Rachel Carson’s 1962 best-seller Silent Spring famously led to the eventual banning of the pesticide DDT in the early 1970s. Carson argued that the chemical was endangering not only the environment, but human health as well.
The book shed light on an important topic that had not garnered much attention in other outlets. Carson was able to get readers to care about an environmental hazard that other people were not.
But the world has changed. In the 50 years since Carson’s book was published, new environmental threats have appeared that deserve our undivided attention. So, we asked our scientists: what is the next “silent spring”?
Forest Carbon Scientist, Arlington, VA
“I think Carbon and Water are the modern-day equivalents of DDT. Since Carson’s book was published, we have worked through successful fixes to many environmental toxins like DDT, CFCs, etc. by developing chemical alternatives to each specific toxin. Now our biggest problems go beyond specific toxins to massive global shifts in the flows of carbon, water, and other basic ingredients of our biosphere. There are no chemical alternatives to carbon and water, the building blocks of life. So we must at last confront the magnitude of our resource consumption — our human footprint. The previous generations were pioneers, identifying and solving many of our first environmental crises. We must use those lessons, while pioneering new solutions, to solve more fundamental crises at the heart of the human enterprise. The solutions we find will offer more fundamental answers to old questions: What is sustainability? What is a land ethic? What does a healthy biosphere look like?”
Conservation Scientist, Brisbane, Australia
“The next big issue is the expansion of coal seam gas (shale gas in the U.S.) extraction. It is such an insidious and grossly unnecessary energy development. The environmental, health and social harm it’s causing is starting to show, and I hope will not be tolerated for much longer.”
Marine Scientist, Cambridge, England
“The next silent spring is upon us. It’s the insidious slide into ever stranger and more unstable climates. We’re so settled into short-term thinking, we can’t get worried about thinking of changes that are gradually, almost imperceptibly, starting to change the way the world is. We’re so used to thinking that science is about certainty we’ve forgotten about risk and when we hear about “possible” we decide to wait for “probable.” And when “probable” comes along, well we’ve become so fixated on lives with easy, profligate use of food, heating, transport and entertainment that even then, we’re just too self-centered, or greedy, or frightened, to change our ways. We’re hoping the science might be wrong. Or some new science might ride to the rescue. It might, but that’s a very slender hope on which to hang the future of planet earth.”
Conservation Science Director, San Francisco, CA
Marine Program Director, Santa Barbara, CA
“I think one modern day equivalent of a “Silent Spring” would be invasive species. Invasive species pose one of the greatest threats to biodiversity globally, and ultimately human livelihood and well-being. The preservation of biodiversity is core to the mission of the Conservancy, and so the problem of invasive species is one which the Conservancy devotes a considerable amount of its time and effort to addressing. All invasive species problems arise from the homogenization of the world’s biota, where homogenization is the breakdown of the mechanism that creates and maintains biodiversity. That mechanism is evolution in response to natural selection operating on geographically isolated populations.”
[Image: Pollution. Image source: Bob August/Flickr via a Creative Commons license]