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The legacy of 'Silent Spring'

By Eric Claus
Posted Thursday, 5 May 2005

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published in 1962 and had a huge impact on the way that we see the world. Prior to Silent Spring we went on doing whatever we wanted and assumed that the earth was too big to be impacted by anything that man could do to it. We assumed that technology could do no wrong. Following Silent Spring, we banned DDT, which then led to more careful assessment of other chemicals. We started having environmental impact statements, water and air pollution legislation and the entire environmental movement. Protecting the environment is now seen as a core responsibility of government, included with such things as defending the borders and maintaining the justice system.

One of the reasons for the impact of Silent Spring was the title and the cleverly written first chapter describing how horrible things would be, if we did not change. Carson describes a world in which pesticides have killed not only the insects and birds, but animals and people as well, so there is silence in a once happy and prosperous town.

Some evil had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death.

There was a strange stillness. The birds for example – where had they gone? ... The few birds seen anywhere were moribund: they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. - Rachel Carson, Silent Spring.

The silence is a superb metaphor for death. She then backs up the images in the first pages with technical discussions of the impacts of pesticides. The microscope of time has shown the claims she makes in the first chapter could never happen and not everything Carson put in her technical back-up was accurate. Despite this, the powerful image was very effective. It is not surprising that environmentalists since that time have tried to replicate the doom and gloom message to make a similar impact. It worked well for Carson, in fact it changed the way we look at the world, so why not use it again.

Bjorn Lomborg did all of us a favour by pointing out in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, published in 2001, just how many times we had made these types of exaggerated claims. Al Gore talks about “the floodtide of garbage spilling out of our cities and factories”. Acid rain is described as “the invisible plague” which was creating an “ecological Hiroshima”. No story about the environment seems complete, without the word crisis or catastrophe included a few times. One of the best quotes is:

It seems certain that energy shortages will be with us for the rest of the century, and that before 1985 mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity in which many things besides energy will be in short supply … Such diverse commodities as food, fresh water, copper, and paper will become increasingly difficult to obtain and thus much more expensive … Starvation among people will be accompanied by starvation of industries for the materials they require. - Paul and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence.

Lomborg does not play strictly fair. He picks and chooses the quotes that will make the best point for the book. He even goes back hundreds of years where it suits his argument, but this picking and choosing is exactly what environmentalists have been doing. Environmentalists isolate an environmental incident and then say, “See the whole world is falling apart”. There are no more cod in the North Atlantic, soon there will be no food anywhere.

Of course, Lomborg is likely to get a taste of his own medicine. In about 15 years, when many of the claims he makes in his book turn out to be false, another book will be written laughing at some of the silly things he said. In fact, on page 122 of The Skeptical Environmentalist, he says, “Thus it is also expected that the oil price will decline from $27 to the low $20s until 2020”. Should we now discount everything he says?

I am somewhat sympathetic to the environmentalists, overstating their case in the media. Everybody does it. It seems like every week there is a crisis in our schools, crisis in our hospitals, crisis on the roads, crisis with the trains, and a crisis for the Newcastle Knights when Andrew Johns breaks his jaw. Maybe the media only reports crises.

Paul Ehrlich has been picked out with scorn by Lomborg and many others for his over enthusiasm for doom and gloom. It will be sad and ironic if, when population pressures are finally recognised as a serious drain on our resources and sustainability, people say, “Gee, Paul Ehrlich was generally right all along about population. Too bad he went on like such a pork chop about it so much that we couldn’t trust him. Maybe somebody would have listened and we might have done something about it earlier.”

Jared Diamond’s recent book Collapse has an evocative title like Silent Spring, but he avoids the doom and gloom. He simply describes how some societies throughout history have collapsed, and identifies the causes using archaeological evidence. He clearly shows the causes as rapid population growth, environmental damage, unstable trading partners, climate change and pressure from enemies. He makes comparisons with current events and policies, but he does not drop into doom and gloom mode. He wants everybody to make their own judgment based on his book and hopefully other books. I think it is a wise strategy, because people will not take real action unless they are convinced in their hearts that action is needed. We won’t be convinced by one story anymore.

A second aspect of the Silent Spring success is that it led us to believe environmental problems are separate from other problems that society needs to deal with. Ban the offending chemicals and the birds will come back. Require tertiary treatment for inland towns and the rivers will be cleaner. Legislate for low emission exhaust from cars and urban smog will be reduced. These have all worked brilliantly for their separate problems. When the problems become tougher and require more sweeping changes, these old approaches don’t seem to be effective. When big lifestyle changes are required, we need to include everybody. We need to get everybody on board because we are asking everybody to make changes.

Despite all the good he has done, my friend Paul Ehrlich has made the job tougher by fighting with economists and implying that economists have no value in making the world sustainable. One of his quotes goes something like, “Economists are people who think that if a bus goes over a cliff, a market for parachutes will be created and the bus riders will be saved”. Perhaps some economists do think that way, but by implying that economists have nothing to offer, he has set the process of sustainability back, because we need to engage everybody to live more sustainably.

The more difficult challenge for environmentalists now, is that we are asking for sweeping changes to be made to solve complicated problems. For most people the problems are too complicated and that means we just continue with business-as-usual. That is understandable. The opponents of actions to improve sustainability, are happy with business-as-usual. They say that everything will work out. It almost always has.

If environmentalists want to see changes that will make the economy and the environment more sustainable, unsupported doom and gloom won’t work. We’ve heard it all before. If we want to see changes that will make our way of life more sustainable, we can’t see “The Environment” as something separate from our daily lives. It’s all wrapped up together. I hope the 21st century Rachel Carsons can get this new approach right.

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.


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