SCIENCE VS. IDEOLOGY: MARK LYNAS ON WHAT THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT GOT WRONG
Wednesday November 13th 2013, 10:57 AM
Filed under: Interview
Mark Lynas is an author and public speaker on topics ranging from climate change to biotechnology. He was the climate change advisor to President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives before the latter was deposed in 2012 military coup d’état. Previously an environmental activist, Lynas made highly publicized changes to his stances on GMOs, nuclear power, and other polarizing topics within the environmental community. A panelist at this year’s A. Jean de Grandpré Distinguished Speaker Seminar Series held at McGill University, Lynas tackled questions on how to feed the world’s growing population amidst a looming food crisis. The MSE had the chance to interview him on issues regarding the difference between ideology and science, biotechnology, nuclear power, and the future of the Maldives.
What is the critical change in opinion you’ve had regarding certain environmental issues?
I have had a change of mind about certain things, which are areas of difficulty for the environmental movement, but I haven’t ceased to be an environmentalist. What I’m trying to do is to have an evidence-based environmentalism. In some fairly critical areas, environmentalism doesn’t have the evidence base. The problem is, too much environmentalism is frozen in the 1970s or even earlier. Ideologies don’t like to shift, and that’s the problem with creating them.
What brought about this change in perspective from ideology to science-based environmentalism?
My environmental activism predated my interest in science. The worldview that I had then was a worldview which was formulated, not around science, but around activist notions of corporations being bad. It was an ideological worldview. Even me saying that science is the most important thing is in itself an ideological statement, and I accept that, but, I think it [science] is a more valid way of understanding the world than any other. If we didn’t have science, we wouldn’t even know the world was warming up, let alone be able to do something about it.
Is scientific knowledge the only valuable form of knowledge?
I think if the traditional forms of knowledge have evidence, then they qualify as scientific. There’s nothing about science that makes it inherently Western. It’s simply about having a testable hypothesis and an objective way of assessing evidence and then reaching a conclusion based on that. Traditional systems of knowledge have an important role, but they’re cultural rather than scientific. That doesn’t mean to say they’ve got no value and that doesn’t mean to say they should be forgotten about. We learn a lot about our cultural history and about the kinds of narratives and myths that people have come up with in the past to try and explain what was, then, inexplicable.
Despite a very public backlash from the environmental community, you assert that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are crucial if we want to feed the world’s rapidly growing population. What are the common misconceptions of GMOs?
The most important misconception is that there’s any single category of GMO. There’s nothing which makes virus-resisting cassava, which I’ve seen in Uganda, the same category as insect-resistant corn in the Northern Plains of the United States. Similar techniques have been used to create the biology of those seeds, but they don’t have any relationship with each other when it comes to any potential environmental or socioeconomic impacts. The evidence is very clear that the way that GMOs are being used so far has been environmentally beneficial across the board, and the environmental movement has refused to accept that evidence.
A lot of the concern among the anti-GMO activists is that their patent-holders don’t have the intention to use it for society’s benefit. Is this a valid concern?
There are GMOs which have been developed by public-sector universities, by tax-payer funded scientists, without patents, and which will be offered free of charge for farmers – and they [the environmentalists] are still against that. So there’s no open source alternative as far as they’re concern. They’re against the technology across the board, and that’s not logical and it’s not productive. There’s a category error going on there. You’ve got to come up with real case studies for why this [GMO technology] has negative implications – and there are some. For herbicide-tolerant crops, there’s been many cases now where there [are] resistant weeds that have been coming up; we call them “superweeds”. But that predated GMOs; you get an evolution of resistance—as anyone who understands evolution can tell you—as soon as you put selective pressure in any direction. It’s like saying: “you shouldn’t ever use antibiotics because of resistance in bacteria, so therefore we should let people die of gangrene”; that’s basically the argument that has been made against GMOs.
What about the environmental degradation that comes with using round-up and other GMO-related chemicals?
They [farmers] were using worse herbicides in larger quantities before roundup-ready came into being. There’s this assumption that everyone was organic before. This has been exhaustibly studied by dozens of scientific experts and teams and published in hundreds of papers. They all come to a very similar conclusion: GMOs on aggregate have been environmentally beneficial. As an environmentalist, I can’t just deny that, otherwise I’m no better than the average climate change denier.
You have a new book called “Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power”. What are some of the misconceptions about nuclear power you outline?
