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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Insects -- Ripping Off a Wing
distributed 2/22/19 - ©2019

To state what will be obvious to most of my readers, climate change is a big and urgent problem. What is far less obvious is that there is another global problem that is even bigger and far more urgent.

Research into "planetary boundaries" has illuminated multiple areas where human impacts have violated "planetary life support systems" essential for human survival. A circular graphic often is used to illustrate these findings. In the 2015 chart, the wedge representing loss of genetic diversity (species extinction) is deep red and pushes out far beyond the safe zone.

Climate change, in contrast, shows up as the fifth highest danger, and is just edging out into the yellow tinge of a worrisome problem. That does not diminish the need to act on climate change. It does show the need to deal with extinction.

Two recent reports drive home the extreme danger of extinction, specifically among insects. Today, I'll offer a quick introduction to these frightening findings, and share a few preliminary suggestions for what can be done.

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In late November of last year, the New York Times published a feature article, "The Insect Apocalypse Is Here: What does it mean for the rest of life on Earth?" A couple of weeks later, in the middle of Advent, I referred to the Times report as an illustration of a theological point, that "peace on the earth" requires "peace with the earth." I quoted a few sentences from the Times which give a shocking taste of the whole report.

here in the US, over the last 20 years, monarch butterfly populations have fallen by 90%. And the rusty patched bumblebee that once buzzed through 28 states, dropped by 87% over the same period. Think about those numbers. That's not just a 'decline' in population, that's a holocaust.

Two weeks ago, The Guardian published a similar article, "Plummeting insect numbers 'threaten collapse of nature'." "The world's insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a 'catastrophic collapse of nature's ecosystems', according to the first global scientific review."

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

These reports are not talking about just a few bugs, or even kinds of bugs. The "worldwide decline of the entomofauna" deals with an entire taxonomic class. If you don't remember your high school science, a class is big. A class is just one step more detailed than a phylum. Within a class come the more detailed categories of order, family, genus and species. The entire class of Insecta is headed toward collapse.

For many years, I've used an example to talk about how the extinction of species harms the web of life. The loss of individual species is like taking rivets out of an airplane that is in flight. For a while, those rivets can go away without causing problems, but eventually, so many are removed that the airplane falls apart in mid-air.

But this new analysis isn't about the loss of individual species. It isn't like removing individual rivets. The rapid loss of diversity through the entire class of insects is like ripping an entire wing off of an airplane in flight. Catastrophe is unavoidable at that scale of extinction.

The Guardian quotes one of the researchers. "The main cause of the decline is agricultural intensification. That means the elimination of all trees and shrubs that normally surround the fields, so there are plain, bare fields that are treated with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides." The demise of insects started a century ago, accelerated during the 1950s and 1960s and reached "alarming proportions" over the last two decades.

New classes of insecticides introduced in the last 20 years, including neonicotinoids and fipronil, have been particularly damaging as they are used routinely, persist in the environment and sterilize the soil. Urbanization and climate change are also significant factors in the loss of insect life.

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The scientific studies documenting the scope of the insect crisis is very recent -- three months ago for the Times article, and a matter of weeks for the report that is the basis for The Guardian's story. It was just three weeks ago that the Center for Biological Diversity issued a press release on these new findings. The shocking news is starting to spread through the media, and many of us are still trying to come to grips with what all this means -- biologically, psychologically and spiritually, and in terms of strategies for rapid and effective change.

Let me offer a few starting suggestions for various kinds of action.

  1. Talk about it. It is essential that this news gets into our conversations, and is acknowledged as a scientific reality. Nothing can happen if the crisis is hidden. And, on a personal level, talking about what is happening is a healing and empowering step for those of us who feel the deep trauma of such looming extinction.

  2. CNN offers five suggestions for things to do, and one of the big ones is "put away the pesticide." At your home, or at your church, stop using these chemicals that are designed to kill. Urge your city to stop using pesticides in parks and at schools.

  3. Since pesticide-intensive agriculture is a primary driver of this crisis, shop organic. Crops grown without pesticides reduce the poisoning of insects. Since some organic food is still grown with intensive practices in vast fields, get food from small-scale farmers, if you can, or grow your own.

  4. Start to work for legislative changes. I'm not yet seeing any strong push yet for laws or regulations based on these new finding. I am, however, still seeing news about government approval for new and more powerful kinds of pesticides -- steps in the wrong direction. (In 2018, the EPA issued so-called "emergency" approvals to spray sulfoxaflor -- an insecticide the agency considers "very highly toxic" to bees -- on more than 16 million acres of crops known to attract bees.) Start to educate your members of congress about this crisis.

    I'm hoping that the urgent issue of insect extinction will soon be raised through the United Nations, and that an internationally coordinated response can start to take shape. In today's political climate, we need to speak up now so that UN leadership will be taken seriously.

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I'll close today with a brief theological note. Turning to the Bible may not offer easy help for our reflection. Locusts, for example, are usually presented as a plague or a symbol of destruction. In Jewish law, most insects are considered "detestable," and only a few kinds of locusts could be eaten. (Leviticus 11:20-23) Let's remember John the Baptist -- "his food was locusts and wild honey" -- who survived in the desert by eating insects and the food produced by insects. But proof-texting from a few laws and examples does not give us a deep and relevant perspective.

Far more significantly, though, a biblical faith affirms that all creatures are treasured and essential parts of creation. Genesis 1 speaks of the earth bringing forth living creatures of every kind, including "creeping things," and all creatures are given the blessing to "be fruitful and multiply." In Genesis 9, God's covenant is made with "every living creature of all flesh." The preservation of life in all its diversity is essential to our faith.

Even more broadly, I return to the theological theme that I stressed through 2018: "The world is inherently relational." Ecology and interdependence is built into the fabric of the planet. The health of the web of life is essential for the survival of us all. Whether the realization comes from faith or from science, the truth is the same. Life on Earth must include insect life.

The documentation of plummeting numbers and declining diversity among insects is very new. In just a few months, most of us are still grappling to come to terms with the scope and the impact of such extinction. Even in these early days of awareness, though, we can speak and act to bring healing to God's creation.

Don't be paralyzed by grief or fear. Don't hide from this reality. Act now to protect the web of life.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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