I grew up without eagles.
I was a child of the 60s, and the place where I spent most of my youth was upstate New York in the United States.Largely agricultural, the area was heavily sprayed with pesticides. The marshes at the north end of Cayuga lake were sprayed with DDT. Because of this, as a child, I thought of eagles and herons as exotic species that featured in picture books, and lived far away. Not so. Eagles, herons, and a handful of other raptors and large bird species once ranged across upstate New York. But by the time I was a child, they were all gone.
It took a Zoologist named Rachel Carson to figure out why. Because before she wrote Silent Spring, there was nobody charged with noticing. There was no Environmental Protection Agency. There were no eco-activists. If the US Department of Agriculture wanted to cause widespread collateral damage to birds and aquatic wildlife in its relentless pursuit of eradicating perceived pests, who was to raise a hand in protest?
The book Rachel Carson wrote so profoundly woke a complacent public to what it was doing to the planet, it changed the world. The EPA, Greenpeace, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts in the US are arguably all direct decendents of Silent Spring, along with bans on dozens of chemicals she targeted in her pages. But Silent Spring wasn’t about chemicals.
What Carson exposed was more: a corporate, government, and social blindness to consequences, to linkedness, to the basics of balance and response in natural systems.
On the hundredth anniversary of her birth, Carson’s legacy, like that of the environmental movement in general, is a patchwork of tiny significant battles won in the name of a war in which we’re continuing to lose ground. As Elizabeth Kolbert reports in the New Yorker:
[The Bush Administration] has done its best to gut the safeguards put in place after “Silent Spring.” When, for instance, the E.P.A. proposed new rules on mercury emissions from power plants, the proposal turned out to contain several paragraphs lifted, virtually verbatim, from an industry lobbyist’s memos. (With minor changes, those regulations are now in effect.) Just last month, the Administration proposed new rules on the retrofitting of old power plants. The more or less explicit purpose of the rules is to accommodate a power company, Duke Energy, that the E.P.A. had itself sued for violating the Clean Air Act. Also last month, the E.P.A.announced that it would once again delay taking action on two drinking-water contaminants, perchlorate, an ingredient of rocket fuel,and M.T.B.E., a fuel additive.
And in the wider picture, we’re still dangerously deluded that nature is so robust that it can take anything we throw at it.
As Mark Lytle, who wrote The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring and the Rise of the Environmental Movement notes in his reply to Carson sceptic John Tierney,
Carson’s real target in Silent Spring was not DDT, but man’s arrogance towards nature. Biologist Barry Commoner described this flaw as mankind’s capacity to find solutions before understanding what the problem is. Or as Carson explained, “I think we are challenged as mankind has never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”
That “as never before” is truer today than it was then.
My niece and nephew back in upstate New York can thank Rachel Carson that they’re growing up with herons and eagles as common sights.
But they’ll only be spared from seeing the extinction of the polar bear in their lifetime, and far worse things, if we as human beings prove we can ultimately be guided by the wisdom she championed.
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