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WC Retro: What the Yeti Crab Has to Teach Us

By Alex Steffen, posted March 18, 2006.

Perhaps you've met this fellow before. This is the Yeti Crab, Kiwa hirsuta. Until last year, no one even knew he existed.

Yeti crabs live next to the volcanic vents 7,500 feet beneath the surface, 900 miles south of Easter Island, and they're pretty weird and mysterious creatures: they're blind, albino, only distantly related to other lobsters and crabs (they've been given a new taxonomical family) and we don't actually know how they manage to survive where they live.

"Dr Segonzac told the BBC News website that the 'hairy' pincers contained lots of filamentous bacteria. Some scientists think the bacteria detoxify poisonous minerals from the water, allowing K. hirsuta to survive around the vents. Alternatively, the animal may actually feed on the bacteria that live in the hair-like strands."

In fact, much about them is unknown. But mysterious though they are, in crustacean terms, they're rockstars: news of their discovery has swept the blogosphere, Mark Morford wrote a column about them, heck, people are even sewing stuffed Yeti Crabs.

But what, if anything, does their discovery mean? Well, the scientific meanings will take a long time to emerge, and may or may not end up being that interesting (though knowing how to filter poisonous water with tame bacteria would be a neat trick to biomimic). The cultural meanings are a different matter.

I think that we're so thrilled about discoveries like this because it sometimes seems like the world is too small, too crowded, too well-mapped, too known to admit the possibility of mystery and adventure. Discoveries like the Yeti Crab remind us that we still know very little about a great number of things. Our planet is still, largely, a mystery to us. As H. L. Mencken wrote, "Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops."

And that, I think is a worldchanging lesson in itself. As environmental pressures mount, it becomes obvious that some planetary management is likely to become necessary. Our best first bet, of course, is to do everything we can to turn down the greenhouse heat by cutting emissions as radically and quickly as possible, and to save all the parts by protecting protecting critical habitat and surveying the planet's genetic diversity.

But we've already screwed up pretty badly, and much of the evidence seems to suggest that no matter what we do now, we've already committed ourselves to profound climate change, species loss and ecosystem degradation. We can still head off the worst of it, but we can't avoid big problems now. We've bought the ticket, and we're going to take the ride.

One of the consequences of the state the planet's in is that we lose our innocence. We are impacting every system, every flow, every creature on Earth in some way, already. There used to be a time when we called nature humanity had changed "gardens" and nature humanity hadn't touched "wilderness." It's all gardening now.

There is no footprint-free world. Every block of the world's wildlands is already severely impacted. Not only are they internally impacted through macroevents such as the megafaunal extinctions and selective extraction of old-growth timber, but the very frameworks of their existence¬óglobal warming, acid rain, drained wetlands, green revolutions, wildland shrinkage, introduced pests, and many more-are set by Homo sapiens. The question is not whether we must manage nature, but rather how shall we manage it-by accident, haphazardly, or with the calculated goal of its survival forever?"

We have an obligation to become better gardeners. Consciously managing our impacts on the planet is a moral imperative, since our impact now extends to everything, so too must our vision.

And, this, to me, is the thought for which the Yeti Crab should become the mascot: we as a culture need to serve an apprenticeship with nature, and we need to do it now. We don't know much about the world, really. We're learning quickly, but ecological knowledge is an ocean, and we've only just left the shore.

We'll need that knowledge to respond on a scale commensurate to the magnitude of the problem

We cannot refuse to act. We will have to be active gardeners. We won't have the luxury of full knowledge. But we needed be blind, and rush headlong into dangerous plans. We can act boldly but carefully, informed by a reasonable humility about our actual powers, and proceeding with open minds and light touches until we know more about what we're doing.

As I've written before, planetary management is as much an art as a science. The Yeti Crab reminds us that we're still only beginning to learn our art.

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