Fifty years ago today (September 27th) saw the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the seminal work widely credited with kick-starting the modern environmental movement. In it, Carson, a former US government scientist, documented the damage done to the natural world by unrestrained use of pesticides, and was highly critical of the chemical industry, public officials and government. The title is a warning, conjuring an almost apocalyptic image of a world without birdsong.
It was a brave stand against the accepted paradigm of scientific “progress”, a warning that seemingly limitless human invention could take us down a number of paths, and if we chose the wrong one, disaster could ensue. “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.”
Carson railed against the arrogant assumption that science could give man dominion over nature, that every issue has a technological fix. She believed that “man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself”. Her protest was not against science itself, but that scientific progress must respect and work with nature, not against it. She also made no bones about the tensions that arise when that war is underpinned by powerful business interests.
She died only a year and a half after the book was published, by which time a million copies had been sold. Despite its following, can we truly say that it marked a turning point? In practice, the planet is in a worse state than 50 years ago, there are still those looking to technological fixes, and big business is more powerful than ever.
I wonder what she would have thought about the climate change debate, the devastation of rainforests, increasingly unsustainable consumption of resources? I wonder if she would be sounding the alarm at our slavery to economic growth, and the mantra that planning and other protective regulations need relaxing to allow development that will fuel this growth, to pull us out of recession.
We should take heart that the legacy of her work endures in one sense. There is now a global conservation movement; there is more widespread understanding of environmental issues; and the environment is on the political agenda, at least to a degree. But we face a multitude of challenges today, and as Carson herself said: “Like the resource it seeks to protect, wildlife conservation must be dynamic, changing as conditions change, seeking always to become more effective.”
Sian Atkinson, Conservation Communications & Evidence Adviser