Fifty years ago today, on 16 June 1962, The New Yorker magazine began a serialisation of Silent Spring, and the modern environmental movement began.
Rachel Carson's passionate polemic against the damage pesticides were doing to America's wildlife did far more than highlight an outrage against nature, although it certainly both did that and brought the outrage to an end. It also awoke, for the first time, the generalised sentiment that the Earth was threatened by human activities and needed defending from them.
Carson's book showed to a non-specialist audience how everything in the natural world was connected, how people were part of it, too, and how what people did could drastically disrupt the balance of nature that had built up over millions of years. She suggested, in a way that substantial numbers of people began to hear for the first time, that the idea of endless scientific and economic progress on which America had been built might not always be benign.
This was a true revolution in thinking, a radical departure from the unquestioned shibboleths of US capitalism, and it provoked a fierce retaliation from the pesticide-producing chemical companies and also parts of the American business and scientific establishments. But the majority of the American people instinctively felt that she was right, and that the disappearance of their songbirds was not an excusable piece of collateral damage in the large-scale aerial spraying campaigns – using a new generation of super-powerful insecticides – which the US chemical industry, in the pursuit of ever-fatter profits, had persuaded US farmers and local authorities to adopt.
So it was that an overreach by American business and an inspired campaign against it by a middle-aged, single, female marine biologist and writer (all attributes which were held against her) changed everything. We have all done well out of capitalism. But no one has ever pretended that markets alone will deliver us a clean environment or an unspoiled and undamaged natural world. The vital insight from Rachel Carson was that if we wanted nature undamaged and unspoiled, then we would have to fight for it.
That fight has gone on for half a century now, and this week in The Independent we have looked back at some of its key themes and key moments. Most notably, there was the appearance of Earthrise, the first photograph of our planet from a distance, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts coming back from the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968. The picture revealed unforgettably the Earth's shimmering blue beauty, yet also its vulnerability and isolation in the infinite blackness of space. And it crystallised at a glance the message Carson had put forth six years earlier.
Thus fortified in their convictions, a generation of young activists set out to defend the planet, and registered a series of tremendous victories, from the banning of commercial whaling and the banning of the ivory trade (to save the African elephant), to the reduction of pollution in all its forms, especially the dumping of waste at sea. But we can see now that these were the easier triumphs, the low-hanging fruit. The problems green campaigners are tackling now – such as deforestation, overfishing and, above all, climate change – are of another order of magnitude. They are systemic, driven by the very nature of human society and the remorseless rise in human numbers. As such, they are a far greater, and more complex, challenge.
But to deal with them is to prevent our despoiling the planet beyond repair. And so it is that we need the environmental community now more than ever before. After half a century of campaigning, the green movement has unquestionably made the world a better place than it was. We can only hope that activists continue to fight the good fight for the next 50 years, and beyond.
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