I wrote this for a college class on Environmental Art (Fall 1999), but I'm quite serious about it. If anyone wants to get involved, please contact me.

Environmental Art Project Proposal: Instar

Instar: A collaborative interdisciplinary project, a combination of art, business, science, and social activism. The primary focus of this collective would be on the relationship between insects and human societies. One particular project would be advocating entomophagy, the use of insects as human food.

Why focus on insects?
Insects are a great source of biological diversity. The number of insect species ranges somewhere from two to ten million, and they outweigh all other animal life on the planet combined. One of the 25 orders of insects, Coleoptera (the beetles), contains more species than any other order in the animal kingdom. These insects are a vital part of the ecosystem. Without scavenger insects to hasten the decomposition of dead animals and dung, the forests would be filled with rot. Without insects to serve as food for fish, the rivers would be empty. Without bees to pollinate our fields and orchards, the world would surely be plunged into famine far worse than it has ever known. Yet insects are often perceived as alien to and disconnected from humans. As a group, they are ignored or misunderstood at best, and often severely maligned. In fact, "insect pests" are the only species to expressly be denied protection under the United States' U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Endangered Species Act. The specific text is:

The term "endangered species" means any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range other than a species of the Class Insecta determined by the Secretary to constitute a pest whose protection under the provisions of this Act would present an overwhelming and overriding risk to man. [italics added]

Whether this position is appropriate or arrogant is a question that merits enlightened public discussion. What is it about insects that singles them out as pests and potential dangers to humankind? Certainly a lot of effort is put into destroying them. Pesticides are responsible for a great deal of harm to the environment. In many cases, were it not for consumer prejudices against produce with harmless insect damage or a few insects themselves, it would be cheaper and more practical to use fewer insecticides, and in some cases, none at all. Crops could support small populations of damaging insects without suffering enough damage to affect their profitability, if cosmetic insect damage would not affect sales, especially since the insecticides and the labor and machinery to apply them would not need to be paid for. In cases where insect pest control is necessary, insects themselves present a solution, since many insects eat ... other insects. And just imagine if we could gather up and eat the insect pests--a greater harvest all the way around! Clearly, our society's relationship with insects needs to change.

Why focus on food?
Food is an issue of vast importance in environmentalism, in social change, in human rights--and ultimately, of course, in all of life. The agricultural practices that feed most of modern society are responsible for a great deal of environmental damage, much of it unnecessary even in a practical business sense. The matter of pesticides discussed above is just one problem. Natural habitats are cleared for fields and pastures--as a well known example, rainforest in the Amazon is cut and burned to clear the land for cattle ranches. Clearing the forest results in an unfathomable loss of biological diversity, and after only a few years, the soil of the cleared ground is exhausted of its nutrients, making cattle ranching there unprofitable, and the land basically barren and useless. The social and political factors affecting this are too complex to be dealt with simply, but eating less beef would not be an unreasonable response. In the U.S., untreated animal waste is dumped into rivers, spawning the growth of microorganisms dangerous to human and nonhuman animals alike and destroying the river ecologies. Land is not farmed in such a way as to prevent erosion, and soil and nutrients are lost. Non-native plants and animals imported for use as food escape into local ecosysetms and wreak havoc. The problems that may be caused by genetically engineered crops could be even worse. Fish and other animals harvested from the oceans are over-consumed, and many populations have already been depleted past the point from which they can recove--the industry has taken until there was quite literally nothing left to take, and then moved on with hardly a backwards glance. And that's not even to mention the massive amounts of non-renewable energy used in shipping food unceasingly across the country and around the world.

Food is also one of our most direct connections with the rest of the natural world. Eating is something we share in an obvious fashion with all other animals, a basic need that all our philosophy and technology can't overcome or deny. Lack of food or of healthy food leads to human suffering, and for those humans, the potential of relieving that lack in whatever way possible is more motivating than all the philosophy or idealism in the world.

