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Good Reads  Insects & other Invertebrates  Insects  Insects: General

Silent Earth Averting the Insect Apocalypse

By: Dave Goulson(Author)
328 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Vintage
Drawing on the latest ground-breaking research and a lifetime's study, Dave Goulson reveals the shocking decline of insect populations that has taken place in recent decades.
Silent Earth
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  • Silent Earth ISBN: 9781529114423 Paperback May 2022 In stock
  • Silent Earth ISBN: 9781787333345 Hardback Aug 2021 In stock
Selected version: £10.99
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About this book

Read an extended review on our blog.

Insects are essential for life as we know it. As they become more scarce, our world will slowly grind to a halt; we simply cannot function without them. Drawing on the latest ground-breaking research and a lifetime's study, Dave Goulson reveals the shocking decline of insect populations that has taken place in recent decades, with potentially catastrophic consequences. He passionately argues that we must all learn to love, respect and care for our six-legged friends.

Eye-opening, inspiring and riveting, Silent Earth is part love letter to the insect world, part elegy, part rousing manifesto for a greener planet. It is a call to arms for profound change at every level – in government policy, agriculture, industry and in our own homes and gardens. Although time is running out, it is not yet too late for insect populations to recover. We may feel helpless in the face of many of the environmental issues that loom on our horizon, but Goulson shows us that we can all take simple steps to encourage insects and counter their destruction.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An important book warning of insect declines
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 2 Sep 2021 Written for Hardback

    I remember, some years ago, the news headlines of an impending insect mass extinction. But I similarly remember pushback against the term "insect apocalypse". When the publisher Jonathan Cape announced that well-known entomologist Dave Goulson was working on Silent Earth, my interest was naturally piqued. So, how bad is it, really?

    Silent Earth is a well-written and logically structured book, neatly divided into five parts and 21 chapters, none of which run on for too long. Goulson gives you his reasons for why he thinks insects matter, examines the evidence for insect declines, discusses potential causes, and outlines what can be done. His pen is sharp and he is not afraid to lash out in places, but I also found his writing infused with intellectual honesty and a willingness to consider criticism.

    The part I was most interested in was chapter 4, which examines the evidence for insect declines. This is also, I expect, the part over which critics might take both this book and the whole argument to court. See, the problem is that, where insects are concerned, our data are woefully incomplete; something Goulson, to his credit, makes no secret of. His discussion of the relevant studies takes up a mere 20 pages. There are few long-term studies available and we have virtually no long-term data for Africa, South America, Oceania, and Asia. But where we have looked, evidence predominantly points towards declines. Keep in mind, Goulson adds, that the majority of insects have yet to be described, with (insect) taxonomists themselves a species in decline.

    Given these huge gaps in our knowledge, are biblical phrases such as "insect apocalypse" justified? This has been much discussed and there are two contributions worth highlighting. Ed Yong wrote an excellent piece for The Atlantic in 2019, pointing out that headlines of total insect extinction in X years are absurd (Goulson also calls this "an unlikely claim" [p. 64]), and hits the nail on the head by reminding us that this question "goes beyond the fate of insects: How do we preserve our rapidly changing world when the unknowns are vast and the cost of inaction is potentially high?" Do we wait and gather more data, or, with the precautionary principle in mind, act now? Then, just this June, the British Ecological Society put up a panel debate on YouTube whose take-home message effectively was "be worried, but don't believe the hype".

    Because make no mistake, there are good reasons to be very concerned. After a brief but powerful reminder of the very relevant phenomenon of shifting baselines, Goulson spends most of Silent Earth reviewing the many environmental insults we hurl at insects and other wildlife. This covers habitat loss and fragmentation, pesticides, herbicides, industrial agricultural practices, the spread of insect parasites and diseases by humans, climate change, light pollution (only little studied), and invasive species. Just some of the interesting and worrying findings are that habitat fragmentation is likely to interfere with insects relocating in response to climate change, and that certain mixtures of pesticides can have unexpectedly harmful interactions. Above all, Goulson points out, these threats are often studied in isolation but act in concert. Is it any surprise if insects are declining?

    What stood out throughout this part of the book is Goulson's intellectual honesty: he is always willing to point out the shortcomings in studies. When discussing the controversial glyphosate debate – which has alternately been judged likely and not likely carcinogenic by major organisations – he remarks that even for a trained scientist "it is hard to know what to conclude" (p. 127) and that he is "not absolutely certain where the truth lies" (p. 132-33). Goulson shows a remarkable willingness to remain open-minded but will call nonsense where he sees it. Chemtrail conspiracy theorists "are generally dismissed as crackpots, and rightly so" (p. 193), but geo-engineering is risky. There is no link between 5G and COVID-19 but "just because some people are crazy does not mean that 5G has no consequences for the health of people or wildlife" (p. 197). And biodynamic farming is largely harmless, but "[...] there are aspects to [it] that are beyond the boundaries of conventional science" (p. 269).