We can’t decarbonize the world economy without it, and that’s the be all and end all. To have environmentalists campaigning against a very large-scale source of low carbon power, at the same as they say they’re concerned about climate change, strikes me as being kind of absurd. The misconception is that there’s something dangerous and scary about nuclear power. It has risks and benefits when you look at it, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. Some forms of nuclear power are less safe than others – you have to be concerned about proliferation. The decarbonization challenge is one which the environmental community has made a huge contribution to. But, you don’t foreclose one of the major low-carbon options, just from an ideological hang-up from the 1970s, if you’re serious about climate change.
The case I made in the book was, even if we take Greenpeace’s figures for wind and solar deployed by 2030, if you take nuclear out of the mix, then we end up with higher emissions and much higher global warming. If you put nuclear in the mix at an increased level together with Greenpeace’s wind and solar, then we can really get somewhere in terms of mitigating climate change.
With increasing standards of living in the developing world, and the energy consumption that comes with it, should we be concerned about the existing high levels of energy consumption in the developed world?
Actually, energy consumption hasn’t been increasing in industrialized countries for several years now. There comes a point where demand for the marginal utility of having an extra thing flattens out or becomes negative, which I think is a line we’ve crossed in a variety of areas already in Western countries. But the picture in developing countries is very different because obviously the average standard of living is much lower in terms of consumption. My book had this concept of ‘planetary boundaries’, which I think is a useful conceptual notion. There are limits to growth in terms of overall consumption, there’s no doubt about that. Luckily, human demands are not infinite; the early environmentalists were wrong about that. But, there is an enormous amount of growth still latent in the systems because of development. So, that’s the critical challenge.
Can we bring the world’s population up to a Western level of consumption without reaching the ‘planetary boundary’?
I think it will be difficult but I don’t think it’s conceptually impossible. You could do it with nuclear power. You can do quite a lot of solar, particularly as a lot of growth will be in tropical areas, and there are large built up areas where solar can make a major contribution without having an environmental impact. But, there are challenges technologically in terms of storing intermittent renewable energy. It would be a bit presumptuous to map out a picture of what the world’s going to look like in 2050, but the important thing is to follow a path that seems to makes the most sense now.
You were the climate advisor to President Mohamed Nasheed who had the goal of turning the Maldives into the first carbon-neutral nation by 2020. Had it not been for his ousting in the coup d’état of 2012, do you think he could have achieved this goal?
It was always ambitious, not least the technical challenges, because the Maldives is hundreds of very small islands. All the islands currently run on diesel generators, which are pretty carbon intensive, and the plan is to try and get rid of them. The technical challenge is one thing, the political challenge was another, and the economic challenge was another still. None of those pieces in the jigsaw were in place. There’s no obvious, easy renewable solution to power whole islands permanently, there was no obvious source of hundreds of millions of dollars in investment you would need, and the politics [were] all over the place, where, the major challenge is still to get a properly running democratic system. It was a real plan, the policy was clear, and the president was forcefully behind it, but it was also meant to send a signal to the world, so it was symbolic as much as it was real.
Do you think any country will be able to achieve carbon-neutrality in the future?
Not in the immediate future, no. These processes of technological change take decades to play out, and in fact, it’s happening much slower than would need to be the case were we to move, properly, towards carbon neutrality.
- Interview conducted and edited by Melissa Fundira
Defending the right to be cold: Sheila Watt-Cloutier on climate change, human rights, and Inuit culture
Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who presented this year’s public lecture at the MSE, is an internationally acclaimed environmental and indigenous rights activist. She was born in Nunavik and grew up in Nova Scotia and Manitoba, before returning to the Arctic, where she currently lives in Iqaluit. She served as Canadian president of the Inter Circumpolar Council, an international body representing Inuit communities in Canada, Russia, Alaska and Greenland, from 1995 to 2002 and as the organization’s international chair from 2002 to 2006. During that time, she served as the representative for northern Indigenous people’s in the negotiation of the Stockholm Convention, which banned the production and use of persistent organic pollutants. In 2005 she and 62 Inuit elders launched the first ever petition linking climate change and human rights with the Inter American Council on Human Rights, against the United States’ government. I spoke with her before her lecture.
MSE: Could you start off by talking a bit about the severity of climate change for Inuit and other northern communities?
SWC: The changes are great and they have been happening now for a number of years and they’ve got worse in the last ten years. Cold and snow and ice are the foundations of our culture, they represent mobility and transportation and as soon as that starts to become precarious, its an issue of safety and security. Those issues are at the most stark changes that affect the daily lives. We are still hunting and fishing and gathering; we may have nine to five jobs, but in most areas, even those who work nine to five are still hunting on weekends and on holidays and there are a lot of people who are just out hunting all the time if they can afford too.
