We humans dislike facing up to unpleasant truths
Silent Spring remains a landmark for environmentalists. It is rooted in sound science but also has vital moral and emotional dimensions. It exposes the dangers of pesticides and sets out the consequences for nature and people in clear and persuasive terms. And though dangerous chemicals are still in use and still causing harm, its publication helped avert a worse catastrophe.
In the five decades since its publication, environmental campaigners – working alone or through organisations such as Greenpeace – have had notable successes. They have formed the essential bridge between scientists and researchers on the one hand and the public, media and policy-makers on the other – a bridge that Rachel Carson had to create for herself in Silent Spring. This collaboration means that scientists can pursue evidence without being seen to be hampered by the pressures of campaigning; but also that their findings can be explained in ways that the public can assimilate.
The response to the depletion of the ozone layer shows this in action. The discovery of the ozone holes above the polar zones was the result of pure science. Environmental groups were key in alerting the wider public. When politicians realized that they had to act – a mix of a genuine understanding of the dangers and a response to public pressure – those same groups helped hold them to account. The credibility of the science was crucial, particularly in convincing Margaret Thatcher, herself a scientist, that Britain should take a leading role in building an international agreement to phase out CFCs and other dangerous chemicals.
Sadly, as with Silent Spring, the businesses with most at stake did their best to delay action, by disputing the science and by creating supposed ‘alternatives’ to CFCs that were themselves unproven or even harmful. There were honourable exceptions, but too many executives took the view that, whatever the scientific evidence, they would keep manufacturing chemicals that harmed the ozone layer until stopped by legislation.
We have seen the same response, on a far greater scale, over climate change. Here, though, opponents have seen that “lobbying” decision-makers or attacking environmental groups is not enough. So they have gone after the scientists.
And given the complexity of the science, and the way that we humans dislike facing up to unpleasant truths, it is no surprise that they have been so successful. How else could we explain the preposterous idea that climate change has been dreamt up by scientists eager for research grants – or that governments who are always ready to slash science budgets would be taken in by them?
So perhaps now, fifty years on, scientists need to reconsider the benefits of remaining in their labs while others seek to communicate their findings. The energy companies have brought the fight to them. If the conservation movement is to succeed in persuading the public to accept a carbon-free future, they must re-engage.
Rachel Carson remains a role model. She marshaled the scientific evidence, drawing on her own professional experience and those of colleagues, and on research by the agri-industrial complex itself. Though subject to a barrage of attacks then and after, her science has held up remarkably well to the passage of time.
Yet her work is not a dry treatise: it is also a call to arms in which the emotional content, though never distorting, is crucial. Her description of the loss of the robin from the lawns of American suburbia was poignant. Her warning that the bald eagle – the country’s national symbol – was heading for extinction because DDT was killing its young was all the more stark for being rooted in scientific evidence.
Throughout, she wrote with the ear of a poet, so that even her chapter titles – such as Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias, And no Bird Sings, or The Other Road – complement the hard data with an appeal to people’s imagination, even their soul.
She also understood that warnings are not enough: people want to know about the alternatives. The way she showed that spraying was futile, and that more ecologically sympathetic approaches actually worked better – her ‘other road’ – allowed the reader to take hope and prevented agri-industrialists from claiming there was no alternative.
Not every scientist could write Silent Spring. But every scientist who understands the dangers facing our planet – not just climate change, but other forms of unsustainable consumption and a vast range of forms of pollution, including pesticides – should consider how they can help reach out, past big business and campaigning groups, to reach the public. Unless they do, Rachel Carson’s warning of environmental catastrophe will still come to pass.Tagged in: CFCs, climate change, environment, green movement at 50, Greenpeace, nature, ozone layer, pesticides, Rachel Carson, science, silent spring
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