Pollinating drones and the dilemma of Plan B

25 May 2018

Bee pollinating flowers

A couple of months ago, the news came out that Walmart is developing pollinating drones, or at least it has applied for a patent to do so. The news belatedly found its way onto Facebook this week, and provoked anguish amongst some of my friends who saw it as evidence that the corporate world is preparing to cut the bee population loose. They thought it a cynical move by a greedy company that simply wanted to profit from the devastation of the natural world.

For me, that - right there - is a sign of the struggles to come between ideology and pragmatism and the need for a Plan B before we’ve lost the fight for Plan A.

Let’s just remind ourselves of the stark facts to do with bee declines and the consequences if bee populations were to disappear. Bees pollinate around 70 percent of the crops that feed 90 percent of the world. At least half of the fruit and vegetables available to us would disappear. Not only that, but many other plants would also go, which would have effects up the food chain for all sorts of species. Global biodiversity would be hugely impacted. It is the one most vulnerable factor that could render the planet unable to support the human population we currently have.

In the face of that reality, any pragmatic thought process is going to go along the lines of (1) identify and remove the causes of the decline in bee populations and (2) work out how to survive if (1) turns out not to be possible, or to be only partially possible.

Of course, we have an emotional attachment to bees. They are a benign part of the natural order on which we depend, and a world where they are only a memory will be a much poorer world, even if the mechanics of pollination have been picked up in other ways. But it is a folly of emotion over reason if that attachment means that you would risk the devastating consequences for the world of a bee population collapse because your “there is no Plan B” approach meant that you failed to prepare for the possibility that you would need it.

Pollinating drones would work best as a supplement to natural bee populations in any case. It’s hard to conceive of a world where the huge quantity of crops that need pollination can all be attended to by drones. Just how many drones would that require? Could such a number even be produced? For all that it is rational to seek a Plan B to this particular vulnerability, it’s by no means certain that it’s even achievable.

But it would be irresponsible not to try.

There is one caveat. We do know that whenever we design systems, we create a set of incentives for people to follow, and when we do so people generally follow the incentives. We don’t always get those systems right. The pollinating drone programme could become a counter-productive exercise if it becomes a huge profit centre in its own right, rather than a low-priced technology designed to protect the profit made from producing food crops. Why? Because once such technology had been produced to scale, it would create a perverse incentive for unscrupulous operators to actually sabotage natural bee populations in order to provoke demand for the artificial pollinators. That doesn’t invalidate the need for innovation to cope with the pollination challenge, it just means that it’s a system that needs to be carefully designed.

It’s not so much the practicalities of this case that concern me - it’s more the dynamic of the debate. The immediate resistance by environmental campaigners to what they describe as “bizarre and unnatural ‘solutions’” raises the prospect of fighting over practical moves to avert huge consequences just because they don’t fit a perfect defined solution. Given the potential consequences of inaction, it will be just another debate where hardline environmental ideology alienates itself from the public interest, and so makes its valid voice less powerful where it really counts.

In other words, campaigning against such initiatives is really poor change strategy. Nobody is arguing that this represents a preferred solution to saving dwindling bee populations. There is absolutely no need to be distracted from efforts to achieve that end.

For at least some of the friends I referenced above, the negative reaction stemmed from a starting point of ‘us-vs-them’. “They” are the people that have “raped the planet for profits”. “We” are the people that suffer the consequences. So long as that is the filter through which you see the world, it is very hard to evaluate what mainstream strategies need to be followed to have impact at scale. Because, by definition, any solution that is being developed at scale is certain to be dismissed as another underhand trick by “them”. But that’s the simple reality.

It’s easy to criticise current agricultural practices that are having potentially huge negative consequences. They certainly need to be changed to safeguard pollinator populations, and on a number of other fronts as well including deforestation, soil degradation and water use. But, as mentioned before, the facts are that we have over recent decades successfully reduced absolute poverty by half and world hunger by the same, moving 75% of the world population into middle-income countries. This has been the beneficial outcome from a flawed system.

It’s easy to focus on the flaws and ignore the rest. The point is that we need to improve the system to remove the most grievous negatives without losing the benefits that have been achieved. Many of the solutions people propose on a knee-jerk response to sometimes-real sometimes-inflated problems ignore or minimise the benefits. As they say, to every complex problem there is an answer that is obvious, simple and wrong. Change makers that care about achieving long-lasting beneficial change cannot afford to be so quick with their conclusions or so polarised in their world view.

Do you know what the truly sustainable world will look like? Seriously? I’ll tell you.

Nothing like the idealised eco-paradise that people hope for.

It will be just as messy, ethically-compromised and imperfect as the world is today. It’s just that we will have learned by necessity to fit within certain practical parameters that enable us to survive. That’s it. Sorry if that’s not the vision you were motivated by, but it is at least the one that’s achievable with people being the way they are, not the way we’d like them to be.

So in that sustainable world there will be industrial scale production as well as niche small-scale production. There will be conflict, and unfairness and greed. But there will also be continued progress in economic stability for wider populations. There will be beauty, and adventure, and love and sex and aspirational lifestyles and meaningless celebrity and the whole thing will be colourful, diverse, thrilling and awful.

In other words, exactly like the world we have today, which is fabulous if we choose to see it.

If that sounds like too little to fight for, consider the consequences. The world where all that progress is thrown into sharp reverse. Food systems failing, large populations plunged back into food insecurity, exacerbating conflict and division as people fail to tackle the problems because they’re too focused on the blame game and the demands of their particular ideological world view.

Which is why the vision of the unattainable perfect world mustn’t be allowed to derail attempts to solve problems.

The disappearance of bee populations across the world is just one of the most visible transition points from the first vision to the second. So yes, I do think that socially responsible companies should be working out how the heck we avoid that outcome if it comes to pass.

A sustainable world with pollinating drones is a poorer place than a sustainable world with bees for sure, but still a preferable vision to an unsustainable world with neither.