Dave Goulson

British biologist, conservationist, and Professor of Biology

Dave Goulson (born 30 July 1965) is Professor of Biology (Evolution, Behaviour and Environment) at the University of Sussex, specializing in the ecology and conservation of insects, particularly bumblebees.

Dave Goulson (2014)



All quotes from the hardcover first American edition, published in 2021 by Harper, ISBN 978-0-06-308820-7, 1st printing
Spelling and italics as in the book

  • One theory as to why metamorphosis is such a successful strategy is that it enables the immature stages and the adults to each specialise in different tasks, and to have a body designed for the purpose.‡
    ‡Please note that I am not suggesting intelligent design by a supreme being. ‘Design’ is shorthand for the blind tinkering of evolution over millennia.
    • Chapter 1, “A Brief History of Insects” (p. 15)
  • Ants alone outnumber us by about one million to one. Until perhaps the last 200 years, an alien looking down on Earth at any time in the last 400 million years would have concluded that this was the kingdom of the insects.
    • Chapter 1, “A Brief History of Insects” (p. 17)
  • Why he was asked to comment on a subject on which he has no expertise is unclear, but in these strange times it seems common for the opinions of celebrities to be valued regardless of qualifications or experience.
    • Chapter 2, “The Importance of Insects” (p. 20)
  • Some previous deliberate introductions of non-native species to Australia had gone horribly wrong: for example, cane toads from South America, introduced to help control sugar cane pests, have themselves become a plague, proliferating to the point where there are now estimated to be about 200 million of them, eating everything except the pests they were intended to control.
    • Chapter 2, “The Importance of Insects” (p. 28)
  • For me, the economic value of insects is just a tool with which to bash politicians over the head. They only seem to value money, so I point out to them that insects contribute to the economy. But if I’m honest, their economic worth has nothing whatsoever to do with why I try to champion their cause. I do it because I think they are wonderful.
    • Chapter 3, “The Wonder of Insects” (p. 37)
  • So, one can argue that insects are important, practically and economically, and one can argue that they bring us joy, inspiration and wonder, but both arguments are ultimately selfish, for both focus on what insects do for us. There is a final line of reasoning for looking after insects and the rest of the life on our planet, big and small, and it is one that is not focused on human well-being. One can argue that all of the organisms on Earth have as much right to be here as we do. If you are of a religious bent do you really think that God created all of this amazing life just so we could recklessly destroy it? Do you think He or She intended for coral reefs to be bleached and dead, littered with plastic trash? Does it seem plausible that He or She went to the trouble of creating five million species of insect so that we could drive many of them extinct without ever even registering their existence?
    If on the other hand you are not a believer, and accept the scientific evidence that species evolved over billions of years rather than being created by a supernatural being with a beetle obsession, then you must realize that we are just a particularly intelligent and destructive species of monkey, nothing more than one of the perhaps ten million species of animal and plant on Earth. In that view, nobody granted us dominion over the beasts; we have no God-given moral right to pillage, destroy and exterminate.

