Silent Earth by Dave Goulson, Vintage, 2021

A very attractive cover and an optimistic subtitle “Averting the insect apocalypse”, counterpoint the stark title “Silent Earth”. An obvious reference to Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 “Silent Spring”.

Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex and has a lifetime of studying insects behind him. I didn’t even take biology at school. I have never had an interest in insects. So, I have learnt a great deal from this book. Moreover, Goulson writes for people like me. Insects have a lot more going for them that I could have imagined.

I approached this book with some foreboding and, as expected, it is full of justified warnings. Once DDT had been banned, the author writes, the world over-relaxed. Other pesticides arrived. Although glyphosate may be now on the way out, the concentration of activism against specific chemicals is a danger in itself. A different philosophy is needed.

And it isn’t just pesticides. Habitats have disappeared. In my lifetime, the changes in North Yorkshire have been astonishing. When I was young, I could look from one hedgerow across the field to see where the blackberries were. We collected rosehips too. Now, the other side of the field is somewhere beyond the horizon. The countryside has lost a part of its glory. Insects have lost much more. As Goulson points out, after WWII, subsidies encouraged the removal of 9500km of hedgerows per year.

The vast majority of species-rich hay meadows have disappeared since the 1920s.

The most frightening statistic is that three-quarters of the crops we grow require insect pollination. So why, Goulson asks, is the National Farmers’ Union fighting so hard for pesticides? It’s not the fault of farmers that we have an inefficient and damaging food production system, but they — and consumers — are part of the solution.

“The key challenge is to find ways of engaging quickly with this large majority of the population for whom environmental issues currently seem unimportant compared to the more immediate day-to-day issues…”

There are some signs of hope. Like the way politicians in Bavaria, Germany have been forced to take the environment seriously by a petition signed by two million people in 2019. This resulted, at national level, in 100M€ funding for insect conservation.

Then there is the French initiative for ‘Towns without pesticides’, which has become mainstream. The idea of ‘agriculture raisonée’ in which crops are evaluated before being sprayed is also gaining ground.

I particularly liked the way the book was leavened with tales of the weird and wonderful things insects do. Setting aside all the gruesome-but-fascinating tales, how do Monarch butterflies know to return to the spot where their dead ancestors were born? It takes several generations for a Monarch to complete the 6000-mile migration. What kind of genetic whisper keeps them on track?

Below, a Monarch butterfly I saw in Almuñécar, Andalusia, Spain in 2019, and again in 2020. The first time they were noted in Spain was 1967, but they have been seen around Gibraltar since 1997. It seems that they were blown here in storms and have found the habitat they need.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) in Andalusia
Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) in Andalusia © V Yuill

As the book draws to a close, Goulson portrays the world as it might be seen through the eyes of his son towards the end of the 21st century. It is not a good place to be. Thankfully, he finishes with a list of practical suggestions for avoiding this terrifying scenario.

A necessary book. A great read.