The Missing Cockroaches

written by Kat Bair
2 · 27 · 24

There is some evidence to suggest that, in the last 30 years, there has been up to a 90% decrease in the cockroach population of New York City, and similar declines in Chicago, LA, and most other major American cities. This kind of thing is a bit hard to study because no one was counting the cockroaches, but there are proxy measures that are suggestive: for example, over a 5 year period, the New York Housing Authority reported a 93% decline in the number of complaints about cockroaches. In the late 1980s, even Capitol Hill was overrun with roaches, and then, within a few years they were just … gone. 

Now don’t get me wrong, there are still cockroaches. There will always be cockroaches. But they have shifted from ubiquitous symbols of indestructibility, to… bugs. I personally see the occasional cockroach, but no more than I see the occasional moth or ladybug. But the reality is that cockroaches got their reputation of being able to survive a nuclear bomb because, for decades, they could survive virtually any insecticide. Unfortunately, because of how common mutations in cockroaches are, even if an insecticide or trap killed 99.9% of a population, there were always a few who survived. And bred. And led to us unintentionally developing stronger and stronger roaches. 

And then they stopped surviving everything. In the late 1980s, a group of scientist developed a bait and poison for roaches that could wipe out entire populations relatively quickly (that product is now known as Combat). Now, if you have cockroaches, you can call an exterminator, or go to the store yourself, and buy products that can pretty effectively wipe them out. The idea of roaches being indestructible is now largely hypothetical.

The Atlantic recently ran a story about this seismic shift and the fundamental question it raises: why isn’t that common knowledge? Why isn’t there an annual day on the calendar commemorating the introduction of Combat? Why didn’t anyone notice the roaches went away? The author of the story talks about growing up in the 1980’s in an apartment in Queens and routinely picking cockroaches out of her cereal, of seeing a dozen scatter every time she turned on the lights. This was a middle class apartment, kept by a (in her daughter’s words) “neat freak” mom. This was just the way things were, not just in her apartment, but everywhere in New York. 

She says now her mother denies that ever even happened, that they ever had cockroaches in their apartment at all. But the data (imperfect as it is) is pretty clear. There used to be a lot more cockroaches than there are now. And it’s largely due to the introduction of one very effective product (and then a slew of other products using the same formulas). 

And we didn’t notice the change. The story includes a lot of theories as to why (including an interesting, if unprovable, theory that their metaphorical association between cockroaches and nuclear war meant that when the Cold War ended around the same time the roach population decreased, we intertwined them in our collective memories), but likely the most compelling is simply that we don’t really notice when things get better, only when they get worse. 

At some point in your life you probably stopped having acne. At some point you got your braces off. At some point you started having less fights at work about masks. At some point you started having faster internet. Gas stopped being $5.00 a gallon. And we don’t talk about those things with nearly the frequency we talk about the things that we feel have gotten worse in our lives (I am much more likely to complain about my newfound fine lines then celebrate the end of my adolescent pimples). 

It makes me think of the ancient Israelite practice of reciting all of the ways that God had been faithful to them in their Scriptures. Why they insisted members of the community commit God’s acts of grace to memory, to tell the stories around the table together. Because it can be easy for us to overlook grace received, lives transformed, as we focus on those things that aren’t quite as we hope. 

This week, I encourage you to regale someone with the story of the cockroaches, or of the cockroaches in your own life that have been wiped out. Look at your old journals, email drafts, notebooks, and search for all of the problems and crises that have resolved themselves, one way or another. Marvel at God’s faithfulness, and how you have grown or learned. And be filled with hope, that no matter what infestation you now face, God has been faithful before, and God will be faithful this time as well. 

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Kat Bair

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