Post provided by Will Pearse
I can’t think of a more inspirational and influential ecologist than Rachel Carson. Nearly fifty years ago she released a book called Silent Spring, which argued that pesticides such as DDT were cascading up through food chains causing the death or sterilisation of birds and other animals. The publication of her book provoked public debate, likely in part because it was serialised in The New Yorker, and led to a paradigm shift in US and (arguably) global pest control policy.
With the full support of the scientific community to verify her facts and arguments, she was able to defeat the chemical industry’s backlash and galvanise public opinion in her favour. The 2005 Stockholm Convention, in which DDT was banned from agricultural use, would likely have never happened if it were not for her work.
“In a post-truth world where trust in the scientific process is being eroded almost daily, Rachel Carson is a perfect example of how we can speak out and be heard while still being scientists.”
Yet chemical contaminants are still a threat to this day, despite the actions of governments in the past. Vultures around the world are under threat because a common anti-inflammatory drug given to domestic cattle (diclofenac) poisons the vultures when they scavenge on their carcasses. It’s distressing that efforts to ease the suffering of dying livestock are harming wildlife. Colony Collapse Disorder continues to devastate bee populations worldwide, and the evidence is staking up that neonicotinoid insecticides are to blame. In trying to save their crops from one kind of insect, farmers may be damaging them by inadvertently harming beneficial insects.
Beyond the realm of chemicals, climate change, over-fishing and habitat loss leave us facing a biodiversity crisis that we seem unable to fight. While the IPCC and Al Gore may have received the Nobel Peace Prize, there is still a proportion of the public who almost seem to take a perverse pleasure in disputing climate change.
Modern approaches to conservation do not engender the kind of unilateral support that we need, and so maybe it’s time to learn a few lessons from history and think about what made Carson’s work so influential. Silent Spring has two fundamental, underlying assumptions:
- Human beings enjoy nature to the extent that they will defend it where it does not interfere with their own wellbeing
- Those same human beings operate rationally and in the face of evidence they will change their actions if they are shown to be flawed
Yet those two assumptions are not what make Silent Spring so fresh, even to the modern reader. Silent Spring is honest. Carson admits that she loves nature, and that it is this love that drives her to speak out. Carson reminds the reader that she has a duty as a scientist to only report facts and logical argument, but also shows us that as a human being she has hopes, dreams, and desires. In a post-truth world where trust in the scientific process is being eroded almost daily, Rachel Carson is a perfect example of how we can speak out and be heard while still being scientists.
They key is honesty: if we openly acknowledge our beliefs (e.g. “I love birds”), show the public the facts and the impact it has on their lives (e.g. “pesticides are killing birds and so I cannot hear birdsong”), then maybe we can not just speak, but also be heard.