Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Legacy Of Rachel Carson- A Pathway to a Sustainable Future by Moderator Patricia DeMarco

Patricia Demarco
 Discussion Topic:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Read about Patricia DeMarco - Director, Rachel Carson Institute in the School of Sustainability and the Environment at Chatham University, Pittsburgh, PA

September 27, 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s powerful book Silent Spring.  Her position on the impact of synthetic pesticides and herbicides grew from her deep understanding of the systems of the living earth from her fifteen years of study of the oceans and estuaries for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Though the environment movement launched with Silent Spring accomplished tremendous strides in the early 1970’s in regulating the most blatant of pollution activities, the approach adopted addresses treatment of symptoms rather that curing the underlying causes.  Fifty years after Rachel Carson’s plea for caution in imposing
a barrage of “biocides” upon the earth, we see the impact of massive fossil fuel combustion reversing the global atmospheric conditions. We see evidence of synthetic chemical contamination even in the bodies of newborn infants, all around the world.  The industrial monoculture approach to agriculture has propagated a chemical dependence around the world with pesticides and herbicides and massive infusions of fertilizer replacing indigenous crop cycles in all quadrants of the globe. Fifty years after Silent Spring, the problems of our polluted environment may be less visible, but they are more urgent.

In January 1963, in a speech to the Garden Club of America, Rachel Carson gave “A New Chapter to Silent Spring in which she said: “The battle for a sane policy for controlling unwanted species will be a long and difficult one.  The publication of Silent Spring was neither the beginning nor the end of that struggle, and I would like to assess with you some of the progress that has been made and take a look at the nature of the struggle that lies before us.  We should be very clear about what our cause is.  What do we oppose? What do we stand for?”  In the 50 years since Silent Spring, environmentalists have come to be defined by what they oppose, from NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) to BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody) to NOPE (Not On Planet Earth.)  The extremes of the movement gave rise to the widely held supposition that environmental protection costs jobs, opposes progress, and is a marginal position of the far left.  What the environmental movement opposes has been clear and loud, and difficult to sustain in the face of industrial development entrenched in the structure of the economy that panders to instant gratification and increasing convenience for the consumer.  Progress as we measure it today depends on ever-increasing consumer spending on goods and services for which protecting the environment receives a passing mandatory intrusion into profits. 

We live on a planet in crisis facing the loss of our life support system – fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species.  As we look to the next fifty years, we must be more effective in the defense of what we stand for.  It is nothing less than the survival of our beautiful blue planet.  Rachel Carson’s writing and her life’s work give excellent guidance for a way forward.  Her environmental ethic provides guideposts for the challenges we face in the 21st century.  Her message distilled from all of her writing can be summarized in four basic principles:  First: live in harmony with nature.  We assume that nature is at our command, for our convenience.  Rachel Carson’s revolutionary premise that we are part of the natural world and subject to its laws needs to become the mainstream basis of our economic pursuits.  All living things require fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species as our life support system.  These are services of the living earth upon which our health, our economy, our very lives depend.

Second: Preserve and learn from natural places.  This is a critical need, as evident today in the changes worldwide to the fragile ecosystem of the oceans, the tropical and temperate forests, and grasslands. We can learn much from the functioning of natural ecosystems, and model human behavior from these abundant examples. The complex interconnections among parts of a food chain, a watershed, a community of animals follow natural laws for energy flow, resources and nutrients.  We understand too little of the intricacies of such systems.  We destroy them on a massive scale with impunity in the name of progress.

Third:  Minimize the effects of synthetic chemicals on the natural systems of the world.  A recent study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found over 79 known carcinogens and mutagens in the bodies of average Americans in statistically valid samples.  We all serve as living laboratories for the effluent of the chemical age.  Of about 100,000 synthetic chemicals in commercial use, fewer than 200 have been tested for health effects.  This problem Rachel Carson first expressed as a fear and a concern in Silent Spring has come full circle.  She urged caution in producing and releasing synthetic materials into the biosphere without fully understanding the consequences to humans and other living systems. It stands as a valid position today.

Fourth: Consider the implications of all human actions on the global web of life.  We do not live in isolation from the natural world.  The fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species are our life support system.  As human activities around the world compromise these elements, we all suffer a degraded state of being.  Precaution in preventing pollution must guide our decisions on all fronts.