So why use insects for food?
To start with, they're nutritiuous for humans. Most insects that might be used for food are lower in fat, higher in protein, and more efficient at converting feed to protein than beef, lamb, or pork, rivaled only by chicken. Insects could be a relatively inexpensive source of protein, and this protein is of as high quality as that of other animals. Lysine, for example, is an amino acid contained in the bodies of many insects, and deficient in the diets of many people who depend primarily on grains. A grasshopper, hardly even the best example, is more than 20 percent protein, nearly equal to that of lean ground beef. If it is dried, the protein content jumps to 60 percent. Crickets contain calcium, and iron is abundant in termites. Silkworm moth larve contain reasonable quantities of copper, zinc, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin.

They're low on the food chain. That high efficiency of food conversion means that more biological energy is gotten out of insects (by humans eating them) for the amount of energy put into them (from the the plants and parts of animals they eat). This means that less is wasted. Suppose you grow a hundred pounds of grain. This itself could be eaten by humans, in which case you'd get a hundred pounds of food, although it would be lacking in nutrients and variety. It could be fed to a cow, in which case it would produce approximately ten pounds of meat for food (less, after processing). It could also be fed to wax moth larvae, in which case it would produce around 20 to 30 pounds of animal tissue for food. There is, of course, considerable variation in the feed to meat ratios amongst the vast numbers of insects in the world, but of the ones that have been studied and could be eaten by humans, they tend to be low. This is even more impressive when you consider that the insects are often more nutritious than our other common sources of meat, and so less would have to be eaten to provide the same essential nutrients. Even corporately mass-produced insects-as-food would be an improvement over many of the foods we eat now!Better yet, unlike those other foods and any other sources of protein, insects could conceivably be grown by individuals in diverse situations. Mealworms are a prime example. They are relatively easy to raise, and can be grown in buckets or shoeboxes, in media as inexpensive as chicken food (sold at my hometown feedstore for $6 per 50 lbs). They can be fed on food scraps like banana peels, potato skins, carrot tops, and apple peals. They don't require light and are amenable to a variety of temperatures, making it possible to stick a box of mealworms in a corner of a closet and have them grow. At the very least, they're as practical to grow for food as vegetables and herbs, and potentially even more so. Many people already keep aquariums of crickets and similar creatures to feed to their pet reptiles.The importance of this aspect of individual involvement should not be underestimated. This is a change in practice that could change perception. Real caring can only be directed towards something experienced as real, and to be experienced as real, a thing must be, well, experienced. It's easy to imagine direct personal experience increasing sensitivity and awareness... although there are of course potential problems. Some of these are discussed below.

Insects have been used as food by almost all of human societies. From cultures in Africa and South Asia to the ancient Greeks and Romans, insects make for popular cuisine. Some scientists even contend that insects were what first supported our ancient ancestors in moving from the food-filled jungle to the open savanna. Modern western society's aversion to entomophagy is quite unusual, and the time has come to change it. Because insects are popular as food in so many other cultures, when entomophagy is pursued from a Western standpoint, there is the potential for creating dialogue with aboriginal societies and other cultures. Some of these are close to home. Some few Native American still eat or know how to prepare insects. Insects as food are also popular in Mexico, where peasants have begun selling them to tourists, and expensive restaurants prepare them as delicacies.

So why involve "art"?
Artists should be involved in Instar because of the complexity of issues it addresses, and particularly because of the deeply entrenched cultural prejudices towards insects--especially towards eating insects. Culinary arts are of obvious importance here, but artists working in the tradition of environmental art also have a place. Calling Instar in part an art project gives it a capacity for flexibility. A dynamic, interdisciplinary approach seems the most likely to accomplish something useful. Past efforts to promote entomophagy, beginning with V. M. Holt's publication of Why Not Eat Insects? in 1885, have primarily been in the forms of books, unacted upon proposals for social change made by academics. A practical project in the form of artistic advocation of entomophagy and a business providing insects that could be used as food may be more successful. Even if only a few people were to take up eating bugs from Instar's efforts, the project will have caught people's attention and provided a precedent for further work in entomophagy, environmental art, and social change.

