A recent study of insect life in protected nature reserves in Germany got the most modest attention in our busy Trumpian world. In the last 27 years, however, researchers found that flying insect populations there had dropped 76% seasonally and 82% in mid-summer (when insect numbers are at their peak). If you aren’t instantly struck by those figures, let me assure you that they are stunning enough to have been labeled an “insectageddon,” and much of what’s happening may be attributable to the massive use of pesticides and the destruction of habitat that has turned so much of the planet into farmland and in the process “into a wildlife desert.” And much as most of us may not love insects, which make up about two-thirds of all life on this planet, keep in mind that they are crucial both as pollinators and prey for this world as we know it.
This fits painfully well with another phenomenon which has gotten more (but hardly enough) attention in recent years. It’s been termed “the sixth extinction,” an extermination event the likes of which may only have been experienced five other times in the history of life on this planet. As environmental reporter Elizabeth Kolbert has written, “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion. The losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific and in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys. If you know how to look, you can probably find signs of the current extinction event in your own backyard.”
In other words, we are, it seems, in the midst of a great planetary die-off (before the full impact of global warming even hits) for which we may need the equivalent of a Paris climate accord simply to begin to save some of the habitats of quickly disappearing species. And these are not just happenstantial events. They are deeply, even integrally, related to human acts that future generations may look back upon as horrors of an almost unknown order, ones that make those of us now living responsible for what will be seen as almost unimaginable planetary crimes.
That is the very possibility that TomDispatch regular Ariel Dorfman considers today as he looks back on previous human acts that no one at the time thought particularly horrific, in particular “human zoos” — the subject of his moving new novel, Darwin’s Ghosts — which now seem like the most obvious of horrors to us