Yesterday evening, I saw this Tweet from The Economist:
Headlines do much more than convey news or reflect a publication’s position and journalistic voice. Headlines reflect, in snippets, much about our society—what editorial directors believe will grab the attention of their audience. The typical reader of The Economist is likely a smart person, but not specifically a scientist, and this may indeed sound like fascinating, promising good news.
But to me (and likely others with some training in biology), this headline paired with this photograph is like BuzzFeed click-bait—fun, cheap thrills—not the level of educated, thoughtful, and critical analysis I associate with The Economist.
I appreciate that they use “could” here, as that’s the key word. The interesting part of the story doesn’t begin until the very end of the article—if caterpillars can be used as solutions for our plastic waste problem, we first need to know if they are metabolizing the plastic. And if they are, we need to know how exactly they are doing that, and whether any toxins are stored in their body tissues (which will still return to the soils and water after they die). If toxins are stored, we need to know how that may affect not only their reproductive fitness, but also that of their predators. If the caterpillars aren’t metabolizing the plastic and we’re using them on a mass scale to eat our plastic waste, their poop may be dangerous as the chemicals passed through turn to dust, entering soils, water, and the air as fine particles…with multiple downstream effects for animal (including humans) and plant health.
I could go on and on about the many questions this research opens, as all novel science does. But there are several much bigger reflections on society in the way this headline is written and how it immediately garnered so much attention.
All of us want easy, instant solutions. To every problem we have.
Sure, if these caterpillars can somehow turn plastic into relatively harmless compost, say, that’d do the planet a lot of good. But the reality is that “saving the planet” is far too complicated for any amount of larvae to accomplish.
Saving the planet demands a lasting shift in human culture, not merely in cleaning up existing problems. Caterpillars like these might be able to clean up after us, but with a headline like this, I’m worried that people will believe this lets us off the hook. Does it subconsciously give us an excuse to continue—business as usual—to use more plastics, because there are now caterpillars that might eat up our waste? Caterpillars eating plastic does not change the fact that creating plastics requires substantial chemical output, which must happen somewhere…and always goes somewhere else.
We’re the ones who created the mess, and continue to create the mess. Cleanup isn’t enough. Rather than seeking band-aids for the problem, it’s far more important in the long run to address the root of the problem, which is in human behavior. If we don’t change our culture of overconsumption, if we don’t develop habits and standards of recycling, if we don’t redesign systems for how we interact with natural resources, it’s insufficient (and unfair and irresponsible) to count on anyone else to “save our planet.” Not even a very hungry caterpillar.
This is on us.