When Rachel Carson entitled her prescient 1962 book “Silent Spring,’’ she was imagining the dawning of the season without the sweet sounds of wildlife. She noted that, even then, in many parts of the United States, spring “comes unheralded by the return of birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of birdsong.’’ Carson’s book was heard as a resounding alarm, jumpstarting the contemporary environmental movement. In important ways, her warning was heeded (restrictions on DDT), but the human assault on the natural world only escalated in the decades since, with last week’s catastrophe in Japan a latest signal of the danger.
“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.’’ The book begins with what Carson calls a fable for tomorrow. “Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community . . . No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in the stricken world. The people had done it to themselves.’’
As Carson wrote, America’s first commercial nuclear power plant had just come on line (in 1958), and she could hardly have imagined the escalation of risk that took off then. The contaminations of chemical poisons that so worried Carson can seem benign compared to the ruins of radiation, if the worst happens. The Fukushima experience suggests what expert reassurances are worth. More than 500 nuclear power plants are in operation or under construction around the world today, with every one of them being viewed with new skepticism. One chance in a million — such predictions of disaster suddenly seem less of a long shot. What have we done to ourselves?
That more than 10,000 Japanese are likely to have been killed by the natural phenomena of the earthquake and the tsunami relativizes the prospect of far fewer being killed, injured, or sickened by released radiation from the damaged reactors — the expected outcome as of now. But the global anxiety attached to this multivalent catastrophe rises to another level of concern. Alarm is drowning out all the other sounds of spring this week.
The combined destructiveness of the shaken earth, the furious sea, and the nuclear product of industrial technology in Japan is a perfect expression of the perennial tension between nature and human inventiveness. The story of homo sapiens has been a tale of two impulses, at least since the invention of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago.
There is the embrace of nature, even unto cultivation and celebration — the sustenance we take from grown food, the lift of our hearts at birdsong. And there is the crushing of nature for greed, land into property, carbon monoxide into the air, habitual laying waste and moving on.
Ironically, whether out of love for nature or exploitation of it, the broad result of the double-barreled human impulse, as is now apparent, has been the obliteration of climate stability — a problem that transcends all political, economic, and cultural preoccupations. Because it is transcendent, the climate crisis is hard to contemplate, and that is where the news from Japan comes in.
The issue suddenly is not just the radiation danger of commercial nuclear power, but the true and total cost of industrial technology — not only to nature, but to the human future. Whether the reactors at Fukushima go into meltdown or not, the incipient Japanese environmental trauma underscores the way in which the fragile atmosphere of Earth has already begun its meltdown. Could Rachel Carson have imagined Montana’s Glacier National Park without glaciers (as soon as 2020, according to the US Geological Survey), or, for that matter, the polar icecap without ice (NASA predicts ice-free Arctic summers by 2100). Even if we are urgently mobilized, will humans have more long-term success in restoring climate stability than the valiant Japanese technicians and firefighters are having in short-term cooling of the overheating reactors?
That humankind is by nature conscious of itself has led us to imagine that we are above nature — our tragic flaw. Faced this week not only with nature’s capriciousness, but with the deadly consequences of that human flaw, we fall silent. Our silence, for once, echoes the silent spring.