In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC, and more than 1,700 researchers, issued the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. It cautioned that humans were inflicting “harsh and often irreversible damage” on the environment, and that current practices were endangering humanity’s future. More than 21,000 scientists have so far endorsed a widely publicized and equally stark second warning, issued in 2017.
This week, part of the Scientists’ Warning movement calls attention to a factor that has been largely ignored: microbes. In a Consensus Statement published in Nature Reviews Microbiology, 33 leading microbiologists from around the world “put humanity on notice” that the impact of climate change will depend heavily on the response of microorganisms.
The ubiquity and diversity of bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi and protozoa have been appreciated only in recent decades. Researchers recognize the colossal number (around 1030 total bacteria and archaea) and range of microorganisms, and that they are essential to the food web and the cycling of carbon and other elements. Microorganisms can speed the release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost, and climate change increases the spread of infectious diseases that threaten public health and food security. [Continue reading…]
The foolishness of disregarding the effects that microorganisms have on human life was recently highlighted by Fox News host Pete Hegseth when he revealed that he hadn’t washed his hands for ten years because, he claimed, “germs are not a real thing.”
Hegseth’s ignorance, however, is not so far outside the mainstream as it might appear.
Out of sight, out of mind is the norm rather than the exception as most people proceed through their lives. Whether that relates to the fate of refugees, the accumulation of plastics in the deepest ocean troughs, or the rising levels of CO2, the human tendency is indeed to treat the things we cannot see as though they don’t exist.
The fact that I called this website, Attention to the Unseen, was always meant to convey an implicit subtext: when we don’t pay attention to the unseen, we are out of tune with the conditions that support life.
Contrary to the perspective afforded by our narrowly constrained perceptions, we are by no means the most prolific form of life on this planet.
Neither is the seeming singularity of our body our own in the way we take it to be.
In cellular citadels where non-human cells outnumber human cells, the distinction between host and microbial colonist conjures a hierarchy of governance that says more about our imaginary identities than it says about the ecological reality.
As bipeds whose line of sight rarely encompasses the ground upon which we stand, we are perpetually inclined, imaginatively and literally, to overlook the foundation of our existence.