You've probably seen the newspaper headlines heralding an "insect apocalypse." Some accounts are more measured than others, but the underlying studies are quite grim, especially for a bee ecologist like Dave Goulson: Three-quarters of an insect population in this area disappeared in half a century; two-thirds of that one over there; 90 percent of this species, which perhaps you might remember from your childhood but is almost impossible to find in the wild now.
I first met Goulson while working on a story about the fate of bees and what is often called colony collapse disorder. It was both a very real thing — bee colonies kept dying off, largely because everything about industrial agriculture was so brutal and disruptive to them — and a sort of floating symbol of late-Obama-era environmental anxiety. "It just chimes with people — that these stories of bee declines are a symptom of something broader that's wrong with the world," Goulson told me in 2015. "They think, if we can save the bees, we can save the world."
His new book, Silent Earth , strikes a decidedly less cheery note. Its title echoes the warning of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring , the seminal environmental treatise published in 1962. Amid chapters celebrating insects, analyzing the causes of their declines, and suggesting a kind of road map back to population stability, it includes a dark interlude sketching out what the world might look like if all the trends that have produced these population crashes are allowed to continue.
Let's start with that bleak vision of the future you stuck in midway through the book. It's not just the result of insect declines, though those play a part.
The section is set in 2080, narrated from the perspective of your son. He's gardening for his own food, hand-pollinating each plant and urinating on compost to add necessary nutrients to the soil. The useful insects are gone, but the bad kind — mosquitoes spreading malaria, other pests spreading other diseases — have reached plague proportions. The global food supply has collapsed, and your son guards the garden, circled by sheep-fencing and barbed wire, with a rifle across his knees. The obesity epidemic is a tragically distant memory, and he forages for nuts in the nearby woods.
And you're absolutely right, the scenario is not driven by insect declines alone. But all of these big environmental issues are interrelated, and it's the combined effect of all of them that is really going to be devastating. Scientists in particular tend to be in their little silos, focused on climate change or biodiversity loss or soil health or whatever it might be — overfishing and so on. But it's when you put them all together that you think, Well, hang on a minute, what kind of world are our children and our grandchildren going to be living in?
What kind do you think?
There are all of those cartoons that were drawn in the pandemic — one tidal wave labeled COVID-19 followed by one labeled RECESSION followed by CLIMATE CHANGE and then BIODIVERSITY COLLAPSE. How do you see the relative scale of these threats?
And we're not actually doing anything meaningful to combat climate change, let alone the other big issues that are facing us. I think it's entirely likely that, unless we're much cleverer than I think we are and we can come up with technological fixes for all the problems we're creating, the future is really potentially bleak.
By which you mean …
You know, you could say we've kind of lucked out — being born in the Western world in the late 20th century. It may well turn out to be that we had the best lives. Life before us was definitely harder, and life after us might well be a lot harder too. Of course, it doesn't have to be that way. This is what's so frustrating — we can fix all of this stuff, more or less, if we really try. And then everyone can have a decent life. But we have to take it seriously and actually be prepared to make some sacrifices and act, which, at the moment, we're not doing.
I found your discussion in the book of the legacy of Rachel Carson really quite powerful on this point, as well as depressing. We remember her as almost a mythic figure, the godmother of the modern environmental movement, someone who almost single-handedly changed the way that people in countries like ours think about our relationship to the natural world — someone who, through a kind of moral exhortation, really changed the course of human history, at least when it came to pesticides. But, as you point out, while there was an effect on DDT use in particular, the much broader crusade Carson was fighting in Silent Spring was quite clearly lost, not won.
We're now up to, roughly estimated, 3 million tons of pesticides being used every year by the world's farmers. And many of the products being used are much more potent than the ones that were available when Rachel Carson was alive. DDT seems quite innocuous in many ways compared to some of the insecticides that are available to farmers. DDT is certainly thousands of times less poisonous to insects than its replacements.
Which suggests that, as you say about governments and climate change, that there's a real difference between acknowledging or even conceptualizing a problem and really doing the things we need to do to solve it. In fact, it may often be the case that that acknowledgement functions almost like an excuse for not taking action.
And the effects aren't linear, right? It's not like we've reduced insects 17-fold as a result. Because they've grown resistant to these chemical assaults, which means we have to just keep using more of the stuff.
What do you mean?
Why is that? Why are the bad ones doing okay?
Just a few weeks ago, I came across an amazing example of the almost obscene scale of pesticide use. Apparently, this year, 2.6 million acres of Montana are being sprayed from the air with insecticides to control native grasshoppers — 2.6 million acres — I mean, it's just a staggering area, right? I live in Sussex, in the U.K., and if I remember correctly, it's five times the area of the county of Sussex — the whole lot being carpet bombed with insecticide to control one species of insect. Now, there are probably 50,000 species of insects living in Montana.
