Jim Steele/What’s Natural?
The American Psychological Association reports young people are suffering from “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. A recent national survey reported “eco-anxiety” is causing 43 percent of our youth to feel hopeless. Psychologists warn such hopelessness leads to suicide, drug addiction and anti-social behavior. Why such eco-anxiety? Their hopelessness is driven solely by media narratives. Young people lack the scientific knowledge, lack years of observation, and have yet to acquire the critical thinking skills needed to detect any ecosystem collapse. Its headlines like the Guardian’s, “Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature”, that induce paranoia that “insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, and threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”.
In contrast, most scientists studying insects readily admit science lacks the data to make such apocalyptic claims. Science has only identified about one million of an estimated 6 to 10 million insect species worldwide, and only a small percentage of those named species have enough data to evaluate their biology, behavior, or changes in abundance. Nonetheless “the last 3 years have seen a global outbreak of media headlines predicting a global insect apocalypse” and scientists are concerned that such “confusing and inaccurate science” will negatively affect support for insect conservation”. Many have published critiques exposing “the insect apocalypse myth.”
Worse, apocalyptic myths are damaging our children’s mental health. Competing for readership with supermarket tabloids, the New York Times announced, “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here”. The Guardian fearmongered, “Insect apocalypse’ poses risk to all life on Earth”. And despite her lack of the requisite scientific knowledge, the United Nations invited 16-year old Greta Thunberg to lecture the world that “entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction”.
How do we protect our children from succumbing to bogus “chicken little science”? We must teach them to be good critical thinkers. My parents always warned, “believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” The world’s oldest scientific motto advises, “Take no one’s word.” To maintain objectivity, us scientists were advised to entertain “multiple working hypotheses”. Likewise, adults must teach children to question all fearful claims. But due to the politicization of science, many adults refuse to read anything outside their beliefs. Many indiscriminately share catastrophic headlines without any critical analysis. For the sake of our kids’ mental health, many “psychologists warn parents and guardians against being climate change alarmists.”
The apocalyptic NY Times headlines were prompted by a severely flawed German study claiming 75% of flying insects declined in 27 years. That study surveyed insects at 69 different locations, but 37 locations were surveyed only once, and 20 locations were surveyed just twice. Such snapshots of abundance at one location in just one or two years can never determine a meaningful trend. Never! That’s bad science. Yet the media eagerly elevated a flawed study from just one small region of Germany to suggest a global insect Armageddon.
The media simultaneously highlighted another single study by Dr Lister in a Puerto Rican forest to implicate a “global climate crisis”. Researchers claimed higher local temperatures devastated insect abundance and collapsed frog and bird populations that feed on insects. However the media ignored longer term research in the same forest that refuted the temperature claim. It reported that after a destructive hurricane new and more edible vegetation began regenerating and enabled an abnormally higher abundance of opportunistic forest insects, frogs and birds. Unfortunately, Lister’s first survey happened in the 1970s when insect populations had spiked. His second survey happened in 2015 after the forest had matured and insect abundance dropped to normal pre-hurricane numbers. Lister had misinterpreted half of a natural population fluctuation as a catastrophic decline driven by climate change.
Giving less attention to optimistic studies is not unusual. Where were media headlines that moths more than doubled in Great Britain over the past 50 years? Why no media fanfare for the 2020 peer-reviewed study that found no change in US insect abundance since 1980? That study evaluated a network of Long-Term Ecological Research sites established by the National Science Foundation. They found at some sites insect abundance and diversity increased or was unchanged, while at other locations there was a slight decrease. The result? No net change.
Although transforming natural habitat into agricultural land greatly benefitted people, it did reduce insect populations. However due to better conservation efforts and efficient farming practices, agricultural lands that once covered 63% of America in 1949 were reduced to 51% by 2007. (Unfortunately, due to biofuel subsidies, agricultural land increased in the Corn Belt.) Additionally, genetically modified plants continue to reduce the indiscriminate spraying of insecticides once practiced in the days of aerial crop dusting.
To trust the science, we must examine all the science. We can then honestly tell our children why there’s great hope for our future.
(Jim Steele is Director emeritus of San Francisco State’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism. Contact: email@example.com.)