    There was one unfortunate tendency noticeable in these chapters: Goulson's Further Reading section is not always complete – especially the pesticide chapter sometimes misses relevant studies discussed in the text (e.g. on p. 106 Goulson mentions a study by Sur & Stork that is not listed). And because he neither clearly references all of them, nor uses footnotes, it is not always immediately apparent what study he discusses. I am familiar with the argument that in books for a general audience you do not want to constantly interrupt the flow of your narrative with citations, which is why I prefer superscripts leading to numbered endnotes. Though most can be identified with some effort, readers should not have to repeat Goulson's research, especially on controversial topics where the data matters.

    A valuable side to Silent Earth is that Goulson does not just raise the alarm, but also suggests solutions. There are tips for making gardens insect-friendly, but he focuses particularly on the far more pressing issue of overhauling agriculture, which takes up so much more land. Much of what he recommends here is sensible advice, whether or not insects are in dire or not-so-dire straits. Yet I feel he only intimates, rather than calls out, that this requires affluent Westerners to redefine what makes a good life and embrace an ethos of self-limitation.

    Silent Earth is an incredibly important book that raises the alarm on a topic that needs far more attention but also left me feeling terribly conflicted. Our data on insect decline are very patchy, yet our impact on the natural world documented here is undeniable, leaving us in a diabolical bind: gathering more data takes time, yet without it, few people might be convinced that adopting precautionary measures is the sensible course of action. I am similarly torn over the phrase "insect apocalypse" on the cover, especially as the contents of this book are alarming but not alarmist. Such phrases draw attention but risk backfiring: if people perceive it to be hyperbole there is the risk they check out prematurely of a problem that does need our urgent attention, while vested interests will happily exploit it to undermine your credibility. I hope this does not happen, as we do need a far wider recognition that insects keep the world ticking over. And since they can quickly recover, all is not lost.
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Dave Goulson is a Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex. He has published more than 300 scientific articles on the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and other insects. His books include the Sunday Times bestsellers The Garden Jungle and A Sting in the Tale, which was also shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize and has been translated into fifteen languages. He is a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, a trustee of Pesticide Action Network, and an Ambassador for the UK Wildlife Trusts.

By: Dave Goulson(Author)
328 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Vintage
Drawing on the latest ground-breaking research and a lifetime's study, Dave Goulson reveals the shocking decline of insect populations that has taken place in recent decades.
Media reviews

"[...] This reader found the book literate, persuasive, sympathetic, and based both on sound science and on a willingness to grapple with the realities. Goulson is the best ambassador for small life that we have. That I came away feeling even more gloomy than before is not his fault. It is ours."
– Peter Marren, British Wildlife 33(3), December 2021

"Compelling, penetrating, devastating – Silent Earth is a wake-up call for the world. Dave Goulson matches science with eloquence and passion to spotlight the cataclysmic loss of insect life on our planet. Rachel Carson would be proud."
– Isabella Tree

"Insects are the most vivid expressions of the astounding fact of life in what may be a dead universe. Read this book, then look and wonder."
– Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times

"Our collective lack of understanding and shortsightedness has brought us to the brink of ecogical disaster. We have disregarded the warnings for too long and simply cannot afford to ignore Dave Goulson's tremendously timely book."
– George McGavin

"Studded with engaging descriptions [...] [and] a plenitude of practical suggestions [...] This is a crusading but not a preachy book [...] I was charmed, enthused, dismayed and grieved by Silent Earth."
– Richard Davenport-Hines, The Oldie

"His magnum opus. Silent Earth is both a heartfelt letter of love to the insect world that has captivated him from childhood, and a rousing call to arms to counter the recent catastrophic decline in insects before it is too late [...] Magnificent."
– Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller, Book of the Month

"Terrific [...] A thoughtful explanation of how the dramatic decline of insect species and numbers poses a dire threat to all life on earth."
Booklist, starred review

"It's remarkable that [insect] decline has gone largely unnoticed by non-specialists [...] Keep dreaming, Dave Goulson. We'll need more dreamers like you."
– Ben Cooke, The Times

"Thoughtful, frightening and yet [a] hugely enjoyable book [...] This book will make you think differently about our right of dominion over the planet."
– Joe Shute, Daily Telegraph

"If Silent Earth contains a single incontestable message it is that nature – insects, flowers, plants, trees, birds and mammals, including our species – is a single system [...] This powerful book tells us that we need to act as if we understand this essential truth"
Financial Times

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