    Religious or not, most humans agree that the rich and powerful should not be allowed to oppress or dispossess the poor and powerless (though of course we do allow it to happen all the time). Similarly, in dozens of sci-fi movies from The War of the Worlds onwards, aliens more intelligent than ourselves arrive, decide that the human race is redundant, and set about wiping us out so they can plunder the Earth for their own ends, or build an interstellar bypass. Of course, in these films we see the aliens as the bad guys, and we root for the inferior humans who usually somehow triumph in the end despite the odds being stacked against them.
    When will we realise the hypocrisy of our position? On our own planet we are the bad guys, thoughtlessly annihilating life of all kinds for our own convenience. We intuitively grasp that the aliens of the movie Independence Day have no right to take our planet; I wonder what goes through the mind of an orang-utan as it sees its forest home bulldozed to the ground? There should not have to be a ‘point of slugs’ for us to allow them their existence. Do we not have a moral duty to look after our fellow travellers on planet Earth, beautiful or ugly, providing vital ecosystem services or utterly inconsequential, be they penguins, pandas, or silverfish?
    • Chapter 3, “The Wonder of Insects” (pp. 41-42; boldface added)
  • ‘Normal’ is different for every generation.
    • Chapter 5, “Shifting Baselines” (p. 70)
  • We are committing ecocide on a biblical scale. I am in no way religious, but if you are, consider this; do you really think God created wonderful diversity and gave us dominion over it so that we could exterminate it? Do you really think He or She is pleased with what we have done?
    • Chapter 6, “Losing Their Home” (p. 76)
  • Insecticides kill all insects, not just the ones that they are aimed at, whatever the doublethinkers who manufacture agrochemicals may ask you to believe.
    • Chapter 7, “The Poisoned Land” (pp. 116-117)
  • These are beneficial creatures, and should be celebrated, not persecuted and poisoned in some misguided psychotic urge to kill anything that dares to thrive.
    • Chapter 7, “The Poisoned Land” (p. 118)
  • It is sometimes said that humanity is at war with nature, but the word ‘war’ implies a two-way conflict. Our chemical onslaught on nature is more akin to genocide.
    • Chapter 7, “The Poisoned Land” (p. 118)
  • Glyphosate is a general-purpose herbicide, killing any plant it touches. It is systemic, which means that it spreads through the tissues of the plant to kill the roots. I hate to admit this now, but I once used to use it quite a lot in my garden, as I believed the manufacturers when they claimed that it was non-toxic to wildlife and broke down very quickly in the environment. I used to be very naïve.
    • Chapter 8, “Weed Control” (pp. 120-121)
  • One man’s weed is another man’s wildflower.
    • Chapter 8, “Weed Control” (p. 122)
  • As with most new technologies, however, our enthusiasm for the benefits blinded us for sometime to the downsides.
    • Chapter 9, “The Green Desert” (p. 141)
  • Even today there are deniers, sadly including the previous President of the United States and many of his followers – but then there are also people who argue that the world is flat.
    • Chapter 11, “The Coming Storm” (p. 157)
  • Countries whose efforts are woefully inadequate, and likely to see us heading towards global warming of 4°C or more (catastrophic for all life on earth), include the USA, Saudi Arabia and Russia. It is perhaps not a coincidence that these three countries happen to be the three biggest oil producers in the world. One might be forgiven for suspecting that their heart is not really in tackling climate change at all. In the case of the USA this was made abundantly clear under the Trump administration.
    • Chapter 11, “The Coming Storm” (p. 171)
  • The fundamental problem with the Paris Agreement is that it has no teeth at all. It relies entirely on countries choosing to cut their own emissions, with no penalty if they fail. It is very easy for a government to make a long-term promise, knowing that different politicians will be in charge by the time any reckoning is due. One only has to look at the 1992 Rio Convention on Biological Diversity, which was signed by almost exactly the same group of 196 governments as signed the Paris Agreement. In the Rio Convention our governments promised to halt the loss of global biodiversity by 2020. In reality, the period 1992 to 2020 has seen the greatest loss of global biodiversity for at least 65 million years. We cannot rely on the empty promises of our governments to save our planet.
    • Chapter 11, “The Coming Storm” (p. 172)
  • It took many millions of years for evolution to slowly create unique assemblages of plants and animals in each region of our planet, and only a couple of hundred years for us to muddle them up.
    • Chapter 13, “Invasions” (p. 187)
  • Supporters of the chemtrail theory are generally dismissed as crackpots, and rightly so, because it is absurd to believe that a conspiracy on the scale they describe could possibly be kept quiet. It is not much more plausible than suggesting that the Earth is flat.