Isn't there something of a dichotomy in trying to celebrate something and advocate killing it for food at the same time?
From a traditional environmental science or an environmental business perspective, there is no dichotomy at all. Entomophagy will benefit the environment, including the insects, and human society as a whole, so as long as the insects are treated humanely, what's the problem? The food chain is a basic part of the environment. However, from an ethical or an artistic/mythologic perspective, a more sensitive and thoughtful approach must be taken. Changing how humans interact with the environment in as concrete a way as changing what they eat is crucial if an attempt is to be made to stem the tide, but changing awareness is also important (though not sufficient). It is my belief that the most effective thing to do is not to attempt to change perceptions in the hopes that they will change daily life, but to attempt to change perceptions while making the means for changing daily life available and applying pressure towards them, in the hopes that the different state of awareness may eventually become dominant while we still have a chance to save ourselves. Which is to say, we change how things work by practice, and keep them that way by perception. For both tasks, the time to start is now.

There is something eerie about raising insects--unlike even chickens or snakes, some insects are so different from humans as to apparently not be able to recognize humans as entities. I have the physical power, the tools, and the knowledge to do basically whatever I want to to my flock of chickens, just as I have the power to do whatever I want to to my coloney of mealworms. The difference is that I can, if I choose, communicate with the chickens and they with me. I can recognize the chickens as individuals, and I can tell what they like and dislike by how they behave. They in turn seem to be able to recognize me--they behave differently towards me than towards other humans, and they treat me as an entity, directing social behaviors like threats and appeasements towards me. Mealworms, on the other hand, give no indication of recognizing me as anything other than a random force of nature, and I in turn can't tell them apart or tell what they "want" or what they "feel." I may not even notice if I inadvertantly crush one of their little bodies while picking up the ice cream bucket that they live in. The feeling of alienated omnipotence at realizing my ignorance about and absolute power over them is disturbing. Changing perceptions of humankind's relationship to the rest of the natural world means encouraging feelings of respect and kinship towards other kinds of life, not the ambivalent feelings of power and superiority that exist already to too great a degree.

As part of encouraging the idea of insects as potential food, perhaps Instar should make an effort to encourage the idea of respect towards insects whose lives are taken for human consumption, and then begin a dialogue as to what this would mean. Regardless of religious, philosophical, or scientific beliefs as to what sorts of entities deserve respect, and which entities meet those criterea, I personally advocate a position of respect towards all life and life systems for no other reason than that it is mysterious. The workings of the plainest beetle are still beyond all of modern science's comprehension (though I enjoy and appreciate what science has done to increase our potential to understand life's workings), and beyond modern technology's ability to imitate. We don't know if that beetle possesses any sort of awareness or consciousness or spirit, and it is the not knowing that should fill us with tender awe. The mysteries and complexities of life deserve respect. For why are we, after all, environmentalists? Short of full-scale annihilation of the planet Earth, life in some form is almost certain to continue to exist long after we as humans are long gone. Filling up the seas with DDT and killing off the rainforest trees undoubtably makes our future, and the future of the ecosystem that we're part of, uncertain and unpleasant. Even so, is likely not enough to destroy all life on earth, from the microbes frozen in antarctica to the sealife gathering its energy from deep sea lava vents ... and don't forget the cockroaches. This question inevitably comes up when pondering environmental philosophy. Some people decide that their allegiance is towards the current ecosystem, even to the point of hoping that humanity will be wiped out entirely before doing much more damage to it. Some people decide that their allegiance is towards humankind, and so long as protecting the environment is in humankind's best interest, they'll try to protect it (... but if it's not? Oh well.) Still others accept that life will probably go on regardless, and what will be, will be. I cannot content myself with either of these answers. Instead, I say the first two must belong together. I love humankind, from my individual human friends to the species as a whole, a fascinating and unique set of organisms. And loving humankind means loving the web of life that we are part of, that is our history, our health and other half. I love the ecosystem as it is (though not unchanging); life has value, I think, because it is life. The ecosystem is valuable because it is the ecosystem, and humans are still part of that ecosystem, and I care for them as such. If the ecosystem is valuable, and if it is valuable for what it is, and not for its benefits towards separate and superior humans, then it follows that trying to live harmoniously with that ecosystem--whatever that may mean--is also intrinsically valuable. This deontological style perspective characterises my personal attitude towards environmental living. The question of whether change is possible or crisis inevitable is an academic one to me--even if I knew that my small, consistant attempts to be more in tune with nature would not make any difference at all, I would continue to make them because I believe that they are the "right" thing to do. Or at least the only reasonble thing to do, following from my feelings towards life.

