Silent Spring: The Birth of the Environmental Movement

29 Sep, 2012

On September 19th, the Marcel Desautels Institute for Integrated Management (MDIIM), in collaboration with The Bull & Bear and the Management Sustainability Network, held a panel reflecting on the relevance of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller that exposed the public to the hazards of synthetic materials in the environment.

To celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary, the Institute organized a panel composed of multiple students and professors in the Faculty of Chemistry and the Faculty of Management, as well as Linda Lear, Carson’s personal autobiographer. In attendance were Rebecca Dooley (U3, B.Com), President of MUS Sustainability Club, Monika Rak, a PhD candidate in McGill’s department of Chemistry, Dr. Audrey Moores, an assistant professor in the department of Chemistry, and Steve Maguire, director of the MDIIM.

Despite focusing on different sections of Silent Spring, all panel members agreed that certain themes expressed in the book were still relevant in today’s society, especially in regards to humans’ impact on the environment. Dooley’s analysis stressed the need to assess “the full scope” in managerial situations in order to adequately define who and what could be affected by certain actions. “You have to be interdisciplinary. You have to look at the business side [and] the chemical side.” In addition, Dooley noted that awareness alone was insufficient, and commended Carson for not only promoting awareness, but providing solutions too. “Awareness only brings you so far. [Carson] created awareness by giving the actions that should be taken.”

Monika Rak’s response, while echoing some of Dooley’s points, was more critical of Carson’s portrayal of the chemical industry: “As a chemist, the book is seminal, it is well written, it is nuanced, but whenever [Carson] bring up chemistry – the way she does this is negative.” Rak felt that Carson’s book had unnecessarily demonized chemicals and the field alike: “Chemistry and chemicals are just tools for us to use – they can’t be evil or sinister.”

Despite this criticism, Rak found that Silent Spring raised a key issue in managerial practice: the lack of true leadership capable of pursuing the most appropriate action regardless of its difficulty. Rak finds that the controversial use of DDT was a result of poor leadership, marked by the lack of adequate research and eventually culminating into the environmental scandal surrounding the pesticide’s use. She concluded her analysis by stating that the issue of environmental management malpractice could be curbed if politicians and scientists collaborated together in the development of policies. However, she finds that such an interaction could prove difficult. “All scientists are basically trained not to state certainties. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make for a very good politician; politicians speak in certainties.”

Dr. Audrey Moores then presented her analysis, focusing on the unfortunate power of money in dictating the direction of scientific research. Moores made reference to the recent publication by Gilles-Eric Seralini that exposed liver toxicity caused by GMO corn and described how large corporations, like Monsanto, have actively suppressed such research from occurring. Moores expressed concern that large corporations had practically unlimited funds and were capable of controlling and censoring research that may expose them. She associated this controversial activity to a lack of understanding on behalf of the chemical industry: “We learn about chemistry in the beaker, not the outside world.” In light of this, Moores suggested that the implementation of toxicity and environmental impact courses for Chemistry students could have lasting impacts on the future mindset of the chemical industry.

MDIIM Director Steve Maguire was next to discuss his analysis, focusing on the “profound connectedness of all things on Earth.” Maguire emphasized that all economic activity took place within an ecosystem and that understanding that “nothing in nature exists alone” was crucial to the development of managerial practice.  In the event that such understanding was lacking, or that a company was disregarding it, Maguire stressed that society could not only distribute the license to operate but it could also revoke it and thus, downstream consumers have influence in dictating the actions of the chemical production industry.

The panel concluded with comments from Linda Lear, author of Rachel Carson’s autobiography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. Lear echoed Maguire’s comments on interconnectedness, and focused on Carson’s exposure of the misuse of chemistry. Lear finds that Silent Spring was truly about Carson’s fear that the chemical industry at the time had no political or economic boundaries. She spoke of Carson’s portrayal as the “voice of science” of her time, and how the strength of Silent Spring’s impact was largely a result of Carson’s previous fame. Without her already established audience, the book’s impact could have been severely reduced, and the associated repercussions would have never occurred.

The panel concluded by stressing the importance of viewing everything as an interconnected system, making multiple references to Carson’s metaphor of the “fabric of life.” As Maguire stated: “In fouling or poisoning the environment, you are in fact fouling your own home and poisoning yourself, fouling your neighbors home and poisoning your neighbour.”

Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature

On Thursday, September 20th, the MDIIM, in conjunction with the McGill School of Environment, hosted a public lecture featuring Dr. Linda Lear. She elaborated on the impact of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and discussed central themes of regulating industry in order to protect the environment.

Lear spoke of how Carson, despite having been diagnosed with metastasizing breast cancer, was capable of writing such a powerful tale that not only exposed the misuse and inefficient use of new synthetic pesticides but also was a catalyst for the modern environmental movement.

Rachel Carson was capable of achieving such an impact because of the large following she had already gathered from her previous books. In discussing Carson’s rise to the spotlight, Lear stresses that Silent Spring’s success was largely due to Carson’s distinguished writing career and her ability to transduce scientific knowledge to the general public; to the people, she was the “voice of science.” According to Lear, “only Carson had the literary and the science expertise necessary to write about this subject” and her positive reception was crucial in her ability to withstand the wave of attacks that followed the publication of her book.

Lear delved deeper into the aftermath following Silent Spring, stating that Carson had opened the doors to  “a debate she never could have imagined or ever wanted,” the environmental debate. Those who opposed Carson not only blamed her for the banning of DDT, but also continued to blame Carson for the millions of lives lost due to malaria, where DDT had previously been an efficient pesticide in eradicating the mosquito vectors.

In reality, Carson had never denied that pesticides had useful purposes, or that they could be effective in combating disease. Carson did not call for a ban on the production of DDT, but simply advocated stricter governmental regulation in the use of synthetic pesticides.

Furthermore, DDT regulations following Silent Spring only banned the domestic sale of DDT in 1972, but did not ban or inhibit its exportation to third world countries until 1985. In addition, DDT had already been called into question by the WHO prior to the publication of the book, indicating that steps were already being taken to regulate the pesticide. Lear stressed that many notions had been construed over Silent Spring’s repercussions, but many were misappropriated to Carson herself.

Lear stressed the fact that while DDT may no longer be an environmental threat today, Rachel Carson’s message is still relevant. By exposing the misuse of synthetic pesticides in the 1960s, Carson was a crucial catalyst to the development of the modern environmental movement. In describing the modern relevance of Carson’s message, Lear states, “Substitute climate change for pesticides and the environmental battle remains the same as it was half a century ago.”

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