Night Falls For Insects

Reflecting on a captive peccary, a close relative of pigs, in a village near Paramaribo, Suriname, entomologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson mused that the animal was “like a messenger to me from an unexplored world.” The village, dripping with colonial heritage (the name, Bernhardsdorp, evidence enough for Dutch influence) yet dotted with the indigenous past, was itself an intrusion on the natural landscape for the peccary. E.O. Wilson dedicates Biophilia to lamenting the human influence on the world (another argument can be made from Sahlins to bemoan buildings and budgeting). One of the most devastating manifestations of the destabilized world is the human influence on other life. One of the most important drivers in the ecosystem suffers from being one of the least alluring: bugs.

Entomology - the study of insects - is not a particularly sexy discipline. It does not catch headlines as does astronomy or AI (media interest is not, by itself, inherently beneficial, as distortion may further distrust in science). Wasps rarely ignite the interest seen by pandas or elephants (dubbed ‘charismatic megafauna’). But the recent paper “Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers”, published in the journal Biological Conservation, caught the eye of the media with a click-grabbing headline: Insect numbers are ‘plummeting,’ in an ‘armageddon’ leading to the destruction of the world. This is a dire message, and the carefully-crafted highlights of the paper provided by the researchers themselves further amplify media interest. Media interest is good for outreach - but how can we translate the language of science conscientiously, balance reservation with rightful warnings, and urge political intervention without politicization?  

The question of media representation of science has already been answered for the dwindling insects. Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, the first author of the aforementioned journal article, more peremptorily expressed the results of the paper to The Guardian: “If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind.” It is hard to find p-values for ‘catastrophe’, and it is equally as challenging to translate preserving biodiversity into dollars (though we do). The challenges of communicating results with the reserved language of science - or with overstatement that does not come to fruition - have been explored in innumerable scientific and pop-science articles (the authors of the Biological Conservation paper have made their decision on the angle, one I find hard to fault. The ethical asymmetry between unneeded but desirable action and unneeded, undesirable inaction seems clear). Certainly there are other problems with issues as large as climate change and insect collapse, ones that are nearly impossible to conceptualize or act upon. Biodiversity advocates and conservationists, resultantly, implore politicians to take action (much like nature, desiring policies with teeth and claws, rather than self-congratulatory minimal mitigation).

Biodiversity, however, is not a compelling public argument. This, of course, can change. The public engagement of recycling initiatives in previous decades evince the malleability of societal opinions for environmental concerns. But insects are a greater challenge to sway public opinion than wide-eyed burrowing owls and sea turtles, despite their significance. Butterflies and ladybugs represent an extreme minority of insects when it comes to public interest.

Another side effect of the public consciousness of ecological problems is their introduction to the political sphere through imperfect channels. The paper referenced earlier on biodiversity notes that 99.9% of respondents were unaware that the United Nations had classified 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity. I would join them. The politics of the environment, especially following 2016, are seemingly as complicated as the environment we unknowingly and indifferently alter more and more every year.  Rapidly developing countries, like Brazil, Russia, India, and China, find it hypocritical to restrict emissions following decades of Western dominance. The domestic partisan approach to ‘climate change,’ coupled with wholly inadequate solutions like the Paris Climate Agreement, pushes us no further to solving the almost unimaginable problem we face.

There are no easy answers for the insects, though some solace can be taken in their indifference to their own extinction. Trilobites, a sister class to insects, were marine arthropods that lived for hundreds of millions of years; for the Devonian and Ordovician periods, some four hundred million years ago, they flourished. Tens of thousands of species lived over millions of years, though their timeline is dotted with extinction events that culminated in their disappearance with the Permian Mass Extinction. We mourn the trilobites that do mourn themselves. We can, however, save the insects. The political urgency of this cause is not to save the insects themselves, but, as the media portrayal emphasizes, the detriment to humanity caused by their loss. The political co-option of science, poor communication, and uncertainty inherent to the scientific process are salient points well-handled by the researchers. Insects do not need to be saved l’insecte pour l’insecte, though the case for conservation need not center around humans, but the case for humans rests on the preservation of insects. Politicians must acknowledge what the scientists already have.

“Things are ending," writes Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses. The eradication of insects does embody the destabilization of our world.

"This civilization; things are closing in on it. It has been quite a culture, brilliant and foul, cannibal and Christian, the glory of the world. We should celebrate it while we can; until night falls."