    • Chapter 14, “The Known and Unknown Unknowns” (p. 193)
  • Personally, I do not think we should dismiss GM technology. However, so far most GM crops have been developed by large corporations, with the clear goal of lining their pockets rather than benefiting people or the environment.
    • Chapter 14, “The Known and Unknown Unknowns” (pp. 197-198)
  • Truth was defined by those who shouted loudest, or had the money to buy it.
    • Chapter 16, “A View from the Future” (p. 222)
  • So far are we from fully appreciating the dire plight of the natural world that it is still regarded as a perfectly normal, acceptable hobby to kill animals for fun. Thirty-five million pheasants are reared and released each year in the UK alone, so that a small number of people can enjoy blasting away at these naïve, semi-tame animals. There are simply too many of us (and soon to be many more) for it to be acceptable to carry on killing animals for amusement. We need to somehow persuade everyone to treat our environment with respect, to teach children growing up that littering, killing, polluting, are just not socially acceptable. How can we do that when the supposedly great and the good slaughter pheasants and grouse just for weekend entertainment?
    • Chapter 17, “Raising Awareness” (p. 230)
  • I am not suggesting that petitions are a waste of time – they actually take up very little time – but don’t expect them to achieve much. There is a danger that people feel that the job is done, just because their favoured petition has reached a certain number of signatures. We will not save the planet simply by signing petitions, no matter how many we sign; they are a little more than a displacement activity.
    • Chapter 17, “Raising Awareness” (p. 234)
  • I have never grasped why some folk are so desperate to have a perfectly uniform, green lawn, unmarred by pretty flowers. The concept of a ‘weed’ is entirely within our heads; one man’s weed is another’s beautiful wildflower. If we could somehow engineer a shift in attitude, so that ‘weeds’ such as daisies or clovers were seen as desirable additions to a lawn, rather than enemies to be battled against, we would save ourselves an awful lot of time, money and stress, while helping nature into the bargain.
    • Chapter 18, “Greening Our Cities” (p. 246)
  • If one looks at the bigger picture, modern farming is part of a staggeringly inefficient, cruel and environmentally damaging food-supply system.
    • Chapter 19, “The Future of Farming” (p. 258)
  • If one was designing a system from scratch to feed the world with healthy food in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly way, it would look nothing like our current forming system.
    • Chapter 19, “The Future of Farming” (p. 259)
  • Suppose one were to invent a new wheat variety that gave twice the yield. Would the world’s wheat farmers turn half their land over to nature? Of course not. Wheat prices would collapse, and we would find ever-more-wasteful ways of using the surplus, for example by feeding more to animals or using more for biofuels. The farmers would end up farming harder than ever to make ends meet, and nature would not benefit at all.
    • Chapter 19, “The Future of Farming” (pp. 259-260)
  • The £3.5 billion a year in farm subsidies currently takes taxpayers’ money and uses it to support an industrial farming system that produces copious greenhouse gases, damages the soil, overgrazes the uplands, employs few people, pollutes rivers with fertilisers and pesticides, drives wildlife declines, and over-produces unhealthy food stuffs while under-producing food that is good for us. Why exactly should we pay our hard-earned taxes to subsidise all of this?
    • Chapter 19, “The Future of Farming” (p. 272)
  • Similar issues affect the 211,000 km2 protected by the USA’s sixty-two National Parks. These are supposed to be wilderness areas unaffected by man’s activities, yet many are affected by oil and gas drilling, or by invasive species, while quite a few allow hunting, and climate change is affecting them all. The Everglades National Park, for example, is being damaged by over-extraction of water to irrigate crops, by fertiliser and pesticide pollution, and by no fewer than 1,392 different invasive species, spanning everything from Burmese pythons to spreading spans of Australian tea trees.
    It is clear that trying to set aside areas for nature has not been adequate as a strategy to prevent biodiversity loss – though nature reserves undoubtedly have value – and that we need to do much more. We do not have to continue headlong towards environmental Armageddon, but to halt this process requires us to recognize that our current strategies are not working, and that we cannot carry on as we have in the past. It is not too late to save our planet, but to do so we need to learn to live alongside nature, to value and cherish it, to respect all life as equal to our own, especially the small creatures.
    • Chapter 20, “Nature Everywhere” (p. 280)
  • Globally, beef provides just 2 per cent of the calories we consume, yet 60 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production.
    • Chapter 20, “Nature Everywhere” (p. 281)
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