Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse
Harper Collins, New York, 2021, 336 Pages
Paperback: £9.99 | ISBN: 9780063088207
Review by Peter Shirley
Dave Goulson’s latest book takes its inspiration from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It tries to be several things: a commentary on the importance, decline, and current state of insects; an account of the causes of that decline, focusing on the impacts of agricultural and other chemicals; a call for action to avert the sub-title’s apocalypse; and a presentation of the wonder and variety of the insect world. The wonder and variety is covered by short essays, interspersed in the main text, about some of the author’s favourite insects. Otherwise the book is divided into an introduction, five parts and 21 chapters. The five parts are: Why Insects Matter, Insect Declines, Causes of Insect Declines, Where we Are Headed?, and What Can We Do?
One of the most telling passages comes very early in the Introduction. Despite the initial impact and subsequent reputation of Silent Spring (which was published in 1963) Goulson says; “The problems with pesticides and fertilisers which 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 are thousands of times more toxic than any which existed in Carson’s day.”.
The ‘Insect Declines’ chapter has plenty of worrying statistics. For example, the related declines of insect-eating birds in England since 1967: spotted flycatcher 93%, grey partridge 92%, nightingale 93%, cuckoo 77%. Looking at various European studies Goulson concludes that “We have lost at least 50% or more of our insects since 1970. It could easily be as high as 90%…” There is plenty more of this sort of information: enough to give the most sceptical of critics pause for thought.
The meat of the book is Part Three, ‘Causes of Insect Declines’, which contains 10 of the 21 chapters. It is a detailed history and account of the development and use of pesticides, from DDT to neonicitinoids, as well as an assessment of their impacts both on targeted species of plants, animals and insects, and the wider environment. Much of it covers ground well documented elsewhere over the years, but it may be useful to have it all in one place here.
For me, by far the most interesting part is Part Four. It has just one chapter, called ‘A View From the Future’. In it Goulson writes as his 80 year old son in the late 21st century. He and his family are scratching a subsistence living as the dire events predicted by his father and other scientists have come to pass. The civilisation we now enjoy has collapsed through the impacts, amongst others, of climate change, habitat loss, and pollution, and our inability to effectively tackle those issues. The social, political and economic factors leading to the collapse are described in graphic detail. It is an entirely creditable scenario, but perhaps not the only one which could be presented.
Part Five, ‘What Can We Do’, is a little disappointing. Its five chapters include ‘Raising Awareness’, ‘Greening Our Cities’, and ‘The Future of Farming’. As is often the case when reading this sort of thing I feel as if we have all been working in a vacuum for the last few decades. For instance there is the usual “…start with our children”, overlooking the fact that most adults under the age of 40 in this country were exposed to environmental education in their school years. For the majority it seems to have had very little impact on how they live their lives; what we need is more effective methodology, not to pretend that nothing has been happening. On the same subject Goulson calls for the provision of “…a network of advice and support to make school grounds more wildlife-friendly.” He has obviously never come across Learning Through Landscapes, or encountered what must now be hundreds of projects run by Wildlife Trusts, the Conservation Volunteers, or the RSPB to name but three.
In the ‘Greening the Cities‘ chapter the usual mantras are trotted out. Regarding gardening for example, there are exhortations to plant pollinator-friendly flowers, if you have no garden use window-boxes or balconies, mow lawns less often, stop using pesticides and chivvy your local council to do so as well. (To be fair successful examples of the last named are given, both in the UK and elsewhere.) Goulson does go into great detail about how to go about his recommended actions and the pitfalls which may be encountered.
He also goes into detail about the rationale for developing more extensive and robust green infrastructure in and around urban areas. This section reads a bit like a greening manifesto but contains almost nothing new, or that is not already being implemented in many towns and cities. I would have thought we have passed the point where we need someone saying that we need to create “…wildlife areas in parks; meadows, ponds, planting for pollinators, bee hotels and so on.”
In the ‘The Future of Farming’ chapter there is a detailed analysis of the recent history and negative impacts of farming and the various options for the future. Goulson thinks, for instance, that if we could cut food waste (about a third of all production) we could stop using pesticides and still feed everybody. He describes modern farming as part of “…a staggeringly inefficient, cruel and environmentally damaging food-supply system.” He would like every school to be linked to a working farm so that all children are given an understanding of how food is produced. As an ex school-governor I wonder about the practicalities of this. I can see, on the one hand, daunting health and safety issues related to taking 30 eight year olds to a working farm and, on the other hand, providing the necessary facilities and integrating hosting these children into a busy farm work schedule. (Maybe though I am being ignorant here and this sort of thing is already taking place.)
There is a lot about the efficiency and benefits of allotments in this chapter. A study in Bristol found that allotments have the highest insect diversity of any urban habitat, including urban nature reserves. Alternative agricultural systems are discussed, such as agroforestry, permaculture, and biodynamic farming, as well as options for financial farm support, and how this can support moves towards agricultural sustainability. Again, much of what is suggested has been going on in varying degrees for some time.
The final chapter is ‘Nature Everywhere’ and does acknowledge much that is happening, including rewildling projects like Knepp. Its content will be familiar to readers of ECOS. Goulson says though that “…we need to do much more” and “…our current strategies are not working”. That rather leaves the reader back where they started; many problems and suggested strategic alternatives are discussed, but the missing chapter is the one with the radical new ideas as to how to implement those strategies. We know how to put things right for insects and the rest of nature, the real issue is that in this context society is systemically flawed. Vested and entrenched political and economic systems and interests stubbornly resist reform. But who am I to say that, I couldn’t write the chapter either.
There is much, much, more in this often bleak account of why insects appear to have declined, and the direct and indirect impacts on natural systems and human lives. The book is a sort of hybrid between one to read and one to refer to. It is definitely a book to take notice of. If things continue to go badly it may turn out to be the second volume in the ‘Silent Trilogy’: Silent Spring, Silent Earth, Silent Forever.