I get it. No one want gnats swarming their face while camping. They don’t want some many-legged thing scurrying around anywhere near them. But insects serve an essential ecological function despite their occasional irritations. For The New York Times Magazine, Brooke Jarvis explains insects’ shocking disappearance around the world and the dire consequences.
Even though science has identified a million insect species, millions more species likely remain undiscovered, though we may never find them before they go extinct. What that means is we have only a thin baseline by which to measure current changes to insect populations, and the generational reduction of life’s sheer quantity gives human beings an erroneous sense of normalcy. This is called “shifting baseline syndrome,” the sense that our depauperate world is how the world has always been. It is not. Disappearing insects are about so much more than insects.
In addition to extinction (the complete loss of a species) and extirpation (a localized extinction), scientists now speak of defaunation: the loss of individuals, the loss of abundance, the loss of a place’s absolute animalness. In a 2014 article in Science, researchers argued that the word should become as familiar, and influential, as the concept of deforestation. In 2017 another paper reported that major population and range losses extended even to species considered to be at low risk for extinction. They predicted “negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization” and the authors offered another term for the widespread loss of the world’s wild fauna: “biological annihilation.”
It is estimated that, since 1970, Earth’s various populations of wild land animals have lost, on average, 60 percent of their members. Zeroing in on the category we most relate to, mammals, scientists believe that for every six wild creatures that once ate and burrowed and raised young, only one remains. What we have instead is ourselves. A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that if you look at the world’s mammals by weight, 96 percent of that biomass is humans and livestock; just 4 percent is wild animals.
We’ve begun to talk about living in the Anthropocene, a world shaped by humans. But E.O. Wilson, the naturalist and prophet of environmental degradation, has suggested another name: the Eremocine, the age of loneliness.
Wilson began his career as a taxonomic entomologist, studying ants. Insects — about as far as you can get from charismatic megafauna — are not what we’re usually imagining when we talk about biodiversity. Yet they are, in Wilson’s words, “the little things that run the natural world.” He means it literally. Insects are a case study in the invisible importance of the common.