the world’s insects are going extinct, and they might take us with them

You might not care that that some places on Earth are seeing 75% declines in some insects. You really should. When they’re gone completely, so are the ecosystems in which we grow our food.


Most people do not like insects. They make annoying noises if they fly into your home, they land on food spreading nasty bacteria, they land on your skin and sometimes bite, and they used to splatter all over your windshield during a road trip. Emphasis on used to, because a whole lot of insects are dying out at a rate that’s alarming scientists. And before you say good riddance to the six-legged little critters, keep in mind that insects underpin entire ecosystems. They keep all sorts of plants in check by both pollinating and eating them, they’re essential food for fish, many species of mammals, and amphibians, and without them, those ecosystems will starve to death. There were a lot of bugs because they were so useful to our planet.

Part of the problem is global warming and the rapid climate change it’s fueling, much like the Permian mass extinction which came disturbingly close to sterilizing the Earth. But even more dire is the explosion of commercial monoculture farming under constant clouds of long-lasting pesticide that’s destroying insect populations and blighting local environments. Unless we start making a rapid switch to robotically grown hydroponic produce and bioengineered meat, we’re basically playing chicken with the forces of nature, and we’re going to lose. Just the warming in and of itself could easily kill more than half a million people per year by the 2030s. A lack of insects would quickly raise that death toll, making famines more certain and deadly.

so, what’s happening to insects?

The short version is that many species of insect are going extinct very quickly, enough for their loss to pose an existential threat to the ecosystems where they form the bottom of the food chain and pollinate the flora. Roughly 40% of all species are facing extinction and a third are rapidly declining, which produces some dire statistics. Almost all ground insects and 80% of their canopy dwelling counterparts in Puerto Rico are gone. Three quarters of flying insects in German preserves are also nowhere to be found. Nearly half the bee colonies in the United States have been lost, just like 58% of butterfly species which used to fly over English farms. With the insects gone, the local ecosystems are fading out of existence.

To put these drastic losses in perspective, consider that the combined weight of every insect on Earth exceeds 5.4 billion metric tons. If we lose all of the currently threatened species, we’d be looking at several billion tons of protein that supports countless species gone, and trillions of pollinators we and other animals need to be hard at work vanish. Since insects live short lives and reproduce prolifically, it’s very unlikely that we’d even end up in a world without them, but if we consider that evolution is random, we’d still see whole ecosystems continue to slowly die off. And since we’re killing them faster than they can evolve in so many places that need them, the survivors would be few and far between.

how do we save the bugs and feed the world?

Of course, there are political challenges with simply throwing half a century of modern industrial farming in reverse, and doing so will require extremely forceful action. Robotic hydroponics and lab-grown meat are going to take a while to get up to speed even in wealthy nations, much less in developing ones where Big Ag methods are going to be the easiest and fastest way to feed a lot of people for a long time. But the problem is that when these methods destroy the soil and kill local insect populations, it will not only be harder for the local ecosystems to bounce back, there will be fewer fallbacks for the humans who need to be fed but see their crops failing due to a lack of pollinators and more severe droughts or flooding exacerbated by climate change.

In other words, if one or two harvests fail, recovery will be harder. The fallout will surely involve more migration, war, and terrorism, especially in frail and failed states where there are very few extra supplies to help stave off famines, and wealthy nations are dealing with their own supply chain problems. People will be hungry, they will be angry, and while they didn’t, and won’t start caring about insect biomass levels, those bugs will play a huge role in what happens to them. This is why any and all aid and innovations in agriculture have to focus on sustainability and eco-friendliness when growing food, with an emphasis on technology that reduces water and pesticide use, keeping local environments healthy, renewable energy, and long term planning.

forget environmentalism, this is about survival

Here’s the bottom line. We have to be good to the Earth not because it’s like a real bummer that we’re hurting Mother Gaia, dudes, we have to be eco-friendly because otherwise — not to mince words here — most of us are going to die, and it’s going to take nature millions of years to recover even after feasting on our cadavers. And we could undo much of the damage we’ve done in the next 15 to 20 years, including bringing the insect biomass back to a much healthier level. We just need to start thinking further than the next fiscal quarter and stop listening to people who are happy making billions right now, and do not wish to be inconvenienced with minor problems like their grandchildren starving to death because yes, they killed all the insects and destroyed entire ecosystems in a quest to sell just a little more corn, soy, and alfalfa.

Now may actually be a great time to recall that most of the world’s 2,200 plus billionaires are in their 70s and older, and the vast majority of them will not live to see the extent of the damage they are currently causing, nor can they look at the future from our perspective because their power and wealth mutes their ability to empathize with others. After they’re gone, we’ll have to clean up the mess they’ll leave behind, so our goal right now has to be minimizing the impact of their myopic let-it-all-burn-I’ll-be-dead-so-who-gives-a-flying-fuck attitude. And the notion that we can’t figure out how to make money from a new generation of cleaner technologies promoted by conservative outlets around the world is really just an excuse not to invest in R&D, and pocket the money that could literally save the world in some offshore bank account.

# science // climate change / environment / global warming / insects


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