Book of the week: Silent Earth by Dave Goulson
Goulson’s new book on insects offers a much-needed challenge to humanity’s assumed ‘dominion over the planet’
The best thing about insects, said Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times, is that they are so “bewilderingly, heart-liftingly crazy”. Take the bombardier beetle: “it crawls around with a bottom full of chemicals that can react explosively and destroy predators”. There’s a type of earwig with two penises (the active one “breaks off” if it’s threatened during copulation) and a caterpillar that scares away aggressors by pretending to be a rearing snake. If we lost these wondrous creatures, the world would be a far less interesting place. But as entomologist Dave Goulson explains in this sobering book, that would be the least of our problems. “The truth about these six-legged weirdos is that we cannot live without them.” Insects, tiny as they are, “do much of the essential heavy lifting of planetary care. They pollinate, break down waste and provide food for us and countless other species. If they vanished tomorrow, the apocalypse would begin the next day.”
That won’t happen overnight, but they are dying out – and fast, said Ben Cooke in The Times. One much-cited study of German nature reserves found a 75% decline in insect biomass between 1989 and 2016. People above a certain age will recall “the days when windscreens had to be wiped of bug splatters after a long drive”. The causes “all point back to people”: light pollution, habitat loss, the introduction of invasive species. Most damaging, Goulson claims, has been the overuse of pesticides. Their dangers have been clear for years, yet in Britain, the “toxic load” – the amount of pesticide used multiplied by its potency – grew sixfold between 1990 and 2015. The problem is now so acute that for bees, says Goulson, collecting pollen has “become like a game of Russian roulette”.
There may still be time to “turn things around”, said Nigel Andrew in Literary Review. Goulson’s “very readable book” ends with a list of practical suggestions; these include rewilding, a move to non-intensively farmed foods – and, of course, cutting down on pesticides. He also wants us to start eating insects, said Joe Shute in The Daily Telegraph – which may seem counterintuitive in a book about their decline. Yet his logic is sound: as mass livestock farming is “rapidly obliterating the natural world” (and in the process destroying wild insects), eating farmed insects is the only sensible alternative. “Thoughtful, frightening and yet hugely enjoyable”, this book offers a much-needed challenge to humanity’s assumed “dominion over the planet”.
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