“If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos” – E.O. Wilson
Lots of things go extinct. Dinosaurs. Wine Coolers. Boy Bands. We try not to let it get us down. No point in being gloomy about it, when it’s clear that the history of our little planet is punctuated with no less than five major extinction events (where generally speaking, somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% of all life on Earth gets rubbed out) and countless “minor” extinction events, which are only minor in the sense that maybe your particular species dodged the bullet. Nonetheless, the state of world politics has us all thinking a little more about the apocalypse these days, and we’re seeing an odd concordance of religions and science on the inevitability of our ultimate doom. The great theological apocalypses sound pretty ghastly, but at least there are harps and hosannas on the other end. The predicted scientific apocalypses don’t include such charming consolation prizes. So, while we recognize that mass extinction is a fact of life (and death), on any given day we just can’t worry our pretty little heads about it. We optimistically assume our big brains and opposable thumbs will save us from the fates that befell 99% of the species that ever existed on Earth. And maybe we could indeed use our considerable craniums to finagle our way through the next mass extinction (whether we are personally responsible for generating it or not) and continue our inexorable march up the evolutionary ladder. Except, buried amongst all the other current harbingers of imminent Armageddon is a pesky fact that suggests an upcoming second “Great Dying”. It’s all about the insects.
While assigning honorifics to mass extinction events seems like tempting fate, one event in particular gets the dubious distinction of “The Great Dying”, which you may know by its fancier appellation, the Permian–Triassic extinction event of 252 million years ago that erased roughly 96% of all existing species. It’s hard to pinpoint the precise causes of the Permian-Triassic extinction, with explanations ranging from large asteroid impacts, to increased volcanism, to runaway greenhouse effects due to massive methane releases from the sea floor, to changes in sea level, to anoxia, or a combination of some or all of the above. Time travelers should probably take note. Avoid visiting the time around 250 million years ago. It’s like visiting Bangladesh during monsoon season.
Now, those sad-sack scientists have a lot of empirical evidence that suggests we’d be ludicrously lucky to make it to the year 3000. Or the year 2500. Or frankly, for much more than another couple generations. Oh, there are so many ways we could be ushered off this mortal coil as a species. Given current population growth, we’re going to have to be able to feed 9.3 billion people by 2050, a feat requiring another earth or two. Drug-resistant superbugs are proliferating. Ocean acidification is accelerating. We’re noticing that it keeps getting hotter, year after year, and the extinction rates of other species are about 10,000 times higher than usual. And these are just a choice few ways in which we might die, assuming we don’t just blow ourselves up.
Our leaders make a lot of vague statements about the need to prevent us all from going extinct, but mostly we shrug our shoulders and hope that this the next event will be a “minor” one rather than a “Great Dying”, but Lucy we got another problem, and it might just be what kills us all. One aspect of the First Great Dying was that it was the only extinction event to result in the mass extinction of insects as well (an estimated 83% of insect species vanished). Insects make up around 80% of all known animal species. In the last 600 years, at least 44,000 species of bug have gone completely extinct, and hundreds of thousands more are predicted to disappear in the next 50 years. In fact, as suggested by entomologist Robert R. Dunn of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, “Most extinctions estimated to have occurred in the historical past, or predicted to occur in the future, are of insects.” And whither the insects go, so to do the rest of us critters in the great chain of being, or as John Burnside noted, “It is common knowledge now that we depend on insects for our continued existence; that, without key pollinators, the human population would collapse in less than a decade”. Consider this before you step on that roach, swat that fly, or zap that mosquito. It might one day be the last one.