insect extinction

Silent Earth: Averting the insect apocalypse

As insects become more scarce, our world will slowly grind to a halt, for it cannot function without them.

There is no doubt that insects are in decline: every year there are slightly fewer butterflies, fewer bumblebees—fewer of almost all the myriad little beasts that make the world go round.


Estimates vary and are imprecise, but it seems likely that insects have declined in abundance by 75% or more in the last 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 demise of woodland and grassland insects in Germany, or the seemingly inexorable contraction of the ranges of 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 were doing terrible damage to our planet. She would weep to see how much worse it has become. Insect-rich wildlife habitats such as hay meadows, marshes, heathland and tropical rainforests have been bulldozed, burnt or ploughed to destruction on a vast scale. The problems with pesticides and fertilizers she highlighted have become far more acute, with an estimated three million tons of pesticides now going into the global environment every 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 choked with silt and polluted with chemicals. Climate change, a phenomenon unrecognized in her time, is now threatening to further ravage 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 for human well-being—we need insects to pollinate our crops, recycle dung, leaves and corpses, keep the soil healthy, control pests, and much more—but for larger animals such as birds, fish, and frogs who rely on insects for food. Wildflowers rely on them for pollination.

As insects become more scarce, our world will slowly grind to a halt, for it cannot function without them.

Insects are vital to ecosystems 

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

Halting and reversing insect declines, or indeed tackling any of the other major environmental threats we face, requires action at many levels, from the general public to farmers, food retailers and other businesses, local authorities and policy makers in government. Here in Britain, recent elections and the Brexit debate have seen precious little serious discussion of the environment, despite the compelling evidence that many of the biggest challenges facing humanity in the twenty-first century relate to our unsustainable over-exploitation of our planet's finite resources.

To save them, we need to act, and act now. We can do this in several ways, some simple, others harder to achieve. Firstly, we need to engender a society that values the natural world, both for what it does for us and for its own sake. The obvious place to start 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 wild flowers squeezed into every available space—in our gardens, city parks, allotments, cemeteries, on road verges, railway cuttings and roundabouts—and all free from pesticides.

We must transform our food system. Growing and transporting food so that we all have something to eat is the most fundamental of human activities. The way we do it has profound impacts on our own welfare, and on the environment, so it is surely worth investing in getting it right. There is an urgent need to overhaul the current system, which is failing us in multiple ways.

There is abundant evidence that smaller farms can be more productive and sustainable, but the current economic model and subsidy systems are driving them out of business. "Alternative" farming systems such as organic, permaculture, agroforestry, and biodynamic farming all seem to have much to offer, but receive precious little encouragement. In Bavaria, concern over insect declines led 1.7 million people to sign a petition demanding action, and this led to a suit of measures to make farming more wildlife friendly, including financial incentives to reach a target of 30% organic land. There is an appetite for change.

We could have a vibrant farming sector, employing many more people, focused on sustainable production of healthy food, looking after soil health and supporting biodiversity, and focussed mainly on fruit and veg rather than meat, but this needs support from both policy makers and consumers.

Our planet has coped remarkably well so far with the blizzard of changes we have wrought, but we would be foolish to assume that it will continue to do so. A relatively small proportion of species have actually gone extinct so far, but almost all wild species now exist in numbers that are a fraction of their former abundance, subsisting in degraded and fragmented habitats and subjected to a multitude of ever-changing man-made problems.

We do not understand anywhere near enough to be able to predict how much resilience is left in our depleted ecosystems, or how close we are to tipping points beyond which collapse becomes inevitable.

In Paul Ehrlich's 'rivets on a plane' analogy, we may be close to the point where the wing falls off.

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

This is a modified extract from Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse, published September 2021 by HarperCollins.

Banner photo credit: Pimthida/flickr

Cancer-causing benzene levels were cut in half at US refineries in 2023: Report

Texas refineries, however, still have some work to do.

HOUSTON — The number of U.S. oil refineries exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for benzene in 2023 was cut in half compared to 2020, according to a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project.
Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
environmental justice pittsburgh
Credit: Kristina Marusic for EHN

Environmental justice advocates find hope, healing and community in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH — Environmental justice advocates gathered last week to celebrate progress and chart a path to the future while focusing on healing, self care and mental health.

Keep reading...Show less
powder river coal leasing
Credit: Jerry Huddleston/Flickr

Biden administration ends new coal leasing in Powder River Basin

The Biden administration moves to halt new coal leasing in the Powder River Basin, aiming to curb fossil fuel extraction.

Maxine Joselow reports for The Washington Post.

Keep reading...Show less

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's new grid rule deepens partisan divisions

A recent FERC initiative aimed at modernizing the U.S. power grid has intensified partisan disagreements, threatening bipartisan efforts for a comprehensive permitting overhaul.

Kelsey Brugger reports for E&E News.

Keep reading...Show less
Oil barge accident & spill
Credit: Patrick Feller/Flickr

Barge collision collapses Galveston bridge, triggers oil spill

A barge collision caused a partial collapse of a Galveston bridge, leading to an oil spill and the closure of the only road to Pelican Island.

Juan Lozano and Lekan Oyekanmi report for The Associated Press.

Keep reading...Show less

Rep. Jamie Raskin probes oil companies over alleged Trump donation meeting

Rep. Jamie Raskin is demanding details from oil industry leaders about a reported meeting with Donald Trump, where deregulation promises were allegedly exchanged for campaign donations.

Erin Mansfield reports for USA Today.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
air pollution pittsburgh

Amidst a controversial international sale, U.S. Steel falls behind in cleaner steelmaking

U.S. Steel’s proposed sale to Nippon Steel stokes concerns over labor rights and national security, all while the company continues to break clean air laws in Western Pennsylvania.

exxon houston petrochemicals

Spanish-speaking residents feel left out of permitting process at massive Exxon petrochemical plant in Houston-area

“It is important to ensure meaningful engagement efforts are inclusive and accessible to all diverse members of our communities.”

youth climate change

"Our lives might be on the line"

Eighth graders reflect on the state of the planet.

sargassum

After 13 years, no end in sight for Caribbean sargassum invasion

Thousands of people were hurt by sargassum blooms last year in the Caribbean.

youth climate change

“We should take care of what is precious to us"

Eighth graders reflect on the state of the planet.

earth day 2024

Earth Day reflections from the next generation

This week we're featuring essays from Houston-area eighth graders to hear what the youth think about the state of our planet.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.