Silent Earth: Avoid the insect apocalypse

There’s no doubt that insects are on the decline: every year there are fewer butterflies, fewer bumblebees – fewer of almost all of the myriad little beasts that make the world go round.


Estimates vary and are imprecise, but it seems likely that insect abundance has declined by 75% or more over the past 50 years. The scientific evidence for this grows stronger every year, as studies are published describing the collapse of monarch butterfly populations in North America, the disappearance of insects from woodlands and grasslands in Germany, or the seemingly inexorable contraction of ranges. bumblebees and hoverflies in the UK. .

In 1963, two years before I was born, Rachel Carson warned us in her book silent spring that we are doing terrible damage to our planet. She would cry to see how much worse it got. Insect-rich wildlife habitats such as hay meadows, marshes, heaths and tropical rainforests have been bulldozed, burned or plowed on a massive scale. The problems with pesticides and fertilizers she highlighted have become much more acute, with an estimated three million tonnes of pesticides ending up in the global environment each year.

Some of these new pesticides are thousands of times more toxic to insects than any that existed in Carson’s day. Soils have been degraded, rivers clogged with silt and polluted with chemicals. Climate change, an unrecognized phenomenon in its day, now threatens to further devastate our planet. These changes have all happened in our lifetime, on our watch, and they continue to accelerate.

Few people seem to realize how devastating this is, not only to human well-being – we need insects to pollinate our crops, recycle droppings, leaves and dead bodies, keep the soil healthy, control pests and much more – but for larger animals such as birds, fish and frogs that depend on insects for food. Wildflowers depend on it for pollination.

As insects become scarce, our world will slowly come to a halt, as it cannot function without them.

Insects are vital to ecosystems

American biologist Paul Ehrlich compared the loss of species from an ecological community to the random popping of rivets from an airplane wing. Remove one or two and the plane will probably be fine. Take away 10, or 20, or 50, and at some point that we are totally unable to predict, there will be a catastrophic failure, and the plane will fall out of the sky. Insects are the rivets that keep ecosystems functioning.

Halting and reversing the decline of insects, or indeed tackling any of the other major environmental threats we face, requires action on many levels, from the general public to farmers, food retailers and other businesses, to authorities local and government policy makers. Here in Britain, the recent election and Brexit debate have given rise to little serious discussion about the environment, despite compelling evidence that many of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century are linked to our unsustainable overexploitation of our planet’s finite resources. .

To save them, we must act, and act now. We can do this in several ways, some simple, others more difficult to achieve. First, we must create a society that values ​​the natural world, both for what it does for us and for itself. The obvious starting point is with our children, encouraging environmental awareness from an early age. We also need to green our urban areas. Imagine green cities filled with trees, vegetable gardens, ponds and wildflowers in all available spaces – in our gardens, municipal parks, allotments, cemeteries, roadsides, railway tracks and roundabouts – and the all without pesticides.

We need to transform our food system. Growing and transporting food so that we all have something to eat is the most fundamental of human activities. How we do it has profound implications for our own well-being and the environment, so it’s certainly worth the investment to get it right. There is an urgent need to overhaul the current system, which fails us in so many ways.

There is plenty of evidence that small farms can be more productive and sustainable, but the current economic model and subsidy systems are pushing them out of business. “Alternative” farming systems such as organic farming, permaculture, agroforestry and biodynamic farming all seem to have a lot to offer, but receive little encouragement. In Bavaria, concern over insect declines led 1.7 million people to sign a petition demanding action, leading to a series of measures to make agriculture more wildlife-friendly, including including financial incentives to reach a target of 30% organic land. There is a thirst for change.

We could have a vibrant agriculture sector, employing many more people, focused on sustainably producing healthy food, ensuring healthy soils and supporting biodiversity, and focusing primarily on fruits and vegetables rather than meat, but this requires the support of policy makers and consumers. .

So far, our planet has weathered the blizzard of change we’ve caused remarkably well, but we’d be foolish to assume that it will continue to do so. A relatively small proportion of species has actually become extinct so far, but nearly all wild species now exist in numbers that are only a fraction of their previous abundance, subsisting in degraded and fragmented habitats and subject to a multitude ever-evolving human-made problems. .

We don’t understand far enough to be able to predict how much resilience remains in our depleted ecosystems, or how close we are to tipping points beyond which collapse becomes inevitable.

In Paul Ehrlich’s “rivets on an airplane” analogy, we may be close to the point where the wing drops.

Dave Goulson is a professor of biology at the University of Sussex, UK, specializing in bee ecology. He has published over 300 scientific articles and seven books, including the Sunday Times bestsellers A Sting in the Tale (2013), the Garden Jungle (2019) and Silent Earth (2021).

This is an edited excerpt from Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse, published September 2021 by HarperCollins.

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