The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy


A small tortoiseshell butterfly in my garden. And yes, I know it’s not a moth.

Let me start by saying what this book is not. It is not a polemic about the evils of megacorporations, capitalism and Big Oil. It is not a bludgeon loaded with mind-numbing and soul-deadening eco-facts, figures and data sets designed to beat you into quivering compliance. It is not a left-wing, eco-commie manifesto prophesying the path to a new Eden.

Now here’s what The Moth Snowstorm is: an intensely personal account about how a love of nature–in particular birds, butterflies, the colour blue and moths–helped one person survive a lifetime of grief and trauma.

Make no mistake, this book is an impassioned cry for a defense of the natural world. And McCarthy gives us clear facts and powerful examples that leave no doubt about the scale of the environmental crisis gripping the world. But, despite that, the strange and wonderful thing about this book is the sheer, unadultered joy that oozes and leaps off the page whenever McCarthy describes his encounters–both mundane and extraordinary–with nature.

In short, at the heart of this book lies heart. McCarthy wants to share his love of nature with you. It’s that simple.

Well, I suppose there is a little more to it. For instance, I should probably tell you that McCarthy’s fundamental thesis is 1) we are in the midst of an environmental crisis and 2) neither sustainable development nor environmental economics are, on their own, capable of producing the societal changes needed to minimize the damage. McCarthy argues, instead, that only a profound emotional connection to nature–love, in other words–can motivate us to alter our behaviour enough to avoid the worst consequences of environmental degradation.

“Love?” you say as you roll your eyes and snigger in haughty derision. “He wants to save the world with love?”

Now, now, be nice. This isn’t your Mom and Dad’s 1970’s, flower-power, make-love-not-war-and-don’t-take-the-brown-acid kind of love. Instead, McCarthy means a deep-seated, even genetic, love of nature “forged by fifty thousand generations of living in the natural world”. It is a love hard-wired into us by evolution, a love born out of the fact that the natural world “is the natural resting place for our psyches.”

“So?” you say, still sniggering away. (Stop doing that or your face will get stuck like that.) “He still thinks he can save the world with love.”

Okay, I admit it; I share your scepticism. There is a good dose of wishful thinking here and the idea that we can solve everything from climate change to plastics pollution to habitat destruction by inspiring love for nature in people strikes me as, to put it kindly, naïve.

But don’t dismiss The Moth Snowstorm too quickly. McCarthy has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. First, he is a realist. He acknowledges that sustainable development and environmental economics have important roles to play. It’s just that he believes the love of nature is a more effective motivator for change than either regulations or economics. And second, he’s good. Really good. Whether it’s the wonder of his first, childhood encounter with a cloud of swallowtail butterflies or the ideosyncrasy of his delight in things that are blue, McCarthy makes you feel his love of nature.

And that is why I love this book. For all it’s flaws, it does something few books (especially books on the environment) manage: it deals with intensely emotional, potentially depressing issues, yet leaves me with a sense of joy. McCarthy’s outline of the loss of abundance in wildlife (what he calls “the Thinning”) is devastating, as is his painfully honest examination of how his mother’s mental illness affected him and his family. But the sheer delight of his youthful adventures in the salt-marshes of the Wirral (tame as they may be) lift the whole book and give it a sense of hope.

It’s almost enough to inspire me to go out and change the world.

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