The 50th anniversary of Rachel Carsen’s book, Silent Spring has produced a lot of discussion on the internet. Much of this has been rehearsed, ad nauseum.
But 50 years is an opportunity to reflect on the failure of environmentalists past and present to successfully predict the future. Instead, it would seem to me, they project their miserable view of the world and of people onto both. Half a century of failed predictions has not caused any reflection within environmentalism. The non-manifestation of their prophecies has only caused them to defer the date of Armageddon; their excuse codified in just four words: Not if, but when….
But it is not just the failure to predict the future that causes environmentalism bad PR; explaining the present is a problem for them too. Over the last 50 years, economic crises notwithstanding, life has continued to improve in absolute and relative terms. As I have been discussing on Twitter following claims that hundreds of thousands of deaths can be attributed to climate change each year, for instance, there are far fewer deaths from seemingly ‘natural’ causes now than previously. In the case of infant mortality, there were 10,000 fewer deaths of under-fives in 2008 than in 1990. And there are 20% fewer deaths from Malaria now than ten years ago. Not even the certainty of climate change has produce the moral capital — body bags — that environmentalists claim.
The character of life — not just the avoidance of death — has improved, year on year. People lifting themselves out of poverty means determining for themselves the life they want, free from the necessities of subsistence lifestyles.
In short, we were promised a Silent Spring, but now we have noisy winters — human life thriving where once it would have been virtually impossible, or at least characterised by hardship. The chemical, thermal, and biological Apocalypses have simply not materialised. In spite of these historical clues, however, environmental mythology persists.
When Silent Spring was just 30 years old — way back in 1992 — my favourite film maker, Adam Curtis produced a series of films for the BBC: Pandora’s Box — A fable from the age of science, which explored the complexities of humanity’s relationship with science. One episode deals with the change in attitude towards chemists, and the rise of political ecology. Curtis notes that the chemist is at first celebrated as a hero, as the use of pesticides transforms agriculture. Of particular interest is the narrative that emerges during this era, that puts a Darwinian slant on technological developments. But even more interesting is the transformation of this story in the wake of Carson. As ecologism emerges, so the environmentalists claim to champion Darwin.
The conclusion of the film is extraordinarily prescient. And it speaks to the argument I have made here often, which is that the debate about the environment in general, and climate in particular descends to science. But science is fickle. We imagine it to unmoved by the chaos of the social world, and that scientists can channel pure objectivity to otherwise irrational beings, to be instructive to matters of public policy. Curtis doesn’t take sides in the eco wars, but shows how in many cases, this can be a dangerous misconception of science. The environmental movement was given birth to by lawyers exploiting public anxiety, often on the flimsiest of evidence. Mythology developed around the seemingly scientific and objective claims of early environmentalists. The story of Carson told by environmentalists is one in which scientific observation led to sensible policies and the formation of an objective perspective on humanity’s relationship with the natural world. But Carson’s legacy is instead a far more complex story, in which her ideas and their consequences are owed much more to social, political, economic and cultural changes than her defenders will admit. This turbulence besets even our best attempts to understand ‘what science says’.