Country food remains extremely important to us, but its not just about the food itself, it’s the process of the hunt as well. So the changes are great. This year may be different because it was very cold. But we have to embrace the cold now, when it comes, because it’s not going to be every year and for ever. The trends are just too big to ignore. The ice usually forms much later . Even this year, which was very cold, the ice didn’t form until very late. Growing up it used to be September or October that the ice would form and now we’re lucky to have it form by Christmas. The effects of that are really drastic – the waters become too cold for the boats to go out but then there’s no ice for the snow machines to go on. So there’s a longer transition period where the hunter is just waiting.
And even when the ice freezes over, it forms differently. It’s not as thick and what you see on the surface is not what’s underneath, and its unpredictable. Hunters are now having more accidents, falling through when they normally would not have before. And there have been more search and rescue operations as a result of that [ice breaking off and stranding hunters.
There’s a lot more beach slumping that’s happening. There are other places that are being a lot worse hit than Canada and Alaska is worst of all. We have communities like Shismaref and Kivalina that are literally falling into the sea. So those are pretty dire situations.
MSE: Something climate change educators talk about a lot is how difficult it is to make people care about climate change when its effects don’t seem so tangible in southern Canada or the US. What is the difficulty of communicating climate change to people in, say, Montreal?
SWC: I think that’s starting to change. In the beginning people used to say, “Oh that’s their problem up there, it’s never going to affect me.” and “Why wouldn’t they want it to be warmer and why don’t they just assimilate?” I’ve heard it all. But it’s only going to be a matter of time, because the arctic is the early warning for the rest of the planet and whatever happens in the arctic is going to happen elsewhere. When I was working on the toxins issue I used to say some of these things. I used to say, “It’s going to happen.” And people would say, “I don’t know…” But it’s happening now.
I launched that many Strong Voices program here, which connects the vulnerable people of the arctic to Small Island Developing States, because as the arctic melts, they sink, due to rising sea levels. So we created that program so that the vulnerable people could get together and become a strong voice in the UN system and other venues.
MSE: Climate change and human rights seemed to be two unconnected things until recently, and now it’s very mainstream to link them. What prompted you to make that connection both practically and theoretically?
SWC: When I was working on the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) issue, it was already a very daunting task to get people to understand that it was not just a chemical problem, that it was a human story. People were absolutely negatively affected and that their health was impacted. That Inuit women had to think twice about breastfeeding because of toxins in their breast milk was a start reality that the world needed to wake up to, and it did, once we were able to put a human face on it. So we were quite successful with that particular work that we spent a lot of time and energy on.
That treaty, the Stockholm Convention, became the fastest treaty to be signed, ratified and implemented in the history of the UN. And it’s a great success story, where governments and aboriginal peoples worked together to do the right thing. So it was very good that we had that success behind us when we started to really focus climate change. Not that climate change and POPs are disconnected from each other – nowhere else are they more connected [than in the arctic], because they’re both about health and well-being and cultural survival.
One is always thinking about how to put oneself on the map, and one constantly asks “What recourse do we have?“ There was a real synchronicity happening. At one point one of my advisers came to me and said: „Someone is trying to get hold of you from the US: Earth Justice and the Center for International Environmental Law, who have been working on linking human rights and climate change legally, and they’d really like to talk to you.“
And this was the tool that was missing in all of this. And not just from the head, but also because my grandson was at risk of losing this amazing, resilient culture that I had been born in. I traveled only by dog team for the first ten years of my life, I didn’t know an English until I was six. That’s the foundation I come from and I know that it isn’t just about the hunting, but the principles and value of the culture and how important it is for our young people to be balanced in both areas. Knowing that the suicide rates are very high in our world, we have some of the highest rates of suicide [makes it] very personal. I used to say that it’s not personal against the United States when I target them for their inaction, but it is personal when Inuit women have to think twice about nursing their babies, and it is personal when so many young people are losing their connection to our culture, which we feel is really part of the solution to what is happening now.
There’s no doubt that it’s a human rights issue. When countries of the world know the cause of what’s happening to the arctic and still say we’ll find other means to survive and we’ll find other jobs by opening up mining and resource extraction. And even though our leaders are still heading that way, in reality many people are starting question whether we’re putting all our eggs into one basket and investing in the one thing that’s really hurting us, which is greenhouse gas emissions.
MSE: Could you talk more specifically about the Human Rights complaint that you filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Even thought it didn’t result in a declaration against the United States, do you still view it as a productive course of action?
