got ready to leave for work this morning, I caught a fragment of an interview with some young tech entrepreneur earnestly talking about how everyone who creates a startup wants to change the world. It made me wonder – what’s wrong with seeking to understand the world we already have, the one we’re so carelessly destroying? What are we not even noticing as we rush toward some imaginary future?