In Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story A Sound of Thunder, a private safari party travels back in time to 2055 in the Late Cretaceous to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. It is a perilous undertaking, not only because of the lethality of the quarry, but because minute changes in the ancient environment can lead to cataclysmic changes in the present; patrons should never stray from a floating path and only shoot specially marked dinosaurs. After killing a T rex, the party returns to 2055, only to find a world that has changed: there’s a chemical smell in the air, the language has changed, and a fascist candidate is now president. Examining the muddy underside of his boot, a hunter discovers the cause of their transformed landscape: a crushed butterfly, “a little thing that could 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 the precipitous decline of insects and an investigation into what it means for human life and the creatures that surrounding us. Like Bradbury’s short story, it invites us to turn our attention away from the large, iconic creatures of the animal kingdom and consider these tiny invertebrates – those little things that “could upset the balance” – and their hidden work. On the contrary, The Bug Crisis is even darker than Bradbury’s work of science fiction, revealing the terrifying implications of the continued loss of insect life. It’s a dark book, a catalog of loss and disintegration, but also a lucid tribute to the fabulous usefulness of insects and a critique of our fixation on backbones.
Milman refers to “little empires” of insects, and indeed there is something about these invertebrates that upends our expectations of scale. Most individual insects are tiny, but measured by biomass they look gargantuan. Milman tells us that the south of England is home to 3.5 million flying insects each year, whose mass is equivalent to 20,000 reindeer, and that swarms of mayflies grow so large that they can be detected by 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 resentful, about the extent of this loss (insect populations are difficult to measure and their numbers fluctuate in the wild), but the pattern of steep decline is clear. Many of the entomologists he interviews seem alarmed, terrified and even depressed.
Milman notes that Charles Darwin was so disgusted with 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 certain insects were for. But Milman goes into great detail about how much we depend on insect species for their services in pollination, waste disposal, pest control and nutrient recycling. “You get rid of the flies? We get rid of the chocolate,” notes an entomologist in one of the book’s lightest moments. In more ominous passages, Milman evokes a silent world without insects, where droppings and corpses litter the landscape and humans survive on a bland diet of staples, like rice, that can be pollinated by the wind. . Humans, or rather rich humans, get by, but it’s a bland, colorless, miserable existence.
The Bug Crisis is the latest book to mark a growing shift in environmental writing, which confronts species loss head-on and contemplates the ruins of the Anthropocene. While his visions are sometimes gloomy, there is also something wonderful about Milman’s revelation of our fragile addiction to insect life and its beauty and strangeness. He writes of giant armadillo-like 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 rain on a canvas tent”. Insects, says an entomologist, look like “aliens on earth,” yet these creatures suggest the exact opposite is true; without insects, how would we be able to conjure up images of extraterrestrial life forms?
Equally fascinating are the entomologists who populate the book, the men and women who treat patches of land, tufts of leaves or stretches of bark as frontiers to explore. In the face of public indifference or panic, they continue to persevere and document the loss of species, sometimes appearing as alone as the species they study. Meanwhile, we remain largely unaware of the silent decline, obsessing over domesticated species, such as bees, while ignoring the plight of their wild cousins. As much as a crisis of pesticides and habitat loss, the insect crisis seems to be one of indifference, of our inability to appreciate what is at our feet. Therein lies the power of the book, because once you’ve read it, you can’t help noticing the butterfly underfoot.