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When we last heard from anti-consumerist preacher Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, he was in a spot of legal trouble. In recent years, the choir’s message has shifted away from the evils of individual consumerism and focused instead on corporate greed, staging special sermons for the big businesses that profit from the ruination of the planet. In October, that message landed him and music director Nehemiah Luckett in jail, after the choir visited a Chase Bank wearing toad hats and singing about the destruction of the earth (Chase has enthusiastically financed mountain-top removal, a particularly damaging form of mining.)
Reverend Billy and Luckett were charged with inciting a riot and menacing, among other charges, and faced up to a year in jail. Eventually, they were able to plead the charges way down: Reverend Billy plead to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to one day of community service, while Luckett’s case was dismissed on the proviso that he stay out of trouble for six months.
“What a bush-league resolution that was,” Reverend Billy told us cheerily, one morning not long ago. “I don’t feel great about it. I get sick of the boredom.” He compares the legal process to “death by a thousand cuts,” with its endless trips to the courthouse.
Now, the Reverend says, “We’ve got to get back to work here. The honey bees are dying.” The choir is back with a new campaign: drawing attention to the plight of the world’s bees, who are dying off at alarming rates. To kick things off, they visited a Harvard lab yesterday, where they attempted to cast out its demons through song.
Why Harvard? First, let’s talk bees. Domestic bees, as well as feral honey bees, have been dying at in shocking numbers over the past 50 years, with an especially sharp acceleration after 2006. Everybody but the United States seems to agree that the bee deaths are likely caused by neonicotinoids, a common class of pesticide, which seem to make it impossible for bees to find their way back to their hives. The European Union has banned them outright, while the U.S. has not. They’re sort of kind of maybe considering it, though, a process which should only take a couple decades, with a ban arriving just in time to save the last remaining bee as it coughs into a bee-sized handkerchief on its tiny deathbed.
Not to worry, though: science is coming to the rescue, not by figuring out how to stop the bees from dying, but by creating new robot bees. Over the past decade, the Harvard Microrobotics Lab created the RoboBee, who’s roughly the size of a penny. It’s one of their many tiny robot projects, all of which are designed to mimic nature; in 2007, the lab created and successfully flew a life-sized robotic fly, the first time such a flight was achieved. In 2012, the RoboBee was able to fly in a controlled way for the first time.
The scientists say that the RoboBees will have a number of practical applications : pollinating crops, search and rescue missions, environmental survey projects after disasters, traffic monitoring, and, of course, military surveillance. It’s that last one that has the U.S. Department of Defense all excited. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA for short, is a division of the Pentagon. DARPA funded the lab’s early research (Update, April 24: Harvard denies that the project has ever been funded by DARPA). They have made no secret of the fact that they’d very much like a tiny drone, that the “development of insect-size flying and crawling systems capable of a wide variety of battlefield sensor missions” would be very useful. (Vice’s tech blog Motherboard wrote a good piece on the military’s funding of robot insects.)
The point, in other words, is that something like the RoboBee, developed as a benign scientific project, can easily be used for darker purposes. That’s why Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir have teamed up this spring with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of many groups concerned with the bee die-off and the social implications of building robot bees instead of caring for the ones we have already. And so the choir headed up to Boston, dressed as bees and carrying a bullhorn.
Choir director Savitri D. (who is also Reverend Billy’s spouse) directed the Harvard outing, and designed the choir’s new outfits, black numbers festooned with 750 bee dolls she made by hand. Covered in bees, Billy and the choir arrived at the Harvard campus yesterday afternoon, where they set out to find the location of the MicroRobotics lab. It wasn’t difficult, the Reverend says: “A couple of our straighter-looking Stop Shopping Choir members were able to just kind of go into the lobby of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and just ask where the laboratory was. It’s so genteel there. It’s so inside the bubble of Harvard that nobody thought of the possibility of interrupting the lab’s work.”
Choir member Monica Hunken dressed as a queen bee, attired in a Marie Antoinette-ish hat and a gold lame thrift store dress. Savitri made that one as well:
The Reverend wore his usual white suit and carried his customary bullhorn, into which he shouted, “No Honey Bee robots — you can’t update a masterpiece!” On all four floors of the lab, they performed a selection of songs on the dangers of neonicotinoids and handed out flyers on the same subject.
