Fifty years ago, America was on its way to being the kind of place few species would want to inhabit. Toxic waste flowed into rivers, soot floated out of smokestacks and pesticides were driving some species to the brink of extinction. Then, amid the turbulence of the 1960s and early 1970s, people began to realize that the earth might be something worth protecting. The result was our modern framework of environmental advocacy and regulation: Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed landmark legislation like the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act; advocacy groups like Greenpeace, Environmental Defense Fund and the National Resources Defense Council were born; and older organizations like the Sierra Club were reinvigorated. On April 22, 1970, about 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day. The healing began.
It’s a familiar narrative – and would be a happy one if it ended there. Instead, today we face the gravest environmental threat that humanity has ever known – a threat that our system of environmental protection, so painstakingly constructed, is powerless to address. It’s been 24 years since NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony before Congress brought global warming to the public’s attention. Yet despite the ceaseless work of activists and scientists, the carbon-fueled industrial economy that is wreaking havoc on the climate is still firmly in place. Neither the government nor the public evinces the will to confront it.
At such a critical moment, it is worth considering the book that first snapped the country out of its complacency and set the environmental movement in motion. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring asked us to reconsider the blind rush toward what the industrial world called progress. Carson warned us that by destroying the environment, humans would destroy themselves.
Somewhere along the way, her message has been lost.