Matters such as these are matters of emotion, experience, perception, and ethics, and such matters are the traditional realm of artists, story-tellers, and mystics. Artists may not commonly be thought of in those terms in modern society, but artistic expression is still necessary for exploring sensitive, subjective topics suth as those. Emotion, experience, and perception belong to the realm of the self and the self's experiences, and artistic self-expression, when it is quite literally an expression of the self, is the only way to set up a dialogue about such matters, with oneself, with other individuals, and with the larger community. Art can not only express a part of the self, it can also directly and purposely influence the emotions, perceptions, and experiences of others. Ethics and matters of how to live and why belong to the realm of societal dialogue, where subjective experiences interact, and so is also in the province of art as the means of subjective dialogue.Artists are needed for a project like Instar, and a project like Instar could be called art, because art is the way to discuss what we care about, why we care about it, and how to take care of it. Where this discussion leads will determine what environmentalism is. Eating insects must be related to watching insects must be related to dancing like an insect must be related to a butterfly garden, a walk in the woods, pain at human cancer rates inflated by insecticides, loss of thousands of acres of rainforest, fear of losing control. These connections are acknowledged and examined by the newest paradigm in science (systems theory and its like), largely ignored by business, irrelivant to most people's everyday lives, and created, celebrated and reflected by artists. What humans do and make is connected to how animals live. Science, in the form of research on ecology, can change our knowledge about how that connection works, but that won't, on its own, change what's done about it. Bussiness tends to ignore that connection unless it affects the bottom line, and changes what's done about it incidentally and unintentionally. Activism, like protests or letter writing campaigns about animal rights, can intentionally change what's done. Art, such as Lynne Hull's sculptures, can re-create the connection, drawing attention to it and making it again both actually and symbolically. To put it briefly, science may tell us what could be done and how to start, activism tell us what should be done and how to follow through, but art is what might show us why we should care.

If Instar is art, where does it fit in with other art?
Instar is modern environmental art, or perhaps something that has, after all, moved past a traditional idea of "art" since it's about much more than gallery exhibitions and visual aesthetics. Like other kinds of environmental art, it focuses on influencing societal practice and perception about nature and environmental issues. Danish group Superflex is a particularly good example of the kind of environmental art Instar would attempt to be. Superflex is "a coordinating instance between art, the business community and different areas of research," and is involved in a number of different projects. Their flagship project involves units for producing Biogas marketed in Africa. Like the entomophagy project of Instar, aspects of the Biogas project include marketing something in an adverse or complicated situation and combining social, environmental and aesthetic concerns.Other precedents include another interdisciplinary collaboration called Platform, a London-based group founded in 1983. They're a group of artists and specialists from other disciplines working together to promote a change in perception, a societal desire for an ecological society. Their projects have included Still Waters, investigating and educating about bringing back London's lost rivers. A part of that project, the "Effra Redevelopment Agency", was done in the form of a marketing campaign, complete with meetings, press coverage, and architectural models. Once they had the eye of the public on the matter of restoring the lost River Effra, they halted the project and disappeared. This indicates that they consider their task to be as a catalyst, getting people interested in a subject, pointing out some pathes that can be taken, and leaving the decisions of whether to go and where in the hands of the people. That is an interesting perspective to consider, and something Instar might do well to discuss from the beginning. I am convinced that for a long time, a continued presense will be necessary for people to even have access to the idea of eating insects. I'm also convinced that one of the most important things an entity working for social change can do is get out of the way when the time comes. Instar's final goal is to become unnecessary. Artist team Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison do art as conceptual design for reclamation, examining site and terrain specific problems. Their work too is necessarily interdisciplinary, and they work often with ecologists, landscape architects and engineers.

