What is the Next “Silent Spring”?

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”?

Bronson Griscom
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?”

Eddie Game
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.”

Mark Spalding
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.”

Scott Morrison
Conservation Science Director, San Francisco, CA

Ocean acidification!

Lotus Vermeer
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.”


Freshwater ecologist Jeff Opperman hadn’t read Silent Spring, until now. So what’s his take on the book 50 years later?

[Image: Pollution. Image source: Bob August/Flickr via a Creative Commons license]

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  1. I think that oil sands will be the next Silent Spring. It is extremely dirty and unhealthy to remove oil from the sands, plus the proposed pipelines will cut across miles of land through forest, rivers, and lakes.

  2. The next, only much worse silent spring, is going to be the burying of humanity by our mounting messes of organic wastes especially biowastes that we do not recognize as being a resource for avoiding being buried. We mishandle biowastes so that germs, toxics and drugs in them escape to pollute the environment as illustrated by EPA putting limits in 2010 on some synthetic female hormone drugs that were showing up in some drinking water. Most of the various health events with E. coli in spinach, salmonella in chicken and eggs, etc. have been indicated as occurring from mishandling of biowastes allowing either seepage into a food supply system or pests to be feeding on the wastes and then carrying the germs into stored food. Also sewage type wastes especially from port-a-potties have often been dumped in crop fields instead of being taken to sewage operations.
    Our biowastes including separated solids from sewage are an enormous resource being wasted as they are an already harvested biofuel supply line. Instead of trying to biodegrade them in sewage operations at great expense to be reemitting trapped energy and CO2, we should be taking advantage of nature’s photosynthetic trap by using a process called pyrolysis on biowastes for many benefits. Pyrolysis involves heating organic matter in a closed chamber with a small vent tube keeping oxygen out so very little burning occurs to give off CO2. What happens is that about 50% of the carbon present becomes inert charcoal that contains some plant nutrients. So that when pyrolysis is complete, the charcoal can be spread as a soil amendment removing any chance of it being reformed as CO2.(Powdered charcoal can have dust explosion possibilities so it should be kept wet) The other 50% of the carbon present converts to various simple gaseous organic chemicals that exit the vent to be captured to use as fuel or to make various products such as drugs or soaps without oil. The major benefits that accrue include
    (1) Destroying all germs, drugs and most toxics(A few may need to be trapped out in the expelled gas.) With those hazards destroyed, billions of $$$ won’t have to be spent forever in monitoring dumps!!!!!!!
    (2) With those hazards destroyed, costly health problems from escapes of those hazards will be reduced to almost nil.
    (4) A renewable fuel supply system is obtained reducing dependence on foreign oil.
    IF we do not realize soon what a mess is developing with our present mishandling of our organic wastes, our children will experience a dying spring, summer, fall and winter from being poisoned directly or via food supply and/or from being boiled by worsening GW arising from more heat and CO2 being lost in the biosphere instead of getting trapped by plants. We have to go energy and CO2 negative, and that is what pyrolysis of biowastes can do. J. Singmaster, III, Ph.D., Environmental Chemist, Ret.

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