By Hillel Aron
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“I only have 25 minutes to save the world,” Paul Stamets gripes. He is wearing an edible hat made of dried mushroom fibers, round wire-rimmed glasses and jeans. There’s a blazing wild look in his blue eyes, as if he’s a man possessed, a creature who knows the Great Secret but suspects no one will listen when he tells it. Here at the Bioneers Conference at the Marin Civic Center, however, he is more likely to be believed than just about anywhere else. Among the social-justice warriors and world-changers of the global environmental movement, Stamets is a rock star.
“We all know that the earth is in trouble,” he proceeds. “We know we’re in the sixth major extinction. The rivets on the airplane are popping, and we’re headed toward catastrophic failure.”
And what can save us?
“Mushrooms,” says Stamets. “Vast networks of mycelium. Fungi.”
Should you, upon reading this, be on the verge of mistaking Stamets for a kook, know that he is arguably the world’s pre-eminent mycologist. He holds 11 patents on various technologies that scrub PCBs from dirty rivers, digest petroleum products in hills of mud and banish termites and carpenter ants from buildings forever, without the need for even a trace of chemical pesticide. He consults with the National Institutes of Health on cancer treatments and with researchers in San Francisco on AIDS treatments. When best-selling author Michael Pollan refers to mushrooms in his own fiery talk at Bioneers on food supply and farming — fungi are essential players in the creation of soil — he refers to them as “Paul Stamets’ friends.”
Today, Stamets seems more passionate about his cause than ever, perhaps because his most recent patent award really could change the world — if only the EPA would approve it. It has to do with a type of mold fungus, metarhizium, which the EPA recommends in one form for killing the mite that is decimating our domestic bee population. But Stamets sees many more possibilities. In the pesticide industry’s experiments with the mold fungus, bugs have been too smart to eat the spores. Stamets, however, says he “coaxed out the mycelium” into a form that wouldn’t release spores so fast. The insects eat, the spores sporulate, the critters die . . . “and then a mushroom pops out of them.”
On the screen above Stamets’ head flashes a shot of a dead carpenter ant with delicate little mushrooms popping out of its back. A network of these carcasses encased in mycelia will repel house-eating bugs forever.
Stamets got a patent for his coaxing of the metarhizium, but the EPA has to approve all pesticide treatments before they can be commercially distributed, and for mysterious reasons, the agency has balked.
“I have been engaged with the pesticide industry for the last four years,” Stamets says. “Do you really think an industry that will tent your house for $5,000 and charge you thousand-dollar annual inspection fees — do you really think they want a green technology that can get rid of termites and carpenter ants in your house for one dollar forever?”
The crowd erupts in raucous cheers. Feet stamp. Hands shoot into the air.
Stamets doesn’t often talk like this — in 2003 he was the one who told the Bioneers audience to stop ridiculing Republicans and learn how to talk to them. Now he proclaims, “Fungi in the biosphere are reaching out to us.”
Later, in a question-and-answer session for the press, a silver-haired man with a notebook in hand and an amused expression asks, “In your talk, you mentioned that you believe fungi are sentient. Could you explain what you mean by that?”
Stamets stares as if the man may have insulted a member of his family. But after a pause, he answers calmly. “There is a slime mold that Japanese researchers discovered,” he begins, “that when put into a maze was able to navigate the maze with five different alternative outlets. The slime mold was able to memorize or detect where that food was.
“They are sentient because they are aware,” he continues, defiantly. “They make choices. I think we have a provincial view of what intelligence is . . . We’re trying to reflect on something created by the constructs of language, and it’s not the same language all organisms are using.”
He adjusts his hat, clears his throat and moves on to the next question — about the pesticide industry’s resistance to the metarhizium. “I have heard from some of the pesticide players,” says the slightly shy mycologist. “They say, ‘This is terrible. We would have to lay off our employees.’ Now is there a greater duty for a company to be loyal to its 1,000 to 5,000 employees, or to the 300 million people being chewed up by tiny ants?”
In the evening, I watch a film on violence in hip-hop in an outdoor tent, and end up in the hotel bar, late, alone, reading. The waiter is chatty. He tells me he’s a Republican. But he wants to know about the mushroom guy. “Everyone’s talking about him,” he tells me.
I relate the story of the pesticide fungus.
“That’s cool,” he says. “But I also heard he said mushrooms can think.”
“Yeah, he sort of did.”
“Do you believe him?”
“I do,” I admit. “I guess I do.”