Picture this: You’re cruising a highway in, say, Wyoming, ogling the badlands and buttes, when it hits you—your windshield is clean. A decade ago, you recall, this same drive left your grille looking like a Jackson Pollock canvas, smeared and spattered with beetles, butterflies, and grasshoppers. Today, your windshield is transparent as air, unmarred by so much as a flying termite. With growing unease, you wonder: What gives?
To most people, the so-called windshield phenomenon is an idle curiosity. To Brooke Jarvis, it’s a harbinger of doom. In “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here,” her disquieting feature for The New York Times Magazine, Jarvis uses the disappearance of bugs as the hook for an epic inquiry into the degradation of the natural world. The story, whose eerie tone recalls an episode of Stranger Things, tracks the decline of the decomposers and pollinators that keep our planet healthy, and chronicles the mounting alarm that has attended their collapse. Writes Jarvis: “People noticed it by canals or in backyards or under streetlights at night—familiar places that had become unfamiliarly empty.”
With all due respect to Earth’s six-legged support staff, though, Jarvis’s opus is about much more than honeybees and dung beetles. It’s also an ode to citizen naturalists, an exposé of “biological annihilation” (a phenomenon that’s as horrifying as it sounds), and a lament for diminishing abundance—a tragedy of the common as devastating as any extinction. Most of all, it’s an antidote to shifting baseline syndrome, our chronic blindness toward nature’s deterioration. As one entomologist puts it to Jarvis: “We notice the losses. It’s the diminishment that we don’t see.”
Here, Jarvis talks to environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb about dramatizing the plight of creepy-crawlies, marrying plots with big ideas, and writing beautifully about the end of the world. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did the insect apocalypse come to your attention?
One of the big challenges of feature writing is that, often, what you write about has already been in the news. The question is always whether it’s been in the news enough, whether it’s been covered in an in-depth way, whether it’s really gotten through to people. If you’re following science news, you’ll come across horrifying studies about climate change or biodiversity die-offs three times a week—and then it’s on to the next thing and it’s forgotten. One of the studies that I cited in the article, for example, found that only 4 percent of the world’s biomass of mammals is wildlife, and it barely made a blip. But, to me, that was hugely shocking.
The Krefeld study [in which a group of German citizen scientists documented a 76 percent insect decline in 27 years], by contrast, made a lot of headlines. I think it broke through more than other, similar studies did. So that was definitely a danger: Is it overexposed? But I still felt like it hadn’t gotten the attention that it needed, especially in the context of other information that was coming out about declining biodiversity.
Once you’d landed on the topic, how’d you go about exploring its feature potential?
I have an entomologist friend from college who I got in touch with and asked who I should be talking to. One of the first people I spoke with was Rob Dunn, an ecologist at North Carolina State who’s working in Europe right now. It was interesting to hear Rob’s perspective about the effect of the Krefeld study on the entomologist community. At first, a lot of scientists didn’t actually pay that much attention to the study, in part because they were already thinking about insect decline; they only started to take notice once there was this massive media interest and it became clear how compelling this visualization of the problem really was. One of the things Rob said was, “[The Krefeld naturalists] were the people who were keeping an eye on the earth for the rest of us.”
“I always thought of this story as the beginning of a horror movie, where there’s just something that’s a little bit off, and you don’t know whether to take it seriously, but you notice it and it’s weird and foreboding.”
To be a magazine feature, a story has to actually contain at least two or three different stories. You’ve got the plot story—what happened—and then you’ve got one or two idea stories: What’s this piece really about? I was very interested in the question of what scientists pay attention to—but also what we, as people in the world, pay attention to, and how we become aware, or fail to become aware, of the invisible changes that are happening all around us all the time. It seemed like an interesting segue into shifting baseline syndrome, which I think is one of the most important concepts that helps explain what’s happening to us.
I love that the piece opens not with a trained entomologist, but with Sune Boye Riis, a high school science teacher whose connection to this issue is his own windshield-phenomenon observations. What was your intention in leading with Riis?
