The Great Vanishing


Millions of moths

I am not a Jain. When we arrived earlier this month in Spanish Fort Alabama, near Mobile, I noticed the gooey remains of a few bugs on my windshield. This actually gave me a modest thrill. If you are old enough to remember the moth snowstorm, you’ll understand why. It was the first time I have seen some bug remains on the car windshield in years, and it was in the same bug-rich area I first noticed them, when my family drove to the beach at Gulf Shores in the Fifties, with nothing but sand dunes, sea oats, ocean and the narrow 2-lane state highway east of Mobile Bay. I distinctly remember watching the endless sand dunes, usually being the only car, and how long it seemed to take (about 50 miles from my house on Georgia Avenue). Inspecting the clotted windshield, I noted that mosquitoes’ blood was red and moth guts were yellow. When we drove home, the windshield was plastered with bug remains. And yes, I remember night driving in a moth snowstorm, many times.



We need to be more like Jains, who take the greatest care not to kill anything, the vegan orthodox eating only dropped fruit and wilted greens, refusing to drive because of the insect snowstorm, and wearing masks to prevent accidentally inhaling tiny creatures. A friend recently wrote, explaining that he and his partner carefully removed spiders and wasps from their house, concerned not to contribute further to the insect die-off. I have long done the same thing.


The alarm has been sounded by the Germans, who have done the world’s first extensive inventory of flying insects, using a network of amateurs similar to Audobon bird counts in the US. Two years ago German scientists reported a staggering drop of 76% in these numbers over a 27 year period, calling it “biological Armageddon.” At El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, the number of arthopods dropped 98% - before Hurricane Maria. This has led to a plunge in insectivore numbers, with some species disappearing from the forest. This data, and the numerical data which follows, I am reporting from a powerful article recently published in the online journal TomDispatch by Subhankar Banerjee, BiologicalAnnihilation: a Planet in Loss Mode.”


Vertebrates. It’s not only the polar bear, tiger, leopard, elephant, rhino, and large sea vertebrates like manatees, dolphin, and whales that are at risk. The World Wildlife Fund reports a 60% decline in global vertebrate population from 1970-2014. Some biomes have suffered more than others. Worldwide, 83% of freshwater vertebrates have died. We have heard for quite some time about the die-off in amphibians, especially frogs, but I suspect this is true of many salamanders as well, since they are much less plentiful here in Southern Appalachia – one of the areas in which they have thrived - than they were when I moved here in the Seventies. Vertebrates only make up 3% of the kingdom Animalia, but we and much that we love are part of that family.

Birds. Three and half billion birds die annually from crashing into glass or being killed by feral cats in North America alone. With climate change, the timing of the arrival of birds in spring with the appropriate diet is off. With the passing of the moth snowstorm, species like the chickadee, whose young need large numbers of moth larvae, are in rapid decline. Softwoods in the Western US and the boreal forest of Canada are dying rapidly, hundreds of millions of them. Weakened by stress from severe droughts and rapid warming, they succumb much more readily to pest like the exploding bark beetel population. In New Mexico, 90% of mature pinon trees have died in the last four years. This, too, removes food and nesting places for resident birds.


Ocean life. Ocean life is dying. Since the ocean is our largest carbon sink, and first line of defense against rising CO2, it is acidifying (carbonic acid), making it increasingly difficult for shellfish to make their lime-based shells. Coral reefs are being bleached increasingly from warming oceans, and suffering rapid decline. Starfish on the West Coast are dying from a virus, with ocean warming rendering them more vulnerable. In some areas, 99% of them have died. Sharks, tunas and dolphins, virtually all the top predators, are in rapid decline. Whales are barely holding their own, the blue whale populatoin in particular being held in check by ship strikes. But, as on land, it’s not just the large creatures who are at grave risk. The phytoplankton, chief source of the oxygen we and other animals breathe, are suffering. Two species in the North Pacific are now reported extinct.


All of this is connected. And it is connected to us. The causes of these population collapses are complex and overlapping, but they include over-exploitation of species, agricultural practices, and habitat loss, “all driven by runaway human consumption” (Banerjee), with climate change an exacerbating driver.

The data is devastating. But unless we live these facts, as scientists, naturalists, sportsmen, hikers, and wilderness explorers do, it’s just a mental worry. It passes, and we remain comfortable within the redoubt of our human infrastructure, which has made a dwindling, diminished and suffering parkland of the natural world. So much of what we cherish still holds together, as we enjoy the fruits of civilization built up since the beginning of the Holocene: the symphony, theater, the array of sports events, plenteous food, general civic order, at least in the rich world. But we are teetering on the edge of disaster. The world we inhabit is hollowed out, our sureties misplaced, because we pretend the world of human artifacts, the built world, is bedrock reality. The truth is that the cascading effects of insectageddon and of biological annihilation will reach us, sooner rather than later. Though we have subjected the natural world to enclosure, the walls around the zoo are subject to natural law. We are not outside the system, but thoroughly embedded within it.


I’ll give Banerjee the last word: “To mitigate the crisis, to save life itself, would require not merely the replacement of carbon-dirty fossil fuels with renewable forms of energy, but a genuine re-evaluation of modern life and its institutions.”

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