Silent Earth: Dave Goulson

Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at University of Sussex, specialising in bee ecology. He has published more than 300 scientific articles on the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and other insects. He is the author of Bumblebees: Their Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation; A Sting in the Tale, a popular science book about bumble bees; and other titles including The Garden Jungle and Gardening for Bumblebees. 


He founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and is a trustee of Pesticide Action Network and Ambassador for the UK Wildlife Trusts. In 2015 he was ranked at No.8 in BBC Wildlife Magazine’s list of the most influential people in conservation. (Picured: Dave Goulson speaking at The Big One at Westminster, April 2023. Photograph by Linda Newbery.)


“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds", wrote the American conservationist Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac. Not so much alone now as Leopold must have felt in 1949; 'climate grief'' and 'eco-anxiety' are now widely-used terms which have their own Wikipedia entry. 


Dave Goulson's book, subtitled Averting the Insect Apocalypse and referencing of course Rachel Carson's seminal 1962 book Silent Spring, won't exactly help sufferers to feel more confidence in the future of wildlife and biodiversity (how could it?) but is nonetheless appealing and informative. I both read and listened - the audio version is engagingly read by Goulson himself. I heard him speak at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival last year, where he related an anecdote that appears early in this book. Asked at short notice to be interviewed for Australian radio (from a men's loo - the quietest place he could find in the pub where he happened to be eating a meal) he was confronted with the opener: "So - insects are disappearing. That's a good thing, isn't it?" 


Unfortunately, that question reflects the view of a great many people who see insects only as bothersome pests, biters and stingers, unwelcome invaders of homes and gardens and spreaders of disease. But, as the biologist E O Wilson has written, "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." Even if we're incapable of valuing wild creatures for themselves and not merely for how they can serve us as pollinators, ecosystem managers or food, we're taking huge risks with our careless approach that creates such drastic losses. 


Goulson examines the complex relationships between insects and ecosystems and how drastically these can be affected by human interventions. The chapters on neonicotinoids and glyphosate are particularly shocking, revealing how university-based, peer-reviewed studies were challenged and in the end overpowered by the interests of Big Business.  I was dismayed, too, to learn that flea treatments readily available for dogs and cats (including Frontline, which I've been using for my cats) contain neonicotinoids.With dogs in particular, there's a risk that swimming in rivers can release neonicotinoids into the water, with dire effects on aquatic wildlife. Glyphosate is widely used by councils and elsewhere to suppress weeds, so even though the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer stated in 2015 that it's 'probably carcinogenic to humans', most of us probably have it in our bodies. This conclusion was countered by safety evaluations commissioned by Monsanto, the manufacturers, which came to a different conclusion. Who would we rather believe, and who should we believe? "Allowing companies to evaluate the safety of their own chemicals remains standard practice around the world," Goulson writes, "despite the obvious conflict of interest that this creates." He also points out that chemicals are tested in isolation, it being impractical to run controlled experiments on the cocktail of pesticides insects and plants are regularly exposed to, to investigate what cumulative harm might be caused.


I share Dave Goulson's frustration that toxic chemicals are displayed in garden centres and supermarkets everywhere, with names like Bug Clear encouraging consumers to see all insects as dirty, dangerous nuisances and to spray their gardens indiscriminately. The campaign group Pesticides Action Network, of which Goulson is a trustee, pressures retailers to stop stocking harmful toxins,  with some success: in the UK, Waitrose and the Co-Op have made recent commitments to remove these products from their shelves; this April, the Royal Horticultural Society has just issued a statement that it will no longer refer to slugs, beetles etc as 'pests', and will stop selling insecticides in its shops.


Nonetheless, by the time you've read about the threats from neonicotinoids, glyphosates, excessive nitrates from fertiliser and the drastic effects of global warming, you might quite understandably feel that it's all over for the natural world. To offset this bleakness, chapters are interspersed with brief descriptions of particularly endearing or peculiar insects and their life-cycles: the pine processionary moth, the bombardier beetle, the suicide bomber termite. Briefly, Goulson almost takes to fiction as he describes the imagined future life of his son, ekeing out a living from the land and contemplating the folly of previous generations. The final chapters offer practical guidance on how we can do better: with farming, with government, with individual actions such as gardening for pollinators, joining campaigning groups and eating more plant-based food rather than intensively-farmed meat.


Natural scientists have a difficult balance to find: too much gloom is a deterrent to readers, while an over-rosy picture of hope doesn't reflect reality. Recently Goulson wrote critically in The Guardian about Saving Our Wild Isles, the final episode of  David Attenborough's Wild Isles which, unlike the rest of the series, was available only on BBC i-player. Like me, he'd expected something harder-hitting, aimed at driving home the message that we really are on our last chance to save the natural world. "Environmentalists have been saying 'it is not yet too late' for a long time. In reality it is already too late to avoid much worse damage than we have already seen, and whatever we do now the climate crisis will continue to worsen ... Saving Our Wild Isles is charming, and perhaps it will inspire a few more people to do more for nature, but I was hoping for something different, something that might really wake us up to the dismal state of our country."  


We certainly need that. Silent Earth can't give any guarantee that things will change for the better, but at the very least it's reassuring to spend time in the company of a influential and articulate expert who's doing all he can to urge policymakers to wake up and take notice.



Silent Earth is published by Vintage. This article was first published on Writers Review on 15th May 2023.