Having finished reading Silent Spring, I packed the book and my notes in a backpack and began a hike up the White Mountains in New Hampshire. The trail took me to a rustic hut that I would share with my two companions and a chocolate loving mouse. Being in nature enriched my spirit while climbing challenged my body. The long rocky trek culminated in an incredible view of Lonesome Lake, a small lake nestled in a pine and birch forest, named so only because of it's isolation. There's nothing negative about this kind of lonesome, just the best kind of solitude and peacefulness to be found. The perfect place to begin gathering my thoughts, trying to distill the words and capture a bit of the spirit Rachel Carson left us in her book written over 40 years ago.
I am humbled by Rachel's courage. It's hard to imagine the political and social climate that greeted her as she wrote about and spoke the negative truths of the times. Fortunately, many of her concerns did result in action and certainly helped set people and policy in motion. Still, much of the content of her book is relevant today as we have exacerbated some of the problems and ignored others.
Although the book is full of examples of the horrible degradation of our natural environment and an obvious contamination of our own bodies, the tone of Silent Spring is one of hope and restraint. Rachel clearly presented viable options and obviously supported a balanced approach to living with the natural world. It's an easy read from a technical point of view because Rachel makes it accessible. Chemicals are explained so that laymen can understand their impacts and compositions. She writes of the variety of chemicals added each year to the barrage let loose on our world. Effects to water, soil, plants and animals are described. She writes that pesticides should be called biocides and treated as the dangerous chemicals that they are. An emphasis is placed on the fact that everything is interconnected. And, as a reader, drawing my own conclusion that much of our behavior is crazy, seems obvious.
One of the craziest things to me is the chemical damage done in the name of controlling bugs. And that the chemical solutions do not only fail to solve the bug problems but they usually cause other problems. Fortunately, plenty of alternatives to the chemical control of insects are noted. Rachel makes the craziness clearest with this quote: "How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?"
Along with exposing specific types of contamination and allowing the reader to see the craziness of it, Rachel also asks deeper more fundamental questions that need to be addressed if we are to understand our behavior. One observation made is this: "We are accustomed to look for the gross and immediate effect and to ignore all else. Unless this appears promptly and in such obvious form that it cannot be ignored, we deny the existence of hazard." Following from that observation are examples of the long term and interrelated consequences of chemical exposures; consequences that are sometimes subtle, often times complex, cumulative, or distanced from the chemical exposure by long spans of time. We're left to come to our own conclusion and take up the challenge of changing the way we respond so that it is appropriate to the types of threats that we face.
As I continued to read Silent Spring, I often felt the urge to research the abundant examples and see where we are now. I know the bald eagle was recently taken off the endangered species list, a list that exists at least in part because of Rachel Carson. DDT was banned from production and use in the US. And, as I carried this book with me to doctor's appointments and outings, I often heard from people the anecdotal evidence of its lasting impact, "Oh that book by Rachel Carson, the one that got DDT banned". Even many people who, like me, had never read it, knew of it and its power.
The forward written by Linda Lear shares a personal side of Rachel Carson. As she finished writing Silent Spring, Rachel was diagnosed with cancer. She would succumb to the cancer soon after her work was published. Her cry of concern for the environment and the interrelated concern for the negative effects chemicals can have on human health makes her book and her life the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Even in 1960, Rachel was questioning the rationale that excused the release of small amounts of carcinogens and other toxins into our environment. How could we know the long term effects of small exposures over time? And what of the known and unknown effects of combinations of chemicals created when they mix after release? She provided examples that warrant concern and offered caution and scientific study as guides to our behavior. Her advice rings true today and can be followed as designers each time we eliminate carcinogenic and toxic materials in our design projects no matter how small the quantity.
Reading Silent Spring provides a foundation from which to understand the environmental movement and the roots of the current wave of sustainability. Environmental concerns are now beyond the point source types of contamination that Rachel exposed. And although she explained how we were effecting the whole ecosystem with our contamination, the scale of our effects on the planet have ballooned to new proportions. The next book I review here, Red Sky at Morning, by James Gustave Speth, speaks to the global environmental crisis we now face.
Red Sky at Morning
Rachel was first and at the time stood alone in writing a book about environmental concerns that reached the popular culture in America. Today we have an abundant number of books, news articles, documentaries, and movies relating to environmental concerns, especially Global Warming. So, why review this book? Well, I saw the author speak at a lecture series held in my area each year. I was impressed with his attitude and ideas. He spoke of the need for change and how we must understand how change in people takes place so we can encourage it. Also, the subtitle of the book is "America and the Crisis of the Global Environment, A Citizen's Agenda for Action". Acknowledging and describing problems is an important first step toward solving them. Then suggesting at least some appropriate action steps is critical to a useful examination of an issue. Gus Speth gives a history of how we got here, describes where we need to go and suggests ways of getting there.