Wait, what's the problem with grasshoppers? I'd have thought of them as being relatively benign.
And, of course, all this stuff has an effect on human health, too, because it gets into our food and sort of gets into us as a result. But you mentioned the monarchs. Your book is about the broader phenomenon of insect decline. Could you just walk me through the top-line figures — what scale of population collapse are we talking about?
In the book, I believe you estimate the total decline at 75 percent over the course of your lifetime.
That's the benchmark for most of these surveys — the 1970s.
That makes sense to me in the sense that, especially in Europe and North America, where this data was being collected — those are places that have seen over the course of the second half of the 20th century into the 21st century some amount of regreening, reforesting, even rewilding. It's not the same environment that we had 300 years ago in those places, but overall, there's been some recovery wild space and forest cover, which might at least soften the curve of some of these declines. But in other parts of the world, where they're still doing a lot of development and deforestation and ecological destruction, we may be in a much steeper part of the curve.
When I first saw these studies, five years ago, my own instinct was to say, I don't doubt this particular finding about this particular nature reserve or whatever, but given what I know about how dependent the whole planet's ecosystems are on insect life, it just didn't seem plausible to me that we could be seeing such rapid declines without also seeing enormous disruptions further up the food chain. I mean, a 75 percent reduction over just 50 years and possibly a much steeper more dramatic decline over the course of a century and a half — those are really really dramatic declines! So are these ecosystems more resilient to these disruptions than a layman like me might think? Is it possible these data sets are overstating the decline? How would you answer someone like me asking, naïvely, how could this be happening with the rest of the world still chugging along rather than ending?
I come up against this with climate change all the time, and some of the social science I've read suggests that we build those baselines just over ten- or even five-year timelines. So what was normal 15 years ago, not to mention 50, plays almost no role in our perception of change.
But to the bigger question, why haven't we seen a bigger impact if insects have really declined so much? Why are we not already seeing repercussions of that? Well, actually, we are. For example, in bird populations, most insect-eating birds have declined. Birds have declined generally. Vertebrates have declined. If you pull off the WWF and the Zoological Society of London's state of nature reports, they reckon that vertebrate populations are down by, I think, 60 percent since 1970. And insect-eating birds in particular have declined disproportionately. Things like barn swallows, spotted fly flycatchers — they were common when I was a kid. I can't remember the last time I've seen one. Their populations are down, I think, 90-something percent.
You and I first spoke when I was working on a story about bees and colony collapse disorder, which is just a reminder that none of the farms we have today can really survive on natural pollination. They need to import pollinators to fill in the gap, which is why beekeepers drive these huge 18-wheelers all over the country, moving from farm to farm, hiring out their bees to pollinate crops that, in another era, would've probably been perfectly well-pollinated by the insects in the local ecosystem.
So, what would that lead to? We talked earlier about the future we might be facing if we don't get a handle on all of these ecological challenges. But, just as a thought experiment, what if we did manage all that other stuff but the insect declines continued — what would that mean for us? What would the world look like with just a tiny, tiny fraction of the insects there were in the world of our grandparents?
And how close would you say we are to that? Are we already there?
And this has produced some extreme things. I've seen hand pollination of crops in southwest China, in Bengal in India, with passion fruit in Brazil. It seems like something that's only going to increase over time, and a declining food supply as our population grows — it's not going to work out well for us.
We've touched on a few of the drivers, but can you walk through the various causes of decline and maybe even rank them in importance?
But it's quite hard to disentangle habitat loss from the effects of pesticides, certainly in a European context, because a lot of habitat loss is intimately interwoven with increasing use of pesticide — the habitat loss is due to intensive farming. So the habitat loss is going hand in hand with more use of not just insecticides but herbicides and more fertilizer. People interested in farming and its impact on insects have mostly focused on pesticides, but fertilizers can have really profound effects on plant communities by allowing a small number of weedy plant species to thrive at the expense of everything else. And the amount of fertilizer going on farmland around the world is just completely staggering. And there's also interesting evidence that herbivorous insects do much less well if they're feeding on plants that have been fed elevated levels of fertilizer.
Then there's climate change, which is starting to kick in and probably will soon overtake some of the others. Until recently, it was probably fair to say there wasn't much evidence that climate change had really impacted insects, but that's changed recently. Light pollution is an interesting one. There's a growing body of research on that suggesting it has all sorts of interesting and sad effects disrupting the life cycle of the insects — if they emerge at the wrong time because of artificial lighting. It can also disrupt navigation. And there's disease, which we've really only studied in bees, but is undoubtedly contributing to declines, too. So that's a bunch of factors, and I'm sure there are one or two more that I've forgotten and others we haven't discovered yet.
