Rumsfeld and the bees

or the past two years, a mysterious disease has been wiping out honeybees in the US and Europe. This catastrophe could have a devastating effect on our food supply: about a third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and the honeybee is responsible for 80% of that pollination. This is how one should imagine a possible global catastrophe: no big bang, just a small-level interruption with devastating global consequences.

There is an air of mystery to this mass death. Although the same thing is happening all over the developed world, local investigations point to different causes, such as the poisonous effects of pesticides, or the loss of the bees’ sense of spatial orientation caused by the electronic waves of our communication machines. The multiplicity of causes makes their links with any effects uncertain, which invites the temptation to look for a deeper meaning and consider the so-called “spiritual ecology”: is a beehive not a kind of slave colony, a concentration camp where bees are ruthlessly exploited? What if Mother Earth is punishing us?

The best antidote to this spiritualist temptation is to bear in mind the lesson of Donald Rumsfeld’s theory of knowledge – as expounded in March 2003, when the then US defence secretary engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophising: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” What Rumsfeld forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns” – things we don’t know that we know, all the unconscious beliefs and prejudices that determine how we perceive reality and intervene in it.

[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on June 28th 2008.]