A couple of weeks ago environmental activists and academics celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of 'Silent Spring', Rachel Carson's classic study of the risks posed to human, animal and plant life by agricultural pesticides. I've written a couple of blog posts with various reflections on the anniversary and what it means for how we think about the communication of scientific uncertainty and about the dynamics of social movement formation. The two posts are reproduced below:
From the Merton Stone blog of the 3S Research Group:
...The anniversary has prompted a number of acts of reflection, particularly on the book’s role in inspiring an influential environmental movement and in encouraging increased regulation of industrial pollutants (see for example this piece in the New York Times).
The reach and influence of Carson’s book is undeniable, and puts her firmly in the ranks of the great American writers on nature and the environment – a parade which stretches from Emerson and Thoreau to McKibben and, I would argue, Solnit. It’s therefore interesting to reflect on what Carson can teach us about efforts to communicate contemporary environmental problems such as climate change. Can a Carson model of environmental advocacy still inspire action today?
In an interesting new paper in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Kenny Walker and Lynda Walsh explore how Carson went to great lengths to explore the scientific uncertainties related to the claims she made in her book. By going back to Carson’s original notes, the authors of the study are able to locate Carson within an ongoing debate about scientific uncertainty during the early 1960s. However, this isn’t just a case of Carson faithfully representing the state of the science which she was dealing with. Rather, her communicative strategy was a profoundly political one, in that it opened space for readers to make up their own minds about the magnitude of the risks being faced. The readers could become active participants in a society-wide deliberation about the effects of agro-industrial practices on the natural and human environment.
This theme was picked up by New York Times writer Andy Revkin and Professor Sheila Jasanoff of the Harvard Kennedy School at a recent debate on the legacy of Silent Spring at Harvard University. Jasanoffargued that the citizens presumed to exist by Carson were highly “knowledge-able”, i.e. they were capable of processing complexity and uncertainty just as proficiently as the ‘experts’, or in ways which were complementary to the arcane methodologies of the physical sciences. Carson clearly respected the knowledge and cognitive abilities of her audience.
Unfortunately, many efforts to communicate the urgency and potential severity of climate change have not afforded the same respect to their audiences. Too often, an ‘information deficit’ model is used, by which it is assumed that if only citizens could be filled-up with the right scientific knowledge then the required political action and behavioural changes would naturally follow. The continued existence of those who aresceptical of either the severity or manmade nature of climate change is often attributed to a lack of ‘scientific literacy’ among the general public, to be countered by more information, better scientific education, and greater deference to authoritative scientific figures.
In a recent study published in Nature Climate Change, Yale’s Dan Kahan and colleagues report that ‘scientific literacy’ is not a good predictor of an individual’s acceptance or rejection of the conclusions of mainstream climate science. For Dan Sarewitz writing in Slate magazine, the notion of scientific literacy is indicative of a society increasingly stratified along epistemic lines – that is, by individuals’ styles of reasoning and cognition. Reflecting on the encounters he had during a day at the races, Sarewitz argues that the notion of ‘scientific literacy’ is a silly irrelevance when it comes to most people’s everyday lives.
If one suspends the concern with people’s knowledge of particular scientific facts or their familiarity with ‘scientific method’, one quickly becomes aware that science is not the only domain where uncertainty and indeterminacy dominate, and that scientists are not the only people possessed of the cognitive abilities to handle whatever complex problem it is that confronts them. For Sarewitz, to be “scientifically literate is to be conversant with an arbitrary set of cultural shibboleths” concerning historic figures like Newton, esoteric equations like ‘F = MA’, and textbook versions of scientific method which often have little to teach people about confronting the kinds of uncertainties associated either with climate change or with picking a winner at the horse races.
Rachel Carson was fully aware that the ability to deal with and act upon uncertain knowledge does not reside solely in the scientific laboratory. As we gaze forwards at a technologically and environmentally uncertain future, we would do well to look back over our shoulders at previously successful attempts to describe and act upon similar complexities. In 50 years’ time, how will we look back at our current efforts? Will we regret the obsession with information deficits and scientific illiteracy, or will we be able to reflect on a legacy of communication which appreciated and respected its audience of knowledge-able citizens?
...and from the Geography Directions blog:
Last week saw the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s classic study of the effects of agricultural pesticides on the environment and human health. The book is widely credited with kick-starting the modern environmental movement, raising awareness of environmental concerns among US and global publics, and laying the groundwork for a slew of new environmental regulations in US law.
Eliza Griswold in the New York Times has reflected on Silent Spring’s impact on the environmental movement. Griswold argues that part of Carson’s success lay in reaching out to a pre-existing “army” of concerned citizens – particularly “scores of housewives” – whom the text mobilised as both sources of information about the plight of local animals and birds and as a receptive audience to Carson’s arguments about the effects of industrial agriculture on American landscapes.
|Rachel Carson c. 1940. Source: Wikimedia Commons|
Environmental activism has recently been of great interest to geographers concerned with the relationship between nature, space, and the development of social movements. In recent articles in Geography Compass and Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Walter J. Nicholls explores some of the contributions geographers can and have made to the study of such movements. Geographers have paid particular attention to how a ‘sense of place’ often lies at the heart of environmental movements. Contestation over the ‘value’ of a place – for example as a site of intensive agriculture or natural beauty – can lead to the formation of political forces which run counter to dominant economic interests. However, if movements are so rooted in place, then one is led to the question of how a social movement can spread across a country or across the globe. Must a social movement appeal to pre-existing values or interests, or can new alliances be brokered among previously unconnected groups of actors?
Rachel Carson’s work was distinctly place-based. But her opening fable about a fictional town ravaged by a multitude of environmental disasters – all of which, she claims, have happened somewhere in the US or the world – tells us something about how she was able to relate her concerns to those reading her book in far-away libraries and living rooms. These far-flung concerns were brought together at the outset in a single fictional place, thus opening up a wide terrain into which her arguments could subsequently reach.
The enduring legacy of Silent Spring is an interesting study in the geography of social movements. The book’s 50th anniversary and its associated acts of reflection and contemplation have made clear how the text was instrumental in forging new interests and identities through relational exchanges across a range of sites, environments and political spaces.
How Silent Spring Ignited the Environmental Movement New York Times
Walter J. Nicholls, 2007, The Geographies of Social Movements, Geography Compass 1 607-622
Walter J. Nicholls, 2009, Place, Networks, Space: Theorising the Geographies of Social Movements, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 78-93