And is the project of stabilizing those populations just a matter of reversing all of those trends?
And that I think is, for me, perhaps the biggest challenge facing mankind essentially at this point in history: Can we come up with a way of growing food that is sustainable and doesn't wipe out biodiversity and damage the soil and pollute the air and the sea and everything else? We have an industrial-farming system that we just can't carry on with because it's not sustainable. But there are lots of different visions as to how we might do things differently and no real clear consensus and not much investment in that area, which is something we desperately need.
Is that what you'd focus on, if you were some sort of global insect czar?
- Bugs badgering ballplayers just part of the game
- Mistresses, ex-adviser reveal shocking Tiger details
- Keating’s Corner: Tragedy strikes Fennville
- Keselowski takes a trip back to his roots
- English road trip of an avid soccer fan
- Coming to America: 19 movies about U.S. immigration
- Irish a legacy test for Michigan’s Hoke
|Heaven and Hell: What Happens When You Die? (check at Amazon)||5.0|
|Sun Stand Still: What Happens When You Dare to Ask God for the Impossible, the Short Film Series (check at Amazon)||4.0|
|What Happens When Women Try Butt Enhancers For The First Time (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What happens when the NFL interviews a ball boy? (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Life 2: The Sequel: What happens when you die? (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happens When We Die?: A Groundbreaking Study into the Nature of Life and Death (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire: What Happens When God's Spirit Invades the Hearts of His People (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Sun Stand Still: What Happens When You Dare to Ask God for the Impossible (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happens When I Talk to God?: The Power of Prayer for Boys and Girls (The Power of a Praying Kid) (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|How Music Got Free: What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime? (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happened When Show Business Married The Mafia (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Prayer on Fire: What Happens When the Holy Spirit Ignites Your Prayers (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|The Litigation Explosion: What Happened When America Unleashed the Lawsuit (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|When All the Laughter Died in Sorrow (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happens When We Die: A Psychic's Exploration of Death, Heaven, and the Soul's Journey After Death (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|The Big Book of Near-Death Experiences: The Ultimate Guide to What Happens When We Die (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Heaven Hears: The True Story of What Happened When Pat Boone Asked the World to Pray for His Grandson's Survival (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happens When I Die?: True Stories of the Afterlife and What They Tell Us About Eternity (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|In the Gap: What Happens When God's People Stand Strong (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happened When Grandma Died? (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happens When I Die? (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Constitutional Chaos: What Happens When the Government Breaks Its Own Laws (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happens When I Die? (Questions For Life) (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|The Wisdom of Tenderness: What Happens When God's Fierce Mercy Transforms Our Lives (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Eating Peaches: What Happens When You Swap City Lights for the Simple Life? (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happens When We Die (Childrens Bible Basics) (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us: Stories (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Voices from the Hollow : What happened when the Blue Bloods met the Blue Ridge (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Sun Stand Still: What Happens When You Dare to Ask God for the Impossible by Steven Furtick (Sep 21 2010) (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Is There Life After Death?: The Extraordinary Science of What Happens When We Die (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Beyond Death: What Happens When We Die and How to Prepare Now to Take Advantage of It (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|The Single Sister Experiment: What Happens When Single Women Stop Having Sex (Urban Christian) (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happens When You Get What You Want?: Success and the Challenge of Choice (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|The Milkman Story: What Happens When a Jewish Carpenter Meets a Gentile Milkman (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Sun Stand Still: What Happens When You Dare to Ask God for the Impossible [Paperback] (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire: What Happens When God's Spirit Invades the Heart of His People (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Bursting The Atmosphere: what happens when rain falls up (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Farewell, Grandpa Elephant: What Happens When a Loved One Dies? (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|The Journey After Life: What Happens When We Die (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|After Here: The Celestial Plane and What Happens When We Die (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|The Yggyssey: How Iggy Wondered What Happened to All the Ghosts, Found Out Where They Went, and Went There (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happens When We Die: A Ground-Breaking Study Into the Nature of Life and Death. Sam Parnia (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happens When You Die: From Your Last Breath to the First Spadeful (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|Embraced By The Light: What Happens When You Die? (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|The Word and Power Church: What Happens When a Church Seeks All God Has to Offer? (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|What Happens When We Die (What the Bible Says Book 4) (check at Amazon)||0.0|
|The Big Book of Near Death Experiences: The Ultimate Guide to What Happens When We Die (check at Amazon)||0.0|
What Happens When All the Bugs Die? have 3234 words, post on nymag.com at July 31, 2021. This is cached page on USA Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.