All right... how could this actually be implemented?
I hope to find a small but diverse group of talented, dedicated individuals to form the core of Instar. Having a group of people is important. An interdisciplinary project like Instar would need a wide range of talents. Working in a group would help to prevent any one individual from being singled out for credit or blame, forcing acknowledgment of the fact that such a project is necessarily the work of many individuals. The group would stay in close contact and meet whenever practical; group methods and activities would be decided by consensus. Plans would purposely be left flexible until the group was formed and discussion begun, but I envision a series of interconnected projects, centered around humans' relationship to insects and insects-as-food.

roject could be the actual raising, preparing, and eating of insects. The first steps would involve acquiring insects to cultivate and prepare. Good candidates are mealworms (Tenebrio molitor), wax moth larvae (Galleria mellonella), crickets (Acheta domestica) and mantids (family Mantidae). Others include eventually honey bees (Apis mellifera) and roaches (family Blattidae). Preparing the insects would be a matter of the culinary arts--people's minds may be prejudiced, but if we can convince their senses that those soups and cookies and quiches must taste good no matter what's inside them, that battle is halfway won already. Skilled and loving cooking, baking, and arranging of dishes would necessarily be accompanied by attention to the environmental soundness of the other ingrediants, the direct link between humans and the rest of the ecosystem that food is, and the sheer fun of making something to eat and share! Mealworms, which have a nutty taste when cooked, can easily be dried and ground into a powder. Mealworms make a tasty addition to chocolate chip cookies in either whole or powdered form, and this would be an ideal way to introduce people to insects as food. In fact, many kinds of insects can be made into this kind of "flour", and could be included in all sorts of dishes as an additional source of nutrients and flavor. The appendages of crickets can be removed and they can be made into eye-catching salads for the less faint of heart. Wax moth larvae, when fried, puff out into things that look more like popcorn than bugs and are exceptionally tasty. They too would be a wonderful introduction to entomophagy.

Free insect-tasting festivals or picnics could be set up, open to the local community. Similar things have been arranged on isolated instances at fairs and universities and been met with reasonable success. I suspect that the reason those endeavors have never made any notable progress in beginning to change ideas about insects is that they have never been followed up. Individuals wanting to continue eating insects would be forced to buy them live, by mail-order or from pet stores, and prepare them from scratch. Predictably, this is a task that not many people currently want to undertake. Insects already prepared for food are difficult to obtain, and to my knowledge, no organizations for promoting use of insects as food have ever been set up. Businesses selling insects to eat primarily sell canned insects shipped from around the world to small ethnic stores. A rare exception is Hotlix, a company located in Pismo Beach, CA which sells gourmet lollipops with insects inside them. Hotlix cultivates all of its own insects, and sells its candy over the world wide web. These seem to be marketed primarily as novelty items. Instar would obviously occupy a unique, worthwhile niche even were it nothing more than a business offering insects for every day consumption, though of course it would be more.

