She also asked the following question: “How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”
Now, Oliver Milman, in The Insect Crisis,1 is showing us that the question is still relevant sixty years later. Not only does Milman continue this line of questioning, but he has also produced a book clearly describing the consequences of not heeding or listening to Carson’s pleas.
These two books coming exactly sixty years apart (Silent Spring and The Insect Crisis) could easily be the two books that flank the modern environmental movement. One warns us, the other shows us what happens when we don’t listen.
Milman provides so much research and surveys showing the drastic decline (in lots of places, extinction) of insects since the release of Silent Spring that it is almost overwhelming and difficult to read.
Yet, we all intuitively know that Milman is correct. For those of us who were alive at the time of the release of Carson’s book, we can clearly recognise today: the lack of bugs on car windshields; the severe reduction in the number and variety of butterflies in our gardens and parks; the fewer bee stings; the lessened likelihood of seeing a praying mantis or cricket on our lawns. These and many other once commonly seen insects have all but disappeared.
And that is a serious problem says Milman. Most of us recognise insects (especially bees) as pollinators. They are also responsible for breaking down dead vegetation, for removing waste material, for aerating soils, for shifting nutrients around, and providing food for other creatures.
The reason for this demise? Milman is unequivocal. He points the finger squarely at us. We might think that climate change is the reason for the decrease. Climate change is only but the latest human-invoked threat that insects are facing. Insects have faced the same threats since Carson first pointed them out sixty years ago. Insects are threatened by insecticides, pesticides, deforestation, monocultural agriculture, urbanisation, light pollution, and the extinction of other species.
These pressures upon insect populations predate our current recognition of climate change. Insects and many other flora and fauna are now facing extinction. We have come to recognise this as the Sixth Mass Extinction. Yet, insects predated dinosaurs. In a chilling passage just one page from the end of his book, Milman quotes from a December 2020 research paper:
“This is not insects’ sixth mass extinction – in fact, it may become their first.”
If we understand the importance of insects to the life of the rest of the planet, including humans, then it could be that this may not become just the first mass extinction for insects – but also the first mass extinction for humans!!
Milman’s book is a must read for those who want to gain a greater understanding of another of Rachel Carson’s statements in Silent Spring:
“In nature, nothing exists alone.”
1. Oliver Milman, The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World, Atlantic Books, London, 2022.