Journalist Michael McCarthy has chronicled the loss of wildlife in his native Britain and globally. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about why he believes a new defense of the natural world is needed – one based on the joy and spiritual connection it provides for humans.

It is the blizzard of moths that Michael McCarthy remembers most vividly. As a boy growing up in post-World II England, his family would take summer nighttime drives to the coast for holidays, and the car headlights and windshield would soon be so splattered with moths that they would have to stop to clean them off. 

“That phenomenon has gone. It’s disappeared,” says McCarthy. “It’s disappeared because there has been a horrendous crash in moth numbers in the U.K.” 

Michael McCarthy

Michael McCarthy

McCarthy calls the thick clouds of moths that would appear in the English countryside in those days the “moth snowstorm,” which he uses as a metaphor for the loss of nature throughout the world. His recent book, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, offers a defense of the natural world that is rooted in the elemental joy and spiritual nourishment it provides to humans. 

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, McCarthy, the former environment editor of The Independent, talks about the staggering loss of wildlife globally (his native Britain has lost half its farmland birds since 1970); how the decline in species abundance, as opposed to extinctions, is too often overlooked; and why he thinks the concept of putting a monetary value on so-called ecosystem services is too limited as a conservation approach. “You can say mangrove swamps are worth so many billion dollars,” he says. “But what about birdsong? How much is birdsong worth?” 

Yale Environment 360: In your book, you write about the joy and wonder that people find in nature, how it’s a connection that runs very deep in the human psyche, and you postulate that this goes all the way back to humans’ hunter-gatherer past. How so? 

Michael McCarthy: If there is an idea at the heart of the book, it is that I believe – and I’m saying this just as a lay person, not as a scientist – that we have a very deep instinctive bond with the natural world, which is not just a spiritual phenomenon, but it’s real. It’s actually in our genes. It empirically exists. And I think that this comes from the fact that we have been operators of computers for one generation, and we’ve been workers in electrically-lit offices for three generations, and we were farmers for 500 generations – but even before that, we were hunter-gatherers for 50,000 generations or more. One of the great discoveries of evolutionary biology in the last 20 or 30 years, although it is to some extent still contentious and might be challenged by some, is the realization that the 50,000 generations we spent as hunter-gatherers, as an organic part of the natural world living as wildlife, are more important to our psyche even now at the very deepest level than the 500 generations we spent as farmers. 

At the profoundest level, we are still the children of the Pleistocene. We are still the children of the ice ages, and we have a very powerful link to the natural world, which is in, I think, every one of us. It’s not always visible. But it is an organic part of us, and, if we destroy it, we’re destroying a part of ourselves. 

“There would be so many moths in the headlight beams that they would seem like snowflakes.”

e360: The title of the book is The Moth Snowstorm. Explain why you chose that title. 

McCarthy: What I’m calling the moth snowstorm was a curious phenomenon that made vividly manifest the abundance and riches of nature. On hot, muggy summer nights in England 50 years ago, if you were driving down a country lane in a car, there would be so many moths in the headlight beams that they would seem like snowflakes. And if you drove faster, there would seem like more and more, until they almost seemed like a blizzard. And eventually they would cover your windscreen, and they would cover your headlights, and you would have to stop and wipe the windscreen clear and wipe the headlights clear, because the simple abundance of life was stopping you from continuing. 

Many people over 50 or 60 remember this phenomenon in England – it was quite common. Well, that phenomenon has gone. It’s disappeared. It’s disappeared because there has been a horrendous crash in moth numbers in the UK, and indeed in insect numbers and in invertebrate numbers overall. There was an article in Yale Environment 360 a few months ago that talked about the desperate decline of invertebrates worldwide and the fact that people are not really paying any attention to it. Everybody’s upset, and rightly so, about the loss of charismatic megafauna like the African elephant. But if we look at the declines in what [Harvard biologist] E.O. Wilson called “the little things that run the world,” nobody seems to be very bothered. Yet these declines are terrible, and the moth snowstorm is a metaphor for that. 

e360: It’s not just moths. In your lifetime, Britain has lost half its wildlife. 