I wanted people to be able to identify with his experience. The windshield phenomenon is such a compelling thing when you consciously notice it. It’s so personal and creepy and startling, and I think that’s a big part of why people have been interested in this story. I’ve been getting emails since it came out from people who have all these childhood memories with so much emotion and nostalgia attached to them: the fireflies that I used to see, or the moths around the lamppost. There was one woman who worked at a car wash in the 1970s, and the car wash could never get all the bugs off, so they employed kids as a sweep-up team. And now that’s gone. I always thought of this story as the beginning of a horror movie, where there’s just something that’s a little bit off, and you don’t know whether to take it seriously, but you notice it and it’s weird and foreboding.
That’s funny—I was planning to ask you whether you were deliberately trying to create the tone of, like, a Stephen King novel.
Yeah, I overdid it in the first draft. I think the original lede had four or five sentences that overemphasized that point; I remember looking for synonyms for foreboding. But that tone was still very important to me, because for so much of us, that’s all we have—that vague sense that things used to be different, but we can’t trust our suspicions because we don’t have the data. Our entire lives are shifting baseline syndromes. Insects are a particularly good example, because what other wildlife do we take more for granted? That made insects a good segue into questions about the decline of common species, and what it means to lose abundance.
I want to return to your previous point, about the multidimensional way you think about story. If the decline of insects is the plot, it seems like the importance of citizen science is one of the big ideas. Did you always intend to focus on that, or did you have to write your way into it?
Yeah, that was a thread I had hoped to bring out from the beginning. We think of our society as so technologically advanced, yet to know anything about nature, you have to have a relationship with it. As we get more alienated from the natural world, we’re changing it more, but we’re seeing the changes less, because we’re not embedded in nature. So the fact that this really important study on the collapse of insects came from naturalists in Krefeld who were simply following their own passions and staying in touch with nature—I thought that was a really important point to make.
“I think that it’s best not to be really focused right away, because you don’t know what’s going to be useful.”
There’s a great erudition to your work—at one point you casually quote Heraclitus, for instance. What do you read when you embark on a story like this one?
Well, thanks. I did a story about the Tasmanian tiger earlier this year [for The New Yorker], and I’d read a lot of wildlife books for that one, including The Once and Future World by J.B. MacKinnon. MacKinnon writes a lot about the loss of sheer abundance—not just extinction, but about the reduction of common species. That idea stuck with me, and I felt like more should be written about the abundance question.
When I have time, I like to read a bunch of background books, from each of which I might pull one or two things. I think that it’s best not to be really focused right away, because you don’t know what’s going to be useful. At the start, you’re just sort of wandering around a big landscape, finding what you’re going to put in—and this is a terrible analogy—the final bouquet. For this story, I read three E.O. Wilson books. I read Bugged, a popular science book about the world of entomology. I read two books by David Goulson, who’s a bee expert in the UK. And then I got MacKinnon’s book back out of the library. Twice.
Your field reporting took you to Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. But if your goal was to make The New York Times Magazine’s readers care about bugs, did you ever think, wait a second, part of the story needs to be set in North America?
Ha. It’s true that people, by and large, often don’t like insects, and it’s weird to get readers into the mindset of realizing that it might actually be a bad thing if there were fewer of them. We definitely made an effort to include American examples, but we simply don’t have as much data here. In Europe, people care so much more—they’re really engaged and concerned. Britain has had bee and butterfly counts going far back, in a way that we just don’t have. I think England’s wildlife in general is incredibly well-tracked because there’s not very much of it. In the U.S., we still have this frontier mentality—“Oh, nature is inexhaustible, it’s too big to wrap our minds around.” I liked giving people a window into Europe, a place where people care about insects at a more appropriate level.
Were your editors always okay with using insects as a portal into broader questions of biological collapse and declining abundance, or did they try to keep you focused on, you know, the bugs themselves?
