orange white and black butterfly on green leaf


Most of the predicted events in the upramping of climate change – extreme weather events, stronger storms, greater temperature extremes – have been playing out across the country over the last few years, so the question is no longer if climate change is really happening, but how we respond to the changes. Like with many things, it’s hard to make a good choice without enough information at hand.

Anyone who drove a car or truck in the 1970’s or early ‘80s remembers the thick layer of bug guts that would form on the front of every vehicle after just a few days of summer driving. It was a significant component of holiday travel memories for me. Cleaning the front of my car was a serious chore in the early ‘90s, but nearly forgotten by 2015. These days you can drive all summer long and only get a few insect carcasses on the windshield, leading some to warn of the “windshield syndrome” as a warning of the end of insect life on Earth.

Is this the Insect Armageddon?

According to Manu Saunders, Australian ecologist and entomologist (essay from 2019), it’s too soon to be making broad claims about the populations of insects because we simply don’t have enough information about most of them. The only insects we really know about, Saunders points out, are the charismatic ones, like butterflies and bees, and agriculturally significant ones, like beetles and grub worms. For every insect species we know about, there are a hundred others we don’t know about. 

blue dragonfly on wall
Photo by Leigh Heasley on

Studies over the last few decades have shown declines in a number of noted species, but these declines don’t occur everywhere, and often have relevant context unexamined. Historically, we only have information for a handful of species in the UK and western Europe, and nothing for anything in the southern hemisphere. It is challenging to accept global conclusions about a topic that only has such fragmentary base data. 

We know that climate change would cause variation in insect populations, in fact, we predicted that it would be so. We’ve also known for over a century that the prevalence of monoculture agriculture, use of chemical pesticides, and the development of a national highway system and car-centric cities has also played havoc with environmental systems, disrupting insect ecospheres with catastrophic results on the entire food chain. But we don’t know that these are the causes of the “windshield effect” because we have not made enough direct observations.

For example, we don’t know the prevalence of grasshoppers in the American midwest, year to year, from the decades prior to European colonization. Thus, we can’t really say for sure that the numbers of grasshoppers we saw in the ‘50s and ‘60 weren’t a result of all the monoculture agriculture that had developed in the area. It’s possible that modern use of pesticides has actually brought numbers back down closer to their pre-contact numbers, but we have no way of knowing. 

The flip side of this is that we don’t know about the state of pre-contact soil ecosystems well enough to be able to say we know the true effect of the extraordinary toxic stew of chemical death we apply to our fields. Our efforts must include recognition of the harms we have inflicted, and work toward remediation. But we can only be as effective as we understand the systems we wish to repair. For these reasons, an emphasis on just getting human activity out of the way of nature seems justified.

close up photo of ladybug on leaf during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on

Boom and bust cycles are common in nature, and can be observed over several years with the fruiting of any number of nut and fruit trees, and changes in mammal, bird and insect populations. It’s not rational to expect a population to remain persistent. There’s a calculus of life that anticipates a population would adapt to ecological changes as they occurred. To this end, it seems unwise to become unglued by a line created by a few widespread, contemporary observation points. 

As Saunders points out repeatedly: we do ourselves a disservice repeating the claims of just one perspective as if it were the whole of science. Just one study isn’t authoritative, even one that claims to be so. It’s bad science to take anecdotal incidents about a few species in a few places and treat them as if this were a global phenomenon. The message here isn’t that there isn’t a problem: the message is that we shouldn’t pretend we have generalized knowledge when we don’t. We have no idea how bad (or good) things really are. We simply don’t have enough knowledge to know.

All of this isn’t to say that we don’t know quite a lot about things we do right now that should probably be stopped soon, and there’s a few other things that we need to start ramping down on right away. If we make a mistake and leave a cleaner, better world for our grandchildren anyway, I don’t see a downside to this. We clearly need to transition away from our predatory acquisition model of economics, away from monoculture land use, away from the devaluation of people and animals and plants as objects and commodities, and not sacred vessels of life. These transitions must become a central point of our culture and politics or we will surely find ourselves crushed by our own hubris.


2 responses to “Entomovention”

  1. Deborah Avatar

    Well said. I run out of ways to appreciate your writings

  2. Katrina Avatar

    Yes! We need to get our heads out of the sand! A good article!

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