Beginning with a description of how environmental impacts have gone global, Gus reminds us that most of the activities of the twentieth century have contributed to our current state of affairs. We had a population explosion, the chemical and nuclear industries emerged, a loss of natural resources like agriculturally productive land, as well as a loss of species diversity and habitat have all combined to create "...the globalization of environmental impacts as well as economic activity. Human influences are everywhere, affecting all natural systems and cycles". We hear so much about the global economy, but environmental impacts have gone global right along with the globalization of the economy. And Global Warming/Climate Change is only one part of the web of global environmental challenges we face.
Red Sky at Morning continues it's warning by clearly describing how the world has responded to environmental challenges. A time line of US and International developments relating to the global environment is included in this section which begins with the publishing of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring in 1962 and ends with the Kyoto Protocol in 2003. The narrative of this section describes the journey and history of these responses. The processes involved in the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and its 1987 Montreal Protocol are described and stand as successful models for international response to environmental concerns. Most of us know that we all joined together to take steps to help protect the ozone layer. Still, Gus gives a failing grade to the efforts addressing other global scale problems such as climate change, deforestation, desertification, bio diversity loss, fresh water resources, marine environment deterioration, and toxification. He gives a low grade to efforts regarding population control and acid rain. Clearly there is significant work to be done. The good news is we have processes that have worked in the past and can serve as models for the work ahead.
Underlying causes of global environmental deterioration are the focus of the third section of the book which is followed by an examination of action steps which could be used to transition to sustainability. For quick review, I've listed the ten drivers of environmental deterioration and then the eight transition steps to sustainability below. The book is written in an easy to read narrative format that examines each item, provides specific examples, weaves them into the big picture and makes the overwhelming challenge of global environmental management seem
Ten drivers of environmental deterioration:
- Market failure
- Policy and political failure
- The scale and rate of economic growth
- The nature of our economic system
- Our culture and values
- Globalization of the economy
Eight transitions to sustainability:
- A stable or smaller world population
- Free of mass poverty
- Environmentally benign technologies
- Environmentally honest prices
- Sustainable consumption
- Knowledge and learning
- Take "good governance" seriously
- Transition in culture and consciousness
Also included in this section is The Earth Charter Preamble, part of the work of
the Rio Earth Summit and endorsed by over 725 organizations by 2003.
Here are a few quotes:
- "We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace".
- "The protection of Earth's vitality, diversity, and beauty is a sacred trust".
- "The benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Injustice, poverty, ignorance, and violent conflict are widespread and the cause of great suffering".
- "The choice is ours: form a global partnership to care for Earth and one another or risk the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life".
- "The spirit of human solidarity and kinship with all life is strengthened when we live with reverence for the mystery of being, gratitude for the gift of life, and humility regarding the human place in nature".
The last section of the book ends with a whole chapter, "Resources for Citizens". Included in this chapter are ways people can help affect change in our various life roles. Then the chapter lists and describes ways to help effect the eight transitional steps needed to reach sustainability. Organizations and web resources are referenced. All these resources can also be found on the web at www.redskyatmorning.com. "Notes" is another chapter that describes technical resources for those looking for further in depth research into a topic. As well as a chapter, "For Further Reading: A Bookshelf", listing books by categories on particular subjects for further general research. Guidance for action and further education is abundant and clear.
I share a few quotes to help give a feel for the books and the authors:
Silent SpringBy Rachel Carson
- Linda Lear notes in the introduction that "Carson always acknowledged her "kinship with other forms of life" and always wrote to impress that relationship on her readers" And "She insisted that what science conceived and technology made possible must first be judged for its safety and benefit to the "whole stream of life"."
- "It is not possible to add pesticides to water anywhere without threatening the purity of water everywhere."
- "Carrots absorb more insecticide than any other crop studied;...In the future it may become necessary to analyze soils for insecticides before planting certain food crops. Otherwise even unsprayed crops may take up enough insecticide merely from the soil to render them unfit for market." (pg.59)
- "As applications of pesticides continue and the virtually indestructible residues continue to build up in the soil, it is almost certain that we are heading for trouble." (pg.61)
- "The best and cheapest controls for vegetation are not chemicals but other plants." (pg.75)
- "Arguments for limit and constraint seemed almost unpatriotic."