The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World by Oliver Milman
I’ve spent the past 27 summers minus two driving from New York out west to hike/camp with my family for 4-6 weeks. That’s 25 cross-country trips (including twice to Alaska but not counting the two I took before meeting my wife) and lots of driving during those trips as well. So much so that I often end up driving as many miles in June and July as I do the other ten months out of the year. Because most of those years I was driving a Prius, I didn’t have to stop a lot for gas. But I still frequently pulled into gas stations. Why? To clear my windshield and headlights of the mass of splattered bugs that were obscuring my sight and dimming my beams.
But I’ve noticed something disquieting the last 10 or 12 years — I no longer need to do that. Sure, I clean my windshield when I fill up the tank, but I no longer have to stop just to do that. Those clouds of insects that used to smack into the glass have been steadily diminishing and lately have almost completely disappeared. And this is true no matter the terrain I’m driving through: mountains, farmlands, canyons, urban areas, deserts. They’re all noticeable poorer when it comes to insect populations.
But you don’t have to take my amateurish, anecdotal word for it. Because as Oliver Milman relates in The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World, across the world in Denmark, biologist Ander Pape Møller has been driving the exact same stretches of two roads at the exact same speed at the exact same times from 1997 to now, meticulously counting the number of insects collected” on his windshield each trip. And in that time, the number of insects dropped by 80% on one road and by over 90% on the other. “Crisis” indeed.
The other numbers in Milman’s book aren’t much better. To be honest, The Insect Crisis is one of the most depressing books — fiction or non-fiction — I’ve read in some time (reading it during our current slew of crises probably didn’t help). That’s not a discouragement to reading it. Far from it. I think it’s also one of the most important books I’ve read in some time.
The numbers, as noted, are stark and bleak. A study in Germany showing the number of insects caught in traps declining by 76% over several decades (worse, the traps were in protected nature areas – imagine the decline elsewhere). A metastudy showing 40% of insect species in decline, with a third endangered/at risk of extinction. A study in Puerto Rico showing a 98% loss of insect biomass on the ground and 80% in the canopy since the 1970s. In the US, four species of bumblebees down 96%. In Canada, the American bumblebee population down 89%. In Ohio, butterflies are down by a third over two decades, and the same is true for grasshoppers in Kansas. In California, the number of monarch butterflies that migrate is 1% (one percent!) of what was recorded just in the 1980s. And on and on it goes. Stark. Bleak.
If the slew of numbers going in the wrong direction aren’t enough, Milman begins the book with an even bleaker, albeit imaginative, opening, vividly describing a world without insects (the world we’re heading toward). A world where “half the roughly 10, 000 species of birds on Earth starved to extinction,” where “an array of dead bodies — birds, squirrels, hedgehogs, humans … began to build up” thanks to the loss of the insects the “previously arrived to break down the deceased.” Similarly, without dung beetles and the like, feces from wildlife and livestock pockmarked the planet unchecked like a foul plague.” But that’s just the start. “Then the food supply disintegrated. More than a third of global food crop production was dependent on pollination … [so] a global conveyor belt of food production shuddered to a halt.” Meanwhile, “Cases of childhood blindness jumped as vitamin A, derived largely from fruit and vegetables … was eliminated.”
Oh, and if you’re thinking “not all insects can be declining; some must be doing OK,” you’d be right. Those creatures that like to hang out with humans are doing just fine, their numbers even increasing — bedbugs, cockroaches. Yay! Or maybe you’re thinking, well, at least I won’t have to deal with those pesky flies, stinging wasps, and deadly mosquitoes. And again, you’d be right—their numbers are declining too. But flies are major pollinators (no flies, no chocolate—double yay!) as are wasps and even some mosquitoes. And while we love to hate on mosquitoes, as annoying as they are, only 10 of the 3500 species cause disease, and they are a huge food source for a broad swathe of animals: fish, birds, bats, etc. So no, not much good news to pull out of all of Milman’s heavily researched numbers.
Along with meticulously documenting the decline and painstakingly (and painfully) assessing the repercussions, Milman also methodically and clearly examines the causes, which range from pesticides to climate change to habit destruction to light pollution. But he especially focuses on the way in which we’ve turned so much of our land into deserts of monoculture. Huge areas encompassing almost nothing but a single crop, whether it be corn or soy or wheat. Good for us to eat, not so much for the insects, who are literally starving to death among millions of acres of plants. Just not the ones they need.
As sobering as all this is, Milman does offer up some glimmers of hope. Late in the book, Milman notes that insect populations can “rebound quickly if detrimental practices change,” then offers an analogy from Roel van Klink, an ecologist responsible for one of the meta-studies Milman cites: “Insect populations are like logs of wood that pushed under water … They want to come up, while we keep pushing them further down. But we can reduce the pressure so they can rise again.”
And how might we do that? Milman proffers some possibilities, some of which are already being done to positive effect: greatly reducing pesticide use, incentivizing farmers to plant rows of wild flowers or grasses at the borders of their vast fields, creating “mini-meadows” by simply no longer cutting and weeding roadsides and meadows so fully, diversifying crops within farms, getting rid of our manicured lawns which are like mini-deserts to insects, preserving habitats, and finally, eventually, doing something about climate change.
As Milman lays out clearly and methodically, via a balanced and utterly convincing mix of studies, stats, and personal interviews, we know much (not all) of what is causing this sharp decline, this “apocalypse” (listening to the scientists—hardly an overly-emotional group — this term is not hyperbolic), and we know as well what we can do to mitigate many of those causes. The question is will we? As Milman’s frighteningly and vividly effective speculative opening shows, the repercussions for humanity are dire. But just as importantly, Milman several times throughout and especially toward the end, makes clear this isn’t just a matter of pragmatism, of survival. Insects are marvelous creatures. Endless in form and variety. Astounding in their myriad abilities. And often simply beautiful. As one of his interviewees puts it: “We should care about monarchs like we care about the Mona Lisa, or the beauty of Mozart’s music.”
Milman’s book goes a long way toward ensuring we do just that.