What Have We Learnt Since Silent Spring?

“In nature nothing exists alone”

Wrote Rachel Carson in her widely acclaimed 1962 book, which has been attributed by many as sparking the modern environmental movement. Silent Spring chronicled declining bird and insect populations, correlating them with increasing synthetic pesticide use, particularly DDT. Historically used (with huge effect) to control malaria during World War 2, DDT became popular as a insecticide for crops, agriculture and gardens. By examining the wider ecosystem and food chain impacts of DDT, Carson raised consciousness of the interconnections of all living things. The book has been partially responsible for the almost global ban of DDT, with use having drastically declined (only used in some places for malaria control – parts of Africa, Asia and South America – and agriculture in India and North Korea.

How do you spell chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)? I remember this question in a 1990’s school spelling bee, although I’m not sure I understood their significance. Developed in the 1930s as a safer alternative to ammonia for use in refrigerants and propellants, CFCs rapidly became extensively used. Half a century later scientists learnt about the widening ozone hole in the Southern Hemisphere, which had negative human health implications. Later, increasing atmospheric concentrations of CFCs was linked to ozone depletion. Action to eradicate the use of CFCs was universal: in 1987 all countries ratified the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, pledging to phase-out CFCs, so that virtually all (98%) ozone-depleting chemicals are no long used today. Simultaneously, the ozone hole is  repairing itself, with a 37% reduction in area between 2006 and 2017 (check out NASA’s cool infographics here!).

The Southern Hemisphere’s ozone hole has caused skyrocketing skin cancer rates in New Zealand

Plastic use has evolved steadily, from 1907 when the first fossil fuel derived plastic Bakelite, was produced, preceding a plethora of plastic innovations. By 1976, plastic in a myriad of different forms, had become the most widely used material in the world. Durable and versatile, its uses range from textiles to toys, paints to phones, water pipes and bottles, artificial hearts to aeroplanes. Unfortunately, it’s durability also means it persists in nature long after it is discarded. In 2018, awareness of plastic pollution is at an all time high: cities, countries and organisations are introducing charges and bans to halt single-use plastic use. On the surface, this momentum is inspirational. But since Silent Spring alerted us to the interconnectedness of all things, I’m not sure how much we’ve learnt. New sustainability problems are continually created alongside continual development of solutions, leaving me with two key observations:

    1. We are incredibly innovative – developing new useful products and services to improve our lives and also identifying solutions to problems we’ve created.
    2. Our approach is often fragmented – we have little consideration of the wider impacts of our developments on people and nature alike. We approach problem solving similarly, often applying a band-aid such as banning plastic bag use rather than examining the root cause of problems.

With the increased awareness of plastic pollution (that alas does not appear to have filtrated Thailand yet), I have no doubt that we can combat plastic pollution. However, I believe that unless we can incorporate holistic thinking into our innovations and problem solving, we will continue to create more problems for ourselves and the environment. How might we be able to take a more long-term and all encompassing view so that we create a balanced world where both people and nature flourish?

Myeik foreshore, Myanmar

2 thoughts on “What Have We Learnt Since Silent Spring?

  1. I think you are spot on! While we are starting to see more biodegradable bags here in NZ, they are only biodegradable in a certain environment/temperature. So when these bags go into our green bins (compost) they don’t actually biodegrade as it’s the wrong. Conditions. On the surface it sounds great but there is no holistic approach at the moment – that is what we need.


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