Pathway to a Sustainable Future:
The twenty-first century marks the transition point from a fossil-fueled economy to a renewable and sustainable economy.  This is the central challenge for our time because it is the surest way to abate the effects of fossil fuel combustion on climate changing gas emissions, and it will preserve the land from increasingly invasive and destructive methods of extraction.  The fossil age is due for replacement.  Our energy system wastes quantitatively more energy than we use for work.  Electricity generation uses only 35% of the fuel value to create salable electricity, the rest is rejected heat.  The transportation system converts 12% of the gasoline to forward motion; the rest is lost as friction and heat.  These two systems use technologies invented in the Victorian Age: The Rankin cycle for electricity invented in 1855, and the internal combustion engine in 1856.

We need to make renewable and sustainable energy sources part of the mainstream solution.  If we examine other transition times, such as the shift from horse and buggy to cars, we see public policies adopted to accelerate the change. We paved the roads; licensed drivers, wrote traffic laws, installed a system for fuel delivery, and replaced hostelries and blacksmiths with mechanics and garages.  We taxed the railroads and subsidized the car factories.  We need to address the institutional barriers that prevent widespread application of technologies based on fuels that fall on the Earth for free every day.  For example, taxpayers still provide tax incentives, legal and regulatory support for the oil, gas and coal industries to the tune of approximately four billion dollars per year!  Support for renewable systems is inconsistent, variable from state to state and uncertain over time.  Advancing sustainable technologies faces massive opposition from the fossil fuel interests.  Rachel Carson’s apprehension about the impact of the income tax act of 1962 allowing lobbying expenses as tax-deductible business expenses has proven prophetic.  The public hears only that the renewable resources are for “the future” and “too expensive.”  But technologies for zero net energy/zero net water buildings are available and useful now.  The technical issues of a distributed electricity system are within the grasp of current technology, but are impeded rather than expedited by the current utility structure.

The sustainable economic future is tangible, attractive and accessible.  We need to incorporate into the economy the value of our life support system services – the fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species that supports all life on earth.  The elements of a new economy meet the criteria of the 1985 Brundtland Commission definition of sustainability: to meet the needs of all people on Earth today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  The new sustainable economy runs on four economic engines:
1. Renewable energy systems that do not operate by combustion to control the carbon dioxide emissions and air and water contamination of fossil fuel use;
2. Green chemistry for production of goods and products by design to avoid forming toxic properties or by-products;
3. Closed loop manufacturing that conserves raw material and operates to re-purpose products at the end of their useful life; and
4. Organic agriculture to restore and retain the biodiversity of crops and rebuild the fertility of the land. 
We must empower people to stand for a better future.  Our grandchildren and their great-grandchildren deserve a living Earth, not an Earth devastated by exploitation.  A sustainable system promotes a condition of abundance within the laws of nature.  We must understand the unintended consequences of convenience, and find better ways to meet our needs, to waste less, to keep the Earth intact.   Rachel Carson’s environmental ethic provides guideposts on this quest.

(This article is part of my forthcoming book: A Vision Splendid: Building a Sustainable Economy for the 21st Century.  All rights reserved.)


Bill Sherwonit said...

Great discussion, Patricia. I think you do an excellent job of explaining the challenges we face in this transitional period from a fossil-fueled economy to a "renewable and sustainable economy." I also appreciate the principles you put forth, as first expressed by Rachel Carson, though I wonder about the comment that her premise that we humans are part of the natural world was "revolutionary." Many cultures across time have understood that simple (and intuitively obvious) fact. But perhaps it was a revolutionary idea for that period in our culture's industrial culture.

I especially appreciate your arguments about the absolutely critical need to replace the "fossil age" and the evidence you provide that "Our energy system wastes quantitatively more energy than we use for work." I'd never seen those numbers before and they're certainly attention grabbers. Clear evidence that "technologies invented in the Victorian Age" are overdue to be retired and replaced.

Again, thanks for your thoughtful and instructive posting.

Cristina said...


In the last portion of your post, where you outline the foundations of a sustainable "green" economy, you address something that I've been giving a lot of thought to. Similar to "What would Aldo do?" which you hear mentioned in many discussions on what the Land Ethic means today, your post made me consider, "What would Rachel do?" in light of the catastrophic ecological regime shifts we face today. If she were alive she would be likely both doing science and writing eloquently about some of the points you so insightfully raise.

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