SWC: It was a remarkable experience, because we launched this petition and it took a year for them to respond to us, and when they did it was a very short, curt letter saying that they didn’t see any real legal connections [between climate and human rights] and that they couldn’t proceed. But I’m very persistent and made calls and wrote letters and we did what we could to at least get a hearing on the legal impacts, which they finally agreed to do and we had historic testimony linking climate change and human rights. The commission didn’t want to view our Inuit petition, but [wanted] to get a better picture on other parts of the world that are being negatively affected. And although I don’t represent other parts of the world, I’m always been tk inclusive with my work. What happens in the arctic belongs to everyone because it’s going to impact everyone. So we went to testify and never heard back from them.
I wonder what really happened there. At the time, just before we received the official letter from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights saying they didn’t think they had enough to go ahead with the petition, we had heard about it from someone in the State Department that it wasn’t going to happen. Why would the State Department know about it before we did? There was some politics at play there I suspect.
-Interview conducted and edited by Emilio Comay del Junco
Do you believe in science? An interview with Katia Opalka
Katia Opalka, a Montreal-based environmental lawyer and professor at the School of Environment, gave a talk recently entitled “What a fool believes (in 2012): Journalists, Scientists and End of the World-ists.” I interviewed her shortly afterward to talk about environmental protection, education, faith, and Canadian politics.
MSE: Your talk opened with a contrast between knowledge and belief, and one of your big themes was the fact that the empirical evidence supporting phenomena like climate change seem powerless in the face of industry and politics. Might we need more faith in science along with pure scientific knowledge?
KO: Anyone in the scientific community will tell you that science is just as political as anything else: who gets funded, what they research, who gets published, what the information gets used for.
I think that in order for there to be a public shift in the direction of [not] just believing stuff because we don’t know whom to believe and believing science, there needs to be a framework, which is honest, and which says to the public: “Look, we understand why you are just as wary of science and scientists as of any other claim that someone has made. It’s reasonable for you to be distrustful, you’re not stupid.”
One of the things is that you need to promise is that the disagreements that scientists have over the interpretations of findings [will be made public]. A lot is being asked of the public – major shifts in consumption, in transportation, and not only that. The public as a whole is getting worried with the storms that have been going on. People I think are rapidly going to move into a state of serious worry, and once people are afraid for their personal safety and personal livelihood, it’s not going to be hard for them to say, “forget science altogether, I’m going for God.”
MSE: As someone who teaches, what kind of role do you think education might have in getting a way out of the situation we’re in?
KO: Much more attention needs to be focused on the factors that affect how theory gets translated into practice. People need to be able to list off those factors the way kids sing the alphabet song.
In universities, while it may be difficult for students who haven’t been out there in the market or in the world and maybe can’t appreciate these real world factors, it’s amazing to be taught them because it helps you see afterwards when you’re out doing things, what’s going on.
I think that McGill could do a better job in trying to do what the MSE has started to try and do, which is to say: “If you have an environmental objective – say trying to preserve biodiversity in Canada – there are very clear answers to what’s going to prevent that from happening.”
Maybe in other fields, it’s okay for things to remain at a theory level, but in environmental protection, my measure of success for any environmental document is to ask “is it better for the environment that you wrote this thing?”
MSE: A lot of your talk was about Canada, and one of the things you mentioned is that you’d like to see the next election play out between a renewed Liberal party and moderate Conservatives. Do you think that could be enough to get us out of the quite dark picture you painted?
KO: Really, really far. I believe that to understand Stephen Harper’s agenda for oil and gas and the environment, you need to look at George Bush and Dick Cheney. And it’s exactly the same, except that it’s much harder for an American president to just ditch all environmental laws and get rid of the EPA, as I said in my speech. As we saw in Canada, it’s really easy for a Canadian prime minister to do that.
-Emilio Comay del Junco
Caring about the climate: MSE student’s educational initiative puts learners at centre of climate science
Despite the overwhelming evidence for the existence of climate change, news items bemoaning the lack of political will to tackle the issue are depressingly commonplace. And it’s not only a problem among policy makers. As Drew Bush, a PhD student at the MSE and the Department of Geography explained, “A lot of the literature about climate change perceptions suggests that the more information you give people, the less they care about the issue.”
For his PhD, Bush is working on developing an educational model to combat precisely this relationship between increased information and increased apathy. He is using a NASA-designed climate change modeling system to design hands-on curriculum for students across North America.
