Here's What It Looks Like When Reverend Billy and His Choir Visit a Harvard Drone Lab to Cast Out the Demons [Updated]
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.)
All photos by Minister Erik McGregor The Queen Bee, Reverend Billy and choir enter the lab building.
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.
Erik McGregor The choir convenes outside the lab.