The renowned nature writer Rachel Carson, a marine biologist by training, was at her poetic best when writing about the interconnectedness of nature with all living things. Humanity’s unquestioned faith in the power of science and technology was at its highest, post the Second World War. It was then that Carson combined meticulous research and eloquent writing skills to expose the vulnerability of nature to one of the technological byproducts of the World Wars: synthetic, agricultural pesticides. In 1945, Carson began documenting the environmental hazards associated with the most powerful pesticide the world knew then, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane). She started work on her book in 1958 and the result was one of the 25 greatest science books of all time, Silent Spring.
Even five decades after its publication in 1962, Silent Spring continues to inspire (or instigate, depending on whom one is speaking with) and is often credited with stirring the modern environmental movement. The book contains detailed descriptions of how DDT contaminated the food chain, caused cancer and other serious, harmful effects. The book’s most (in)famous depiction is that of an unnamed American town, where all life – birds, fruits and humans – has vanished, “silenced” by the effects of DDT. Despite fierce opposition from the pesticide industry, Rachel Carson’s book became a best seller and was instrumental in the eventual ban of DDT in the USA.
While the battle with DDT may have been won, other synthetic pesticides continue to create unforeseen effects in the environment today. Research published in 2016 shows that the use of neonicotinoids – a widely used class of insecticides – has led to increased population extinction rates of wild bees in parts of the United Kingdom. The peer-reviewed study, which covered 62 species of wild bees from 1994 to 2011, has concluded that the insecticides were responsible for the extinction of at least 20% of the local populations of wild bees.
Carson’s most important contribution was creating public awareness about how nature’s systems are vulnerable to human intervention, especially to unplanned technological progress. The unknown risks of technology on nature, such as that of neonicotinoids on wild bees – need to be analyzed more diligently and communicated to the public appropriately. One of the more emphatic means of science communication has been the nature soundscapes of Bernie Krause.
In the late 1960s, the musician Bernie Krause was among the first to incorporate natural soundscapes (audio recordings of natural sounds) in orchestral music. In over 45 years of recording wild soundscapes, Krause discovered what Carson had suggested earlier – that human actions impact the environment adversely. He demonstrated that even conscious efforts to cause minimal harm to the environment can have far-reaching implications. In 1988, a logging company adopted “selective logging” (removing select trees here and there as opposed to wiping away entire areas of forests) in the Lincoln Meadow of California.
Pictures taken before and after the logging operation did not show obvious devastation, just like the company had promised the local residents. But Krause’s spectrograms (visual representation of the soundscapes) revealed that the density and diversity of the various organisms that inhabited the forest had been “silenced”, never to return (watch Bernie Krause explain the soundscape, here).
One recalls what Rachel Carson stated shortly before her death from breast cancer in 1964: “Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself? [We are] challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”
Do you think Rachel Carson’s battle with unrestrained technological progress was unfounded? Can humans can do better, as partners in nature, or as masters over nature?