In Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story A Sound of Thunder, a private safari group travels back in time from 2055 to the Late Cretaceous to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. It’s a perilous enterprise, not just because of the lethality of the quarry, but because minute changes in the ancient environment can lead to cataclysmic shifts in the present; clients must never stray from a floating path and only shoot specially marked dinosaurs. After killing a T rex, the party makes it back to 2055, but finds a world that has altered: there is a chemical smell in the air, language has changed and a fascist candidate is now president. Examining the muddy underside of his boot, one hunter discovers the cause of their transformed landscape: a crushed butterfly, “a small thing that could upset balances”.
A similar thread runs through Oliver Milman’s new book, The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World, a chronicle of the precipitous decline of insects and an investigation into what it means for human life and the creatures that surround us. Like Bradbury’s short story, it invites us to shift our focus away from the large, iconic creatures of the animal kingdom and consider these minute invertebrates – those small things that “could upset balances” – and their hidden labour. If anything, The Insect Crisis is even bleaker than Bradbury’s work of science fiction, revealing the terrifying implications of the continued loss of insect life. It is a sombre book, a catalogue of loss and unravelling, but also a lucid homage to the fabulous utility of insects and a critique of our fixation with backbones.
Milman refers to the “tiny empires” of insects, and indeed there is something about these invertebrates that upsets our expectations about scale. Most individual insects are minute, but measured by biomass, they appear gargantuan. Milman tells us that southern England hosts 3.5 million flying insects each year, whose mass is equivalent to 20,000 reindeer, and swarms of mayfly grow so large that they can be picked up on radar. And yet, as Milman notes in painful detail, insects are declining at an alarming rate, threatened by the familiar cocktail of pesticides, habitat destruction, electric light and climate change. Among entomologists there is debate, sometimes rancorous, about the extent of this loss (insect populations are hard to measure and their numbers do fluctuate in the wild), but the pattern of steep decline is clear. Many of the entomologists he interviews appear alarmed, terrified and even depressed.
Milman notes that Charles Darwin was so disgusted by parasitoid wasps that he could not conceive that a “beneficent and omnipotent God” could have created them. No doubt many of us, irritated by a fly or stung by a wasp, have wondered what purpose certain insects serve. But Milman lays out in great detail just how dependent we are on insect species for their services of pollination, waste disposal, pest control and nutrient recycling. “You get rid of flies? You get rid of chocolate”, notes one entomologist in one of the book’s lighter moments. In more disturbing passages Milman conjures a silent world without insects, where faeces and corpses dot the landscape and humans survive on a bland diet of staples, such as rice, that can be pollinated by the wind. Humans, or, rather, rich humans, muddle through, but it is an existence that is bland, colourless, and miserable.
The Insect Crisis is the latest book to mark a growing shift in environmental writing, one that confronts species loss head on and contemplates the ruins of the Anthropocene. If its visions are sometimes mournful, there is also something wondrous in Milman’s revelation of our fragile dependency on insect life as well as its beauty and strangeness. He writes about armadillo-like giant burrowing cockroaches, the Hercules moth (“wingspan as wide as a dinner plate but no mouth”), and monarch butterflies whose fluttering wings create a sound “like light rainfall on a canvas tent”. Insects, says one entomologist, resemble “aliens on earth”, and yet these creatures suggest that the very opposite is true; without insects how would we be able to conjure images of alien life-forms?
Equally fascinating are the entomologists who populate the book, the men and women who treat patches of earth, clumps of leaves or sections of bark as frontiers to be explored. In the face of public indifference or panic, they continue to soldier on and document species loss, sometimes appearing as lonely as the species they study. We, meanwhile, largely remain oblivious to the silent decline, fixated on domesticated species, such as honeybees, while ignoring the fate of their wild cousins. As much as a crisis of pesticides and habitat loss, the insect crisis seems one of indifference, of our failure to appreciate what is at our feet. It’s here that the book’s power lies, for once you read it you cannot fail to notice the butterfly underfoot.