In Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story A Sound of Thunder, a private safari group travels back in 2055 to the Late Cretaceous Period to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. It’s a perilous undertaking, not only because of the quarry’s lethality, but also because minute changes to the ancient environment can lead to catastrophic shifts in the present; customers should never stray from a floating path and only shoot specially marked dinosaurs. After killing a Trex, the party returns to 2055, but finds a world that has changed: there’s a chemical smell in the air, the language has changed, and a fascist candidate is now president. A hunter examines the muddy underside of his boot and discovers the cause of their transformed landscape: a crushed butterfly, “a little thing that can upset the balance”.
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 insects’ rapid decline and an examination of what it means for human life and creatures. that surround us. Like Bradbury’s short story, it invites us to shift our focus from the large, iconic creatures of the animal kingdom and consider these tiny invertebrates—those little things that can “upset the balance”—and consider their hidden labors. In any case, The Insect Crisis is even more bleak than Bradbury’s science fiction work, revealing the terrifying implications of the continued loss of insect lives. It is a sombre book, a catalog of loss and unraveling, but also a clear tribute to the fabulous usefulness of insects and a critique of our fixation on spine.
Milman refers to the “little realms” of insects, and indeed there is something about these invertebrates that distorts our expectations of scale. Most individual insects are small, but when measured by biomass, they appear gigantic. Milman tells us that southern England is home to 3.5 million flying insects each year, whose mass is equal to 20,000 reindeer, and swarms of mayflies grow so large they can be picked up on radar. And yet, as Milman points out in painful detail, insects are declining at an alarming rate, threatened by the familiar cocktail of pesticides, habitat destruction, electric light and climate change. There is debate, sometimes resentment, among entomologists about the magnitude of this loss (insect populations are difficult to measure and their numbers fluctuate in the wild), but the pattern of severe decline is clear. Many of the entomologists he interviews seem alarmed, terrified, and even depressed.
Milman notes that Charles Darwin was so disgusted by parasitic wasps that he could not imagine that a “beneficent and almighty God” could have created them. No doubt many of us, irritated by a fly or stung by a wasp, have wondered what certain insects are for. But Milman explains in great detail how dependent we are on insect species for their pollination, waste management, pest control and nutrient recycling services. “Are you tired of flying? You’ve lost chocolate,” notes an entomologist in one of the lighter moments in the book. In more disturbing passages, Milman evokes a quiet world without insects, where feces and corpses litter the landscape and people survive on a bland diet of staples, such as rice, that can be wind-pollinated. People, or rather rich people, muddle through, but it is an existence that is dull, colorless and miserable.
The Insect Crisis is the latest book to mark a growing shift in environmental writing, one that confronts species loss and considers the ruins of the Anthropocene. If his visions are sad at times, there is also something wonderful in Milman’s revelation of our fragile reliance on insect life, as well as his beauty and strangeness. He writes about armadillo-like giant burrowing cockroaches, the Hercules moth (“wingspan as wide as a plate but no mouth”), and monarch butterflies whose flapping wings create a sound “like light rain on a canvas tent”. Insects, says an entomologist, resemble “aliens on Earth,” yet these creatures suggest that just the opposite is true; without insects how could we conjure up images of alien life forms?
Equally fascinating are the entomologists who populate the book, the men and women who view patches of soil, clumps of leaves, or parts of the bark as boundaries to explore. Despite public indifference or panic, they continue to fight and document the loss of species, sometimes appearing as lonely as the species they study. Meanwhile, we remain largely oblivious to the quiet decline, fixated on domesticated species, such as honeybees, while ignoring the fate of their wild cousins. Like a crisis of pesticides and habitat loss, the insect crisis seems to be one of indifference, of our inability to appreciate what lies at our feet. This is where the power of the book lies, because once you’ve read it, you can’t help but notice the butterfly beneath your feet.