25 May 2007:

Elizabeth Kolbert on Silent Spring, in The New Yorker

Elizabeth Kolbert writes the Comment in this week's New Yorker Talk of the Town. Her subject is, as her title has it, "human nature." Ms Kolbert has been tending the environmental beat at the magazine, so it's no surprise that she remembers Rachel Carson, whose centennial falls on Sunday. Rachel Carson passed from obscurity into fame via The New Yorker's serialization, in three installments in the summer of 1962, of what would become Silent Spring.

Silent Spring was not the first book to take on manmade ecological disasters, but it was pitched at what was evidently a propitious moment, since everybody paid attention, and things began to change. Within fifteen years, the nation had a moderately developed, if somewhat ornamental, apparatus for regulating environmental impact. The apparatus is still in place, but, as Ms Kolbert observes, it has been weakened, almost gutted, by an administration that is hostile to all undertakings that are not primarily designed to make money. Of the internal rot at various environmental agencies - spread in most cases by almost comically inappropriate appointees, Ms Kolbert writes,

Though it seems safe to say that Carson would have found all of this appalling, she probably wouldn't have been surprised. Before devoting herself full time to writing, Carson spent seventeen years working for the federal government, at the US Bureau of Fisheries ... She knew how bureaucracies function - or don't - and was well aware of how easily they can be manipulated. (In Silent Spring she cites a pesticide trade publication welcoming the fire-ant eradication program as a "sales bonanza."

Where, one asks, is the outrage? Americans are overwhelmingly "for the environment." Unfortunately, they're even more overwhelmingly in favor of the familiar and comfortable status quo. And nobody really knows what to do The problem that faces us today is not just the cleanup of toxic sites and the suppression of hazardous substances. It includes the problems that are going to happen tomorrow. The planning and commitment required to ground meaningful environmental policy in civil society will probably have to wait until most professional people have exposed to comprehensive courses in long-term environmental management, just today's educated people have been taught algebra. It will be difficult even to frame questions until that happens.

At the moment green is hot, green is sexy. That induces businesses to embrace environmental thinking in one way or another. Particularly popular is the green company headquarters. A great deal of what happens on this front will be pure hype, and subject to the sharp swings in fashion that can be seen in the diet wars. I advocate rigorous but intelligent regulation; in other words better-paid investigators. Beyond that, and an overhaul of the teaching of science in schools, I have no bright ideas. Or let's just say that all I have is bright ideas. I have no idea what would work, and it would probably be dangerous to let me experiment.

What worries me is that we'll end up blasting our way toward a solution, via some catastrophe that abruptly terminates the status quo. But it would only be human nature.

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