It was tricky to balance all those themes at once. In the first draft I had the lede, which was very similar to how it turned out in the final version; then I had a big long section about abundance, and then another about shifting baseline syndrome, and then at like 3,500 words I finally got back around to insects. Obviously that wasn’t going to work.
It’s hard to know what readers already know. I tend to take for granted that people know more than they do about why it’s important to have certain pieces of an ecosystem intact. There’s a lot of Ecology 101 in this article—I ended up including some examples and definitions that weren’t in the first draft, but that I think have been helpful for people who are coming to this story from a place of less knowledge.
What sorts of definitions?
Oh, like trophic cascade. Or functional extinction. Initially I put that in and didn’t explain it, because I thought everybody knew what functional extinction was, which turns out not to be the case. I’m really glad that my editors pushed me to define those terms, because that led me to some interesting studies that I hadn’t seen before. There’s a lot of ecological illiteracy out there—that’s where we have to meet people.
“To the extent that I have strengths as a writer, I’m definitely best at writing about stuff with a strong emotional component.”
Okay, Brooke, curveball: What do you consider your beat?
I … have no idea.
Can I venture a theory?
Sure! I should write it down.
To me it seems like the thread that connects many of your stories is the concept of solastalgia—the distress people feel “when beloved natural places change beyond recognition,” as you put it in “The Messengers,” your Pacific Standard story about plastic-eating albatrosses. The insect apocalypse, your Tasmanian tiger story for The New Yorker, your recent obituary for a baby orca, even your California Sunday profile of Hugo Lucitante—what connects them is that same sense of irrevocable change or loss. Maybe your beat isn’t a subject area, but a theme.
That’s interesting. That idea probably doesn’t work for all of my stories, but it would work for many of them. To the extent that I have strengths as a writer, I’m definitely best at writing about stuff with a strong emotional component. There’s a psychologist that I quoted in that Pacific Standard story, David Kidner, whose work I’ve been wanting to return to. He writes that we as people—and as a society, particularly—are pretty lost and lonely and dissatisfied. How he put it is that we’ve evolved to live within a healthy ecocultural context. And when we’re stripped of that, we blame ourselves for our feelings of loneliness and alienation, which just makes it worse—when the problem is that we’re not paying attention to the very real natural losses that we’re experiencing.
How strongly do you feel those emotions yourself when you’re working on a story like this one?
The writing got to me. It was something that was on my mind a lot, even when I wasn’t actively working on it, as well as for a long time afterwards. It’s been hard to decide what to work on next, because it never feels like time for your fun whimsical stories.
Oh, just because there’s a lot of bad, important stuff going on. But I would like to do more fun whimsical stories!
Do you have coping tips or strategies for your fellow writers on the extinction beat? How do you live with ecological grief yourself?
I don’t know. Like everybody else, there’s definitely a fair amount of dissociation. You can’t think about it all the time. But I don’t think that’s the right strategy, either. That’s a question I’ve been interested in exploring in writing, but I don’t have good answers. It’s fucking depressing out there!
And yet you write beautifully, and unflinchingly, about that very depression. I loved the line you used to encapsulate the idea of shifting baseline syndrome—that “the world never feels fallen, because we grow accustomed to the fall.” Do you have strategies for reducing abstract concepts to crystalline aphorisms?
My favorite writers are people who not only write amazing stories with amazing ideas, but also have these little magical moments—these beautiful sentences that are also about something much bigger. An example that always comes to mind is in the Kathryn Schulz earthquake article. What really stood out to me about that article, and what elevated it to a higher level, was how she kept talking about our “temporal parochialism.” She didn’t hammer on it a lot—it was just a few well-placed, really well-written references that make you realize, oh, our problem is that we’re living on human time and geological time, but we can’t see the latter. I’m not sure how well I do it myself, but those are the kinds of moments I’d love to create.
Ben Goldfarb is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in Science, Mother Jones, The Guardian, Orion Magazine, High Country News, and many other publications. He is the author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, a finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. Follow him at @ben_a_goldfarb.