The Legacy of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s Seminal 1962 Book that Helped Launch the Environmental Movement
Rachel Carson opens her 1962 book Silent Spring with a fable, which includes this passage:
There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example – where had they all gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund, they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices.
Carson was speaking out against widespread, indiscriminate aerial spraying of the pesticide DDT which had become a commonplace practice at the time. While DDT was very effective at killing pests, such as mosquitos, it also killed millions of birds that fed on insects treated with the pesticide.
The book helped galvanize the public, and soon Carson was testifying before the US Congress. Tragically she died of breast cancer within a couple of years, but the new environmental movement that she helped start (including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the ban of DDT in 1972) remains her living legacy.
We Averted the DDT Crisis in the 1960s… But Birds and Insects are Still Under Siege, with Potentially Catastrophic Consequences
The DDT crisis was successfully averted, but today there are new, potentially even greater threats to the environment.
Recent studies by ornithologists and environmentalists estimate that, despite the ban on DDT pesticides, bird populations have continued to plummet, with one study calculating we have lost 3 billion birds over the past 50 years.
In the US and Canada, about 29% of birds in North America have been lost, according to Peter Marra, Director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative.
In Europe, Richard Gregory, a professor at University College London and head of conservation science at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, reports that over 420 million European birds have been lost in the last 30 years, including 25% of birds in the Lake Constance region between German and Switzerland.
Insect populations, which support many bird species, have also dropped precipitously in recent decades.
A study published in Biological Conservation estimates that over 40% of insects worldwide are threatened with extinction, primarily due to habitat loss (due to increased agriculture), agricultural pollutants (including pesticides), invasive species, and climate change.
A long-term study of insects in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rainforest confirms there has been a dramatic drop in arthropod populations (e.g., species with exoskeletons, including all insects). Arthropod biomass in the rainforest has plummeted between 10 and 60 times below the population levels recorded in the 1970s.
German scientists have seen a similar sharp decline in flying insect populations over the past 27 years – they report a 75% decline in the total flying insect biomass as measured in protected nature preserves.
And in the UK, they are using plastic grids affixed to car front license plates to measure the decline of flying insects in Britain. These so-called “splatometers” enable researchers at the Bugs Matter project to calculate the population of flying insects in Britain, which they now estimate has declined by 60% in less than 20 years.
Bees are a Crucial Pollinator for Agriculture, and their Populations are Declining Fast
Let’s be honest, the average person on the street is probably more concerned with how they can eliminate pesky insects from their life than how they can save them (and the environment.)
But there’s one insect that most people seem to appreciate, the industrious honey bee, which pollinates flowers and produces delicious honey.
Putting bees front and center in the fight to save insects from extinction is part of the thinking behind the “World Bee Day” campaign (taking place this Friday, May 20, 2022) sponsored by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture (FAO) Global Action on Pollination Services for Sustainable Agriculture.
Just as the focus on the loss of songbirds helped propel Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring book into prominence (and galvanize action), so too could using honey bees to tug on people’s heartstrings to take action.
And bees need our help.
Bee colonies have been decimated in recent decades due to what is known as Colony Collapse Disorder, in which the worker bees disappear, leaving behind the queen and a few nurse bees.
According to the EPA, there are several theories why bee colonies are failing to thrive:
- Increased losses due to the invasive varroa mite (a pest of honey bees).
- New or emerging diseases such as Israeli Acute Paralysis virus and the gut parasite Nosema.
- Pesticide poisoning through exposure to pesticides applied to crops or for in-hive insect or mite control.
- Stress bees experience due to management practices such as transportation to multiple locations across the country for providing pollination services.
- Changes to the habitat where bees forage.
- Inadequate forage/poor nutrition.
- Potential immune-suppressing stress on bees is caused by one or a combination of factors identified above.
It’s easy to feel sorry for the bees.
But if you could talk to a bee, they might say that they feel sorry for us!
That’s because we are incredibly dependent on bees for the food we eat.
According to the United Nations FAO, three out of four fruit, nut, and seed crops in the human diet are dependent on animal pollinators, such as bees. Stated differently, animal pollination is required for 87 of the leading food crops we eat.
