Upon hearing the news, my thoughts immediately turned to Chapter One of Rachel Carson’s famed 1962 book “Silent Spring,” which is said to have singlehandedly launched the environmental movement in the United States.
In September, a study in the journal Science confirmed what Carson had predicted 57 years ago in “Silent Spring’s” opening salvo, titled “A Fable for Tomorrow”: that birds would mysteriously die off to the point that we would no longer hear their chatter in the trees and bushes. Spring would become silent.
According to the study, North America has lost 3 billion birds — or 29 percent of its 1970 “abundance” — over the past five decades. “This loss of bird abundance signals an urgent need to address threats to avert future avifaunal collapse and associated loss of ecosystem integrity, function, and services,” the study states.
In short, birds are vital to the maintenance of our environment, and without them, we’re screwed. Why, for goodness’ sake, did we not, as a society, pay greater heed to Carson’s insistent warnings? She laid out our future in plain English, rather than science-speak.
“There was once a town in the heart of American where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings,” she began. “Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow.
“Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change,” she continued. “Some evil spell had settled on the community: Mysterious maladies swept over the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death.
“There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example — where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly.”
How prescient her words were, and how strange that she would call her predictions a fable, when, in fact, they became reality.
Carson aimed her slings and arrows at the pesticide industry, which had advocated for the unfettered use of chemical treatments of crops to control insect populations and thus protect those crops. She did not oppose pesticides, per se, but rather their unregulated use.
The 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, when Carson was writing, were an era of supreme confidence among American scientists. Science, at the time, was king, and scientists, it seemed, could do no wrong. They were leading the charge in the space and nuclear arms races against the mighty Soviet Union. It was, as James Mahaffey described it in his brilliant 2009 book “Atomic Awakening,” the “era of wild experimentation.”
The so-called nuclear powers — the U.S., the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea — conducted more than 2,000 nuclear tests between 1945 and 1996 — above-ground, underground and underwater — even hundreds of tests in which nuclear weapons were detonated in the atmosphere, according to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization.
More than a billion pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. each year, and some 5.6 billion pounds worldwide, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Amid the absolutely necessary debate over the impending climate crisis — in which the culprit is carbon dioxide, which, by itself, is harmless to life — we easily forget the myriad other environmental maladies. But we mustn’t. Protecting Spaceship Earth, as futurist Buckminster Fuller called it in 1969, means taking a multipronged approach to reduce environmental degradation by all means possible, while protecting and preserving natural habitats. Birds, in particular, suffer losses because of chemical contamination and habitat destruction.
The Science study, titled “The Decline of North American Avifauna,” brought together researchers from the American Bird Conservancy, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service. They analyzed the breeding populations of 529 species by collecting data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waterfowl surveys and 10 other datasets. The researchers also examined data collected by weather radar technology as birds migrate.
The data do not paint a hopeful picture. “Common birds found in many different habitats — even introduced, ubiquitous species like European starlings — experienced some of the steepest drops,” according to the Audubon Society. “Feeder birds like the dark-eyed Junco declined by nearly 170 million individuals, the study’s models estimated, while white-throated sparrows dropped by more than 90 million.”
Amid the sound and the fury of our current political climate, we can lose sight of what is right in front of us — what really matters — the fate of our planet. Nothing less is at stake.
We control the future by way of our actions. When we vote to elect a president who seeks personal fortune rather than the preservation of natural resources, then we are acting contrary to our own best interests — and the best interests of generations to come.
We are writing our fable for the future now.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.