Wisdom of the Weevil
In 1575 a French court brought legal charges against a band of weevils. The upstart insects had allegedly destroyed local vineyards. The French, then as now, aren’t all that friendly when someone gets between them and wine. The beetles, who were granted the same due process as humans, were appointed a couple of lawyers to argue their cause, as it were. One the attorneys made a fascinating case, a case that really dropped my jaw. (And no, this is not the pretext for a Monty Python skit.)
He insisted that the weevils were innocent because, although they had indeed infested the intoxicating fruit of the vine, their right to do so was protected. It was protected because, according to Genesis, they were there first. In other words, when it came to access to environmental resources, weevils had right of first refusal based on seniority of species. As the case proceeded, the townspeople, evidently not offended by this line of argumentation, helpfully arranged an alternative space for the beetles to eat, one that was situated far away from their cultivated vineyards. (How they would have informed beetles where to eat goes unexplained.) We don’t know how the case ended because the legal document was destroyed by—not kidding here—weevils.
Let’s leave Genesis out of it for now and explore the implications of this first-on-the-cosmic-scene rationale for resource consumption. If we take the liberty of updating this case for contemporary analysis, we might contemplate a usable environmental ethic that recognizes humans as serious latecomers to the game of life, and thus last on the list justified to privatize and consume its natural riches. It’s not that out of the question. Freshly aware of our newly minted status, we certainly could have, at some point, drawn on the sixteenth-century lawyer’s logic to nurture our role on earth as humble managers rather than greedy consumers. In this formulation, human complacency as the greatest link in the chain of being would have been rusted up by the force of time—eons and eons of time during which the complexity of biological interaction laid the basis for our frontal lobes to become froth and screw everything up.
Yeah, I know. More magical thinking. But it’s interesting—inspiring maybe—to think about how it might have been, how the human-animal relationship, much less the overall human relationship with the environment, would have evolved if, when the world’s population was about 350 million people, humans had smoked a bowl, chilled out, stared at the clouds, and adhered to the logic of the weevil case, ceding to weevils what were weevils’ due. Instead, the bloated footprint of our species, one that has practically smothered the earth, has suffered a case of caffeine-infused gigantism, stomping upon the unfathomable tangle of biological complexity , fetishizing the teleology of materialism, and, throughout it all, shoving as much of the world as we can into our big mouths.
So, yeah, it’s helpful to sometimes think how it might have otherwise been, that paradise we chose to kick into the ditch of the past. Because if the environmental Cassandras are singing the right song, dreaming is all we have left. The day of the weevil has passed.