The scientists, coming out in the hallways to locate the source of the commotion, were non-plussed.
“They were very much mild mannered men and women of learning,” Billy says. “There’s some high-end intellection going on there. They’re heavy people. They were pretty astonished that we would be questioning their project.”
That’s not surprising, he says. “We learned early in the process that these people don’t know what we’re talking about. They know that the RoboBee was funded by DARPA. But they don’t think of themselves as being – the environment of Harvard is so prestigious and privileged and unthreatened that the people are completely depoliticized.”
(Update, April 24: Harvard has responded to the choir’s demonstration, denying that the project they protested ever received Department of Defense funding. That update is at the bottom of this post.)
The best word for it, he says, is “innocence.”
“We had probably had eight or ten conversations with people,” he explains. “They were not angry with us. They were just surprised. It reminded me of the time we preached in Iceland. The people there are so laid back we raised our voices just a little bit and everybody within 500 feet looks at you. The ecosystem, the social system is so quiet. We were in there at least a half hour, probably 40 minutes, preaching and singing and no police showed up, and no security.”
“There’s a kind of softness and a willful naivete to a place like Harvard,” adds choir director Savitri. “Their PR guy followed us out. He was so frustrated. He was trying to explain to us that the RoboBee doesn’t cause colony collapse. There’s no connection.”
The choir is aware of that, Savitri told him. “We tried to explain that if they put all the resources that went to developing RoboBees into saving the bees we do have, that would be great.”
“It’s very sinister to cloak this work in this really happy, positive spin,” she adds. “Some of it is positive, of course, they can potentially sniff out munitions and find land mines. There’s multiple applications, but I think at this point for us to empower these efforts that make people feel okay about what we’re doing to other species is just wrong.”
The choir didn’t necessarily expect to change the culture of Harvard, and they were delighted not to be arrested. “It was nerve wracking for us,” Billy says. “But the morning after feels great.”
The Stop Shopping Choir will continue their bee education efforts in New York over the next few months. You’ll know them when you see them.
Update, April 24:
Caroline M. Perry, a public information officer at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where the MicroRobotics lab is located, has emailed us, calling Reverend Billy’s protest “super-bizarre,” and, more importantly, denying that the RoboBees project has ever received DARPA funding.
“DARPA has never funded the RoboBees project; it has always been supported by the National Science Foundation,” she writes. “Prof. Rob Wood once received a Young Faculty Award from DARPA, but that preceded the RoboBees project. I assume that’s where the inaccuracy originated.”
Wood is the leading faculty member on the RoboBees project, as well as a number of other microrobotics projects, with a special focus on “biologically inspired aerial and terrestrial microrobots.” According to DARPA’s website, the Young Faculty Award program ” provides funding, mentoring, and industry and DoD contacts to awardees early in their careers so they may develop their research ideas in the context of DoD needs.”
Wood is one of two Harvard faculty members to recently win the Young Faculty Award. DARPA has also funded several other Harvard projects, including a $2.6 million grant to develop a “smart suit” to increase the stamina of soldiers and $37 million to develop model human on organs on microchips to study human physiology.
Update, April 25: Reverend Billy and Savitri D. reply to Perry’s letter:
Caroline Perry is doing her job as an “public information officer” in trying to separate the Robobee project at Harvard from the Pentagon’s notorious drone program, DARPA. But she has a tremendous PR problem. There are thousands of articles posted publicly talk about DARPA’s origination of the Robobee project. It was probably a good idea to shift the funding from DARPA to the more prestigious and less war-like National Science Foundation, but Robobell is a DARPA project through and through.
But our issue is the Honey Bees, and the unlivable vision that the Micro-Robotic Lab is buying into with its robot bee project. The lab cannot accept all this funding and yet be in denial about the extinction of Apis Mellifera. They can’t get any “public information officer” to persuade us that the world of mechanical pollination is a future that we want for our children. War and drones are probably not the partners some of these Robobee scientists expected, but the factory farm vision coming to us from Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta, poisoners of the bee with their neonicotinoid pesticides – that is a nightmare. No, Harvard can’t proceed with a moral assessment of its work disengaged. It must take responsibility as we all must. That is why we marched through the laboratory that day.