THE moth storm is an odd title. It refers to the fact that if you were in a car in England (or Ireland, for that matter) 50 years ago and driving down a country road on a summer’s night the moths in the headlight beams would be in such dense numbers they resembled a snowstorm.
Quite often you would have to stop to clean the headlights and windscreen. This doesn’t happen any more. In other words, the moth snowstorm is a symbol for biodiversity loss. So this is an important book about an important subject — the loss of biodiversity locally, nationally and internationally, what this means for humanity and how it could possibly be avoided.
The main argument is that we all have in us the capacity to experience joy and wonder from nature. It’s a capacity hard-wired into our genes as a legacy from 50,000 generations when we were part of nature, living in it and with it as hunter-gatherers. The sense of joy is something of inestimable value that we stand to lose and a possible motivation for avoidance of that loss.
These are weighty themes but Michael McCarthy is a professional journalist and an accomplished and experienced writer who handles his themes skilfully. The arguments are loosely hung around a personal memoir. It is the memoir of a small boy, an English boy of Irish extraction living on Merseyside, who has a stressful and unhappy childhood.
He escapes his unhappiness by discovering joy in nature. First, at the age of seven, he is entranced by a suburban buddleia shrub covered in butterflies. This develops into a passion for birds and, as an adolescent, he becomes an obsessional and solitary birdwatcher. His joy in nature continues throughout his life and, when he becomes an environmental and wildlife journalist, it also becomes his profession.
However nowadays, as a man of mature years, the joy is tinged with sadness and anger at the ferocity with which humankind is destroying nature.
The book is not over-burdened with gloomy statistics but one telling one is that the English countryside that he loves has, in his lifetime, lost 50% of its biodiversity. Only a very small number of species have become extinct but the overall abundance of wild plants and animals has halved. We know this because the English have a long history of keeping accurate records of their wildlife, in particular of wild-flowers, birds and butterflies, and this gives them a unique ability to assess this decline in numbers.
McCarthy is well travelled. This is not a parochial book about English nature. The story of joy and loss takes us from South Korea to the Amazon basin and eventually his frustration about what is happening, and what will happen in the remainder of the 21st century, takes on a planetary scale.
There is a key moment when he encounters a black rhino in the Namibian bush. It causes awe and terror but also joy and helps him reconnect with the primordial link with nature he claims we all have.
“We need constant reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for 500 generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps 50,000 or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.”
The point is emphasised later in the book by the announcement by the UN that at some date in 2006 or 2007 50% of human beings moved to live in cities — today the figure is 54% and rising. Elsewhere in the book it’s emphasised in a completely different way by the statistics for the decline in the world’s wild rhino populations as a result of poaching. One species, the Vietnamese rhino, was only discovered by science in 2008 in the dense Indo-Chinese rainforests, and was extinct by 2012.
There are two current theories about how the decline in the world’s biodiversity could be reversed, and McCarthy dismisses both of them as ineffective.
The first is ‘sustainable development’. It was born in 1987 at the UN conference on ‘Our Common Future’ and its midwife was Gro Harlem Brundtland. It is dismissed because it relies on the goodwill of people and governments and people and governments are not essentially good. “You might as well ask cats to stop chasing birds,” says McCarthy.
A more recent theory is that of ‘ecosystem services’. It works by putting a price tag, an actual figure, on the value of ecosystems to the world economy and demonstrating that destroying them is not a cost-effective exercise. Examples would be the cost of coastal defence systems if mangrove forests are destroyed or the loss of agricultural production if pollinating insects are wiped out.
The value of pollinating insects to the US economy has, for example, been published recently as €2.9bn annually. One of the main reasons that McCarthy doesn’t like this theory either is that it fails to protect those parts of the natural world that do not have any obvious economic value — what is the economic value of bird song, butterflies, spring wild flowers or a rising trout?
His answer? “We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.”
This is an extremely interesting book. Unfortunately, for a book that’s supposed to be about joy, it is also profoundly depressing.