insect extinction

Insect Armageddon: an Extinction Level Event

The Bible is full of insects and bugs: there are ants (Prov 6:6), bees (Jdg 14:8), fleas (1Sam 24:14), flies (Ex 8:24), gnats (8:16), grasshoppers (Isa 40:22), hornets (Deut 7:20), locusts (Ps 78:46), moths (Job 13:28) and spiders (Isa 59:5). Depending on which translation of the Bible you use, you’ll also come across grubs, lice, maggots and scorpions. And every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth was created to be fruitful and multiply.

Except they aren’t doing that any more. Or at least not at the plentiful rate they used to. In fact, they are dying off at such an alarming rate that within a century we face global insect extinction; an entomological Armageddon which threatens the collapse of nature. If that sounds a bit apocalyptic, it’s because it is. Forget Brexit and Donald Trump’s wall: if we don’t do something about habitat loss, intensive agriculture, synthetic insecticides and ferlisers, chemical pollution and climate change, there’ll be no European demos for the EU to govern, and no Mexican caravans to storm the US border. Along with the venerable dung beetle, the blessed little anoplotrupes-stercorosus, they shall be no more – we shall be no more – for when the insects go, the pollinators go and nature’s recyclers go. And then the birds and reptiles will starve, along with insect-munching amphibians and fish. And when they have all starved to death, so shall we. Not even vegans can survive without pollinators.

The world is facing its sixth major extinction event, we are told. But it isn’t really a future apocalypse: when did you last see a red admiral butterfly or a sparrow? Forty years ago they were abundant and fruitfully multiplying as God had ordained, yet now we read: “the number of widespread butterfly species fell by 58% on farmed land in England between 2000 and 2009.” What on earth has happened in the decade since that? And then: “Bees have also been seriously affected, with only half of the bumblebee species found in Oklahoma in the US in 1949 being present in 2013. The number of honeybee colonies in the US was 6 million in 1947, but 3.5 million have been lost since.”

For many Christians – perhaps too many – this is the sort of ‘green’ issue which ranks well below the politics of Brexit and immigration, or sexuality and abortion. Earthkeeping is important, of course, but the Christian relationship to the environment is hindered by thoughts of monism or fears of paganism and ‘Gaia’: you just can’t have a developed and satisfying argument on Twitter (or a blog chat thread) about the evils of neonicotinoids and fipronil insecticides. “They sterilise the soil, killing all the grubs,” we are told. If you kill the grubs, how does the soil aerate? What breaks down organic matter and churns the soil? A worm is made for more than skewering on the end of a hook to catch fish. But who thinks much about the all necessary interractions of the Biosphere? Who cares much that 80% of the biomass of insects has disappeared in the past 25-30 years? Who today is going to contemplate anthropological-entomological symbiosis and the natural cooperation, self-regulation and equilibrium which exists in creation?

Man does not live by bread alone, but by every insect that proceeded out of the mind of God. We cannot survive without them: they share our DNA. They existed before we did, and we are causing their annihilation. Perhaps the impending ecological crisis is a symptom of a deeper spiritual crisis: we care more about ourselves than our neighbours; more about competition than cooperation; more about the present than the future; more about the secular than the sacred; and far less about earth ethics than sexual ethics.

Insects are dying out eight times faster than mammals, birds and reptiles. But if this blog spoke much more about industrial agriculture, climate change and urbanisation, people would stop reading it. Dragonflies, beetles and bees are nice, but insect genocide is a bit ‘Mother Earth’, and incremental butterfly extinction simply isn’t as dramatic or riveting as an asteroid slamming into the Earth 66 million years ago and wiping out all the dinosaurs.

The Earth is a laboratory: it has been divinely designed and developed from its pre-biotic chemical origins to the ordering of complex molecules which are essential to life. There is a creative intelligence at work, and insects have a divine purpose in the created order: ‘And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.‘ It would be a blessing to those who are being lost if Christians gazed less at the clouds of eschatology and dug more into the clay of creation – from which, after all, we were formed. Instead of viewing our earthly pilgrimage as a few nights in a shabby B&B in Blackpool, seeing it rather as a privilege to have been asked by chief science officer God to be his laboratory assistants and the custodians of His research and work.

The alternative is an apocalypse which will rather transcend those envisaged by Zechariah and Isaiah. The cosmic vision of Yahweh’s plans never entertained the eradication of bees and butterflies. The prophets’ response to exile was to translate God’s vision of peace, justice and restoration into concrete historical terms; to draw clouds in clay in order that people might hear and understand. Having been warned of the impending collapse of nature, that disclosure demands a prophetic response; a cosmic vision of God’s sovereignty translated into terms of plain history, real politics and human instrumentality. There is a covenant between the generations which must be remembered. This is not an apocalyptic dream, but a prophecy of wisdom which demands immediate action. If man will not repent of his abuse of nature’s resources, judgment is sure and certain.