And the demand for pollination is growing rapidly.
Over the last 50 years, there’s been a 300% increase in the volume of agricultural production that is dependent on animal pollination.
A Continued Drop in Insect Populations Could Cause the Food Chain to Collapse.
So… if bees are at risk, that puts much of our food supply at risk too.
But wait, you might suggest that surely there is some kind of mechanical robot we could develop that could carry out pollination instead of honey bees and other pollinator insects…
That may be technically true, though it would come at a great cost – and require implementations at an unimaginable scale.
But this line of thinking is missing the bigger picture.
If bees go extinct, other insects will likely disappear along with them – causing our entire food chain could come crashing down, putting the human race at risk of extinction as well.
That’s the thesis of the new book The Insect Crisis by Oliver Milman, which documents the downward trend of insect populations and the rising threat that extinction poses for humans, including the potential collapse of the human food chain.
In support of his argument, Milman points out that researchers at the United Nations have concluded that half a million insect species are under threat of extinction, some within just a few decades.
The Latest Research from Entomologists, the Researchers that Study Insects
What can be done?
Can we take action today to stave off disaster tomorrow?
Entomologists, the scientists who study insects, are working on several approaches to help save the world’s insects.
Here are some of the key initiatives:
· Curtail Growth of Ag Lands Encroaching into Insect Habitats
Researchers believe a major cause of insect population decline can be traced to the accelerating trend of intensive agriculture taking over natural habitats that support insect life (including grasslands and forests). While this is most noticeable in the Amazon, where rogue ranchers burn down rainforests to open up land for beef cattle grazing, it’s also taking place all around the world. Experts point to the new UK policy of “rewilding” farmland to encourage healthy natural flora and fauna as a big step in the right direction. Switching to less land-intensive agriculture practices (such as curtailing beef production) could also help. After all, entomologists point out that insects themselves could supplement or even wholly satisfy our existing food protein requirements.
· Mitigate the Impact of Climate Change
Climate change has introduced new temperature extremes throughout the year, as well as earlier springs and later fall seasons – all of which can interrupt the lifecycles of many insects, such as migratory butterflies, which are dying off in greater numbers due to extreme heat or cold.
Changes in weather patterns are also enabling invasive species to extend their footprint into new regions. For example, thanks to warmer winters, many insect species (and associated diseases) have been able to migrate poleward. Some regions have also experienced extended droughts thought to be exacerbated by climate change, and these conditions have also harmed insect populations.
While entomologists can research ways to mitigate specific threats (such as invasive species), it’s imperative to keep a view of the larger picture and take steps to avoid further temperature increases that could tip the balance toward sudden extinction events.
· Discover New Ways to Control Insect Diseases
Earlier, we touched on disease model theories affecting honey bee populations, including the damage caused by the invasive varroa mite or possibly infections caused by the Israeli Acute Paralysis virus or the gut parasite Nosema.
Given the increased risk of insect disease transmission caused by changed weather conditions and the spread of invasive species (which can introduce new insect pathogens or pests), it’s important to step up funding for etymologists seeking new ways to prevent or control insect disease outbreaks.
· Implement Alternatives to Chemically-Based Pest Control
A troubling question for etymologists is whether we have a complete understanding of the potential side effects caused by modern pest control chemicals. For example, the pesticide RoundUp (Glyphosate) has been repeatedly called into question as to whether it’s safe for flora and fauna – and humans. This pesticide remains on the market in the US, but the EU has decided to phase it out by the end of 2022.
Other popular classes of pesticides, such as neonicotinoids (including clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam) are being studied by the EPA, which concluded in an August 2021 draft biological evaluations (Bes) report that this class of pesticides is The “likely to adversely affect” (LAA) populations of animals, including rusty patched bumblebees, whooping cranes, Chinook salmon, northern long-eared bats, and orcas.
Other ag researchers are calling for more radical change, to eliminate the use of pesticides in favor of new growing methods, including ones based on traditional Native American “three sisters” horticultural practices. These ideas include pursuing new continuous planting methods based on perennials (rather than annual crops) to increase soil quality, as well as using advanced solar-powered high-tech weedkilling robots that zap weeds with laser beams without the need for pesticides.
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