That brings us to another project, the idea of setting up a business as part of Instar, a concrete way to bring insects to people's dinner tables. It might also be a way to help finance the previously mentioned projects without relying on donations or members' money. Instar would be not-for-profit, attempting to make only enough money to help pay for the work put into the project. Examining the process of setting up as a business in the food industry would be a focus of the project, at least as important as actually setting it up. All stages of that process--work-regulations, logistical difficulties, organizations delt with, contacts developed, and compromises made--would be documented and placed on public record, on-line and/or in folder at a local library, with directions to the information attached to any promotional materials. This documentation would include both facts and interpretations. The former would include things like budgetary data, legal documents, an official business plan, and other technical information. The latter would include philosophical/social critiques of the system and the project's interaction with it, perhaps in the form of recorded dialectic, which might be presented as a comic, or a series of letters, between different members of Instar, as well as relevent personal expressions, perhaps poems or drawings. Instar would monitor whether people read or took interest in that information; putting itself on a stage for the purpose of watching people watch itself. This information--how many people were interested in the details and practice of the business project and which parts they looked at--would in turn be incorporated into the documentation.

This is not dissimilar to the focus on working with businesses, politics, and other forms of societal structure as art made by Joseph Beuys, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Joseph Beuys promoted art as integral to everyday life, and in his project 7,000 Oaks, arranging to have 7,000 oak trees planted in Germany, he focused on the meetings and discussions and red tape involved with getting the trees planted as much as the tree planting itself. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in doing projects like "Running Fence", Calfornia, devote months to organizational bureaucratic matters and also considered it a part of the project. Businesses have the advantage of being an existing social construct, one that a collective like Instar could both work within and deconstruct.

Audiences already likely to be open to the idea of eating insects include biologists (specifically entomologists), anthropologists, children, and environmentalists. Instar will make specific efforts to reach out to these groups, with the idea that communicating with like-minded individuals and sharing with as many people as possible is a positive thing. Even so, the primary focus should be on drawing new people and groups into the fold. A topic as surprising as eating bugs should be a good way to draw attention and debate.

In this interest of encouraging debate, one of the other key projects might be an advertising campaign. This could, and in fact, should exist before and for a while quite apart from the business, being publicity for entomophagy in general and not for Instar particularly. It could include things like handing out mealworm cookies for free on the streets, ads in traditional forms of fliers and brochures handed out and posted on bulletin boards at cafes, libraries, and colleges, tiny adds in local papers, &c. Tasteful pictures of people eating insects and tongue-in-cheek slogans ("Eat Different." "If you are what you eat, then I must be ... delicious!") would be very likely to get a response, probably one of disgust mixed with incredulous curiousity. Initial reactions may view it as a novel prank, but they would still be reactions that could be responded to and that could open people up to interest in the topic. Hopefully, the continuing presense of Instar in the community would push the discussion to a less superficial level. If posters advocating munching on beetles were to start some form of social dialogue about insects, food, environmentalism, or cultural prejudice, then whether the beetles were eaten or not, the project could be considered a success. A beginning would have been made.

One last thing ... what's with the name?
"Instar" refers to a stage of development of an insect larva between two moults. The name is appropriate for several reasons. It relates directly to insects, but not in a way that will be obvious to most people, characterising Instar's goal of showing people new things about insects. Even more than that, it refers to a stage of insect development, in fact, to the first stages of development that occur after an insect hatches from its egg, emphasizing that the project is the start of something new--a growing and changing thing that may mature into something very different. There are also, of course, the vernacular meanings of "in" and "star," conjuring images of being at the center of something that radiates out like a starburst, perhaps touching life millions of miles away. One star in a sky of many, one bright light vivid and valuable both on its own and as part of a vibrant constellation, an ecology of stars.

Eatbug.com - information on entomophagy

Hubbell, Sue. Broadsides from the Other Orders: a book of bugs
Kastner, Jeffrey (ed). Land and Environmental Art
Nollman, Jim. Spiritual Ecology
Taylor, Ronald L. Butterflies in my Stomach or: insects in human nutrition