Insect collapse

by Andrew Phillips, 14th February 2019

Human activity in history has often affected animal populations. The most infamous is probably the Dodo, which became extinct in the seventeenth century due to human activity on the island of Mauritius. In our own time, it is well known that numbers of some species are declining sharply – with certain iconic animals such as elephants and tigers often being highlighted.

Monarch butterfly

But the decline of these prominent mammals is only a very small part of a much wider global problem, which is increasingly affecting all types of animals. This is the case with insects: their numbers are falling at such an alarming rate that it has been called an ‘insect collapse’. A recent study found that over 40% of insect species are threatened by extinction, and the authors estimate that the total mass of insects worldwide is declining at a rate of 2.5% per year. The rate of insect extinction is eight times faster than that of larger animals (mammals, birds and reptiles).

This is not just a long-term trend, either: some insect populations have collapsed in just a few years. In the United States, the monarch butterfly population fell by 90% in just 20 years. An annual study conducted in nature reserves in Germany has seen insect numbers decline by 76% since 1989. In the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico, a shocking 98% of ground insects disappeared over a period of just 35 years.

Larger animals are easier to track, and to film for television documentaries. We therefore tend to think that human activity is a more serious threat to them than smaller animals like insects. But as recent studies have shown, human activity is threatening biodiversity across all animal species. Scientists conclude that unless action is taken, “insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades. The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”

How, then, should Christians think about insect collapse, and what can we do about it? For more on this topic, I recommend reading David Bookless’ excellent Cambrige Paper on the Bible and biodiversity, but here I will highlight a few key points.

1. God cares about insects

When God created insects, they are described as ‘good’ (Gen. 1:25). God continues to care for his Creation, including all kinds of animals (Job 38-41; Psalm 104). In the story of Noah, God ensures that every ‘kind’ of living creature is saved (Gen. 6-9) – emphasising the value God places on biodiversity. Since God cares about insects, we should too.

2. Being human means acting as a servant-king over Creation

In Genesis 1, human beings were created in the ‘image of God’ to rule over the earth. The language of ‘ruling’, however, is a responsibility given to human beings, not a right to exploit the earth and drive insects to extinction. Based on other Ancient Near Eastern texts, scholars suggest that one implication of the ‘image of God’ language in Genesis 1 is that God appoints human beings as kings and queens on the earth. But the model of monarchy we should follow is God’s – our behaviour as monarchs should be modelled on the character of God, exemplified in the perfect earthly servant-king, Jesus. Humans are appointed to rule the earth, but our rule should consist of generous and compassionate service. Our rule is sadly distorted by the Fall, but this does not destroy the vocation God has given humanity. Caring for insects is part of what it means to be truly human.

3. Caring for insects is social justice

God cares deeply about social justice (Duet. 10:18), and during his ministry Jesus demonstrated his compassion for the poor, vulnerable and marginalised. Today, the precipitous decline of insect populations presents serious threats to at least two marginalised groups. One is the global poor: as insect populations are decimated, we destroy ecosystems from the bottom up. As pollinating insects disappear, for example, it will become much harder to produce food – and it is the global poor who will be the most affected. The other group is future generations: the children of today, and their children. At current rates of insect collapse, the world will be a considerably worse place to live in than we have experienced. We must take seriously intergenerational justice, since it is our children and grandchildren who will suffer in the future through no fault of their own. The Psalmist speaks of teaching future generations about the love and faithfulness of God (Psalm 22:30-31; 89:1) – and this must be accomplished through both actions and words.

What can we do?

One of the key drivers scientists identified for insect collapse is global food systems, through habitat loss and the use of pesticides and fertilisers. (The four of us SAGE students are currently conducting a research project on food and the environment, so watch this space for more coverage of the topic.) As individuals, then, we can consider eating more organic food, as recently suggested by several scientists.

Although individual action is necessary, it is not sufficient. To reverse insect decline, we will need organisations and businesses of all kinds to be involved, from farmers to environmental campaigning groups. Fundamentally, we need a shift away from a ‘productionist ethic’ which emphasises quantity and profit, toward an ethic which bases itself on values of responsibility and social justice.

At the public policy level, the ban on on neonicotinoids backed by the UK government was a step in the right direction, but further action is needed. As well as the ‘stick’ of banning pesticides, government should also consider the ‘carrot’ of financially supporting farmers who actively promote biodiversity – especially smaller-scale farmers who use less intensive production methods.

All this seems daunting, and it is easy to feel disheartened at the thought that your contribution as an individual seems so small in the face of a global problem. The natural emotional response is fear and helplessness. Yet we know that Jesus called us to follow him faithfully in all aspects of our lives – including caring for insects. He does not leave us to do this alone. We can have confidence and hope, “for the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).

Andrew Phillips is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. He graduated from Oxford University, with a BA in Classics and Biblical Hebrew.

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February, 2019

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