McCarthy: Britain has lost more than half its wildlife in my 69 years. This is a ghastly truth, which in the last four or five years has become appreciated by conservation scientists in the United Kingdom, even though it is still not really appreciated by the public at large. There have been catastrophic losses and declines of birds, of insects, of wildflowers, almost certainly because of the intensification of agriculture. The government’s farmland bird index number showed a 56 percent decline since 1970 – so just since the Beatles broke up, by the British government’s own admission, Britain has lost more than half of the birds that delighted people when they walked in the countryside. And because intensive farming started nearly 25 years earlier than that, the real loss is probably very much greater. 

“This was not a disappearance of a species – it was a disappearance of abundance, which is very subtly different.”

e360: Intensive farming? What changed in agriculture in Britain? 

McCarthy: Britain had a traumatic experience in the Second World War. Britain could not feed itself, and our food supplies from places such as America were nearly cut off because of the German U-boats. So after the war, the Labor government decided that we would never again be in this position and that we would try and become self-sufficient in food, so they sought to maximize agricultural production. They passed the Agriculture Act of 1947, which for the first time in Britain gave farmers subsidies to plow up unprofitable pieces of land and to get rid of features that really weren’t crop-worthy. 

In the past, what made Britain’s countryside so beautiful and so charming was that the cornfields had butterflies above them and wildflowers in them. But with the modernization of farming that took place gradually after 1947, the farmers were given grants to do away with “nonproductive” parts of their estates. So they got rid of hedges, they bulldozed hundreds if not thousands of miles of hedges, and they got rid of hay meadows, they got rid of ponds. These were all very wildlife-rich features of the land. 

The intensification of farming in the United Kingdom has taken such a toll on the wildlife of the country that I believe it has fundamentally changed the nature of the country just as much as our social changes have changed it over the last 50 years. 

e360: This was a dramatic change, which you point out was not really noticed when it was happening. Why, do you think? 

McCarthy: It was gradual. There is a metric that the general public uses to work out when the natural world is in trouble and that metric is extinction. If a species goes extinct globally, it will be on every front page in the world if it’s a big species. If the African elephant, God forbid, goes extinct, it’ll be on every front page. But this was not a disappearance of a species – it was a disappearance of abundance, which is something very subtly different. It was a shrinking, a shrinking in numbers, all across the land. 

e360: You talk about the importance of the natural world for people. Some at the United Nations and elsewhere have been promoting the idea of ecosystem services as a way of putting a monetary value on nature or aspects of nature. Is that a useful approach? 

McCarthy: Yes, it is. It is enormously useful, but it is flawed. That’s the problem. There’s no doubt it’s a wonderful step forward to see that nature is not just there as something we can look at and like, but recognizing that it actually does things for us practically. This is a realization that has only really come about the last two or three decades. The problem is it only values, it only seeks to preserve in its essence, those features of the natural world on which a monetary value can be placed. 

You can say that coral reefs are worth so many billion dollars, and you can say rainforests are worth so many billion dollars, and you can say mangrove swamps are worth so many billion dollars. But what about birdsong? How much is birdsong worth? If you can’t put a value on birdsong, do we discount it? How much are butterflies worth? How much is the rising of trout worth? How much is the unfolding of ferns worth, or the appearance of spring flowers or autumn mushrooms? How much are these worth? 

If you cannot put a monetary value on them, if the environmental economists can’t do that, does that mean that they are worthless? That’s the problem. It’s selectivity. It means that half of nature is not going to have environmental economists running after it and telling national finance ministers that they must preserve it. 

e360: You’re calling for a different way of looking at nature. 

McCarthy: Yes, one that focuses on what it means to our souls, rather than what it means to our corporeal needs. 

e360: That’s where you get into the subtitle of your book, “Nature and Joy.” 

McCarthy: Nature and joy, yes. It’s based on my belief that there is a very deep link between us and the natural world. Nature’s not an option extra. It’s a part of us. It’s not just a luxury. It’s an organic piece of who we are, and if we destroy it, we’re destroying part of ourselves. 

Most people love the natural world, but they tend to love it in what you might call an unengaged way. I think that if you add to people’s casual love for the natural world the realization and knowledge that actually it’s a core part of us, it’s really the only place where we can find peace, I think that’s an idea, were it to become more widely appreciated, that could have great power in defending nature against the mortal threats it now faces. 

Roger Cohn, who conducted this interview, is the editor of Yale Environment 360.