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We must take stock when little things that rule world are lost

THERE are 6.5 billion people in the world today, three times as many as 50 years ago. There are undoubtedly three billion fewer insects, the forgotten creatures that maintain the fabric of life.

These include bees, butterflies, moths and all flying mites and invertebrates and sea creatures that inhabit earth and slime. Not many people, excepting scientists who watch and count, pay much attention.

Almost everybody is aware of the travails of the major star species such as polar bears, pandas and tigers. We are reminded on a daily basis of their endangerment. There was a scare about bees last year but honey is still in the supermarkets so the bee colony collapse is more or less old news.

There are more than 50 dead zones with little or no oxygen in the world's coastal areas, the biggest in the western hemisphere being from pollution in the Mississippi flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. In the Pacific and Far East, half the world's mangrove forests have been lost to coastal development and fish farming. Almost half of the land surface of the planet has been altered and we are wiping out species at 1,000 times the natural rate of evolution.

This could increase 10,000-fold and at this rate, one to two-thirds of all species of plants, animals, insects and other organisms will have gone by the end of the century, a loss on a scale not seen since the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Almost daily we are being reminded of climate change on an extraordinary scale and the negative trend of the earth's ability to maintain the quality of human life.

Commercial interests on a gigantic scale are devastating the rain forests for hardwood and clearing areas for biofuel crops. With the addition of excessive fertiliser use, filling in wetlands and wanton burning of fossil fuel, 50 per cent of the earth's land surface has been transformed and the amount of nitrogen in the environment has doubled.

Many signals of the problems are obvious: toxic algal blooms, coral bleaching, disappearance of fish, bird and insect species and, last year, the honeybee collapse disorder in America and parts of Europe.

Without crop pollination by bees, harvests will fail. There is something very serious going on, scientists point out. Naturalist Roger Deakin says we should worry for the world if bees disappear.

Now is the time to take stock. Insects form the basis of the food chain, "the little things that rule the world" ,as the zoologist Edward O Wilson describes them. They have almost disappeared from the windscreens of our cars. We must consider what kind of world, or what remains of it, will be inherited by our grandchildren. We have been the caretakers but up to now we've been inattentive stewards.

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