Remember when your family went on a long automobile ride and your car’s windshield would become coated with bugs? Stopping at the gas station was not just about getting fuel, it was also about scraping off the window so that you could see. That doesn’t happen much anymore. That doesn’t happen because those insects are going extinct.
In fact, as author Jacob Mikanowski notes in “‘A different dimension of loss’: inside the great insect die-off,” published in The Guardian on Dec. 14, 2017, species are being “swept away in an ecological catastrophe that has come to be known as the sixth extinction.” It is invertebrates in general and insects in particular—what E.O. Wilson calls, “little things that run the world”—that are facing the worst of this crisis. “Everywhere, invertebrates are threatened by climate change, competition from invasive species and habitat loss.”
“If this trend were to continue indefinitely, the consequences would be devastating. Insects have been on Earth 1,000 times longer than humans have. In many ways, they created the world we live in. They helped call the universe of flowering plants into being. They are to terrestrial food chains what plankton is to oceanic ones,” Mikanowski writes, adding, “Without insects and other land-based arthropods, E.O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard entomologist, and inventor of sociobiology, estimates that humanity would last all of a few months.”
Why is this? As E.O. Wilson said in the book, The Diversity of Life, “As extinction spreads, some of the lost forms prove to be keystone species, whose disappearance brings down other species and triggers a ripple effect. The loss of a keystone species is like a drill accidentally striking a power line. It causes lights to go out all over.”
There are signs of hope amidst this crisis. The continued discovery of new species. A coral reef recovering. The resilience of an individual species surrounded by human encroachment. Mikanowski highlights the fluctuating plight of the Lange’s metalmark butterfly as one example. The tiny brown and orange butterfly with white spots feeds on a single plant that is being choked out by weeds, threatening the metalmark with extinction. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is taking bold steps to suffocate these weeds and allow native plants to return, and with it the health of the metalmark. “If we can bring back the environment, we can bring back the butterfly,” says wildlife refuge manager Don Brubaker.
As E.O. Wilson says in his book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, “The crucial factor in the life and death of species is that amount of suitable habitat left to them.” If we can protect sufficient habitat – the habitat that butterflies and other species call home – we can protect the bulk of biodiversity. This is the premise for E.O. Wilson’s call to protect Half-Earth. If we protect half our lands and seas we have the opportunity to reverse the extinction crisis.
Asked why they make such an effort, Brubaker replied: “Why protect the species? Why not? Because it’s what we do – we’re enabling the planet to keep functioning.”
“The amount of work that goes into saving even a single species can sometimes feel overwhelming,” Mikanowski writes. “It isn’t enough to save one in a lab. You have to rescue whole environments – the products of complex interactions between plants, animals, soil and climate that have built up over millennia. If entomologists’ most dire predictions come true, the number of species that will go extinct in the coming century will be in the millions, if not the tens of millions. Saving them one at a time is like trying to stop a tsunami with a couple of sandbags.”
We must do more. As E.O. Wilson says, “The only hope for the species still living is a human effort commensurate with the magnitude of the problem.” Half-Earth offers that inspiring solution, raising our ambition to a new level, and the Half-Earth Project is engaging the public and convening the conservation community to achieve this important goal. To learn more about the Half-Earth Project visit half-earthproject.org.