Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability 

Part 5 - Silent Spring as a Watershed Moment

Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring arrived a time in our collective history when technological advancement, increasing human population, and pollution, often largely unregulated, began to have highly visual local and global impacts in an era of increasing insertion of the visual medium of television into common culture. The book itself was highly referenced with the scientific literature, yet written in a style that was accessible to the public.  

In that era, the era of “better living through chemistry,” society was experiencing a rapid influx of products into the marketplace that resulted from the boom of technological advances, in the industrial run out of World War II. New drugs, new agricultural chemicals that were accelerating a green revolution, and new materials, such as advanced plastics, all fueled the vision of a New Frontier and the Great Society. This vision for social change helped focus the internal challenges in our society, challenges that included civil rights, environmental justice, a lack of governmental and marketplace transparency, and an environment that was becoming increasingly polluted. In the US and across the globe, many waterways were visually contaminated; trash was accumulating on roadways, and the urban smog that burned your eyes was so dense that obscured building-tops were a common sight in many major cities.

In the rush to develop and deploy these new technologies, in the absence of precaution and knowledge of the potential for negative as well as positive impacts, it soon became clear that there may be a darker side to many of the products and processes, and that in some cases, the risks of a new technology, may outweigh the benefits of that innovation. The multidimensional social, economic and environmental analysis that Carson undertook was new for its time, and it spoke to a greater concern that humanity has the technology - but perhaps not the wisdom - to control the natural world.

A scientist herself, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, called for caution with technology – not abandonment. Her ability to put voice to nature changed our perception of the natural world, and in doing so she changed the world.


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Suggested Reading

  1. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (1962) Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.