By making students an integral part of the scientific process, he hopes that this kind of interactive educational paradigm will help empower them to tackle climate change. As Bush explained, “Although more people are aware of climate change, most people don’t have the tools they need to understand it or to change their behaviour.”
Instead of simply absorbing information compiled by other researchers, Bush’s “hands on, citizen science curriculum” would allow students to become part of the research themselves. His computer-based model, developed by NASA, allows the user to control about eighty variables and produce results that approach the most sophisticated programs used by professional climate scientists.
Student-centered and driven projects like this will hopefully “bring human values into thinking about teaching and communicating climate change.” Bush is implementing his new curriculum with high-school, CEGEP and university students in Quebec and the rest of Canada as well as in the United States, including a joint-venture with the New York City public school system.
Though his project is focused on academic settings, Bush hopes that some of its lessons will apply more broadly, including in adult education. One of the key components of his research is to determine how various geographical and social factors contribute to the way people think about climate.
Bush cited the example of places “where the community is really based on natural resources that could be affected by climate change” as well as “other things that relate to place too, like politics and ideology and worldview,” and it is these factors that might provide valuable insights into bringing climate change into the public consciousness outside of an academic context.
-Emilio Comay del Junco
Protecting our domain: Jeff Rubin and David Suzuki talk about the environment and economy
Jeff Rubin and David Suzuki make something of an odd couple – on paper they even seem diametrically opposed. Suzuki is a research biologist and Canada’s very high profile environmental conscience, while Rubin is the former chief economist of CIBC World Markets.
Yet despite their apparently opposite CVs, Suzuki and Rubin are currently on a joint cross-country tour, combining their expertise and charismatic public personas to make a powerful case for overhauling the way we think about the economy and environment. Speaking to an audience that filled up McGill’s Pollack Hall, Suzuki and Rubin questioned our cultural obsession with unlimited growth before joining in a discussion moderated by CTV Montreal’s Tara Schwartz and answering questions from the audience.
Rubin’s talk was a distillation of his new book, entitled the End of Growth, in which he argues that rising oil prices will make it impossible to maintain the levels of economic growth we’ve become used to and reliant on. As he put it, “when you change the price of oil as dramatically as we’ve seen it change over the past decade – from twenty dollars a barrel to ninety – you don’t just change the speed at which you drive your car, you change the speed at which your economy can grow.“
The core of Rubin’s argument goes that as cheap oil – the kind that’s easy to drill for and refine – is used up, we start turning to harder to extract varieties, which because they require so much more labour, raise the price of oil. In fact, we’ve already seen this begin to happen with the expansion of Alberta’s tar sands. At first, high oil prices make previously unprofitable sources of petroleum appealing business prospects, but in the long run, these high prices make it impossible to sustain economic growth across the board.
Despite having left CIBC, Rubin is still very much an economist, not an ecologist. De does not attack the tar sands for their abysmal environmental record, but rather simply argues that given the way we are using our resources, the economy is going to shrink whether we want it to or not.
This is where Suzuki, arguably Canada’s most famous voice for environmentalism comes in. In his speech, Suzuki gave Rubin’s observations a moral force, arguing that economics has lost sight of its original purpose and that economists “seem to have forgotten that the word economics comes from the same word as ecology: the Greek word oikos means household or domain.”
And, as Suzuki noted, when the supposed economic health is prioritized over ecological concerns, politicians and business have their priorities reversed: “When we say we can’t afford to stop clearcut logging, that we can’t afford to stop dragging huge nets across the bottom of the ocean floors, we can’t afford tor educe greenhouse gasses because it costs to much, we elevate the economy above our very domain.”
Suzuki made clear that Rubin’s prediction of the end of growth isn’t a problem that needs to be solved, but a fact that needs to be embraced and adapted to if we want to avert ecological disaster. According to Rubin, this economic slowing down will happen whether we want it to or not, because of the increasing unaffordability of energy, including renewable energy.
During the discussion and question period following their talks, it became clear that neither Suzuki nor Rubin advocate a return to pre-industrial forms of society or believe that we have no choice in what our future will look like. We may live within a finite system, which means that growth cannot be limitless, but we can put our energy into making sure that the change in our approach to economic growth is planned and fair. But, to do that, we need to follow Rubin and Suzuki’s advice and start thinking differently about the economy.
- Emilio Comay del Junco
Feeding the world: McGill hosts fifth annual conference on global food security
Hundreds of scientists, policy makers and researchers gathered at McGill this October for the fifth annual Global Food Security Conference (GFSC). Among the spectrum of attendees were several students from the School of Environment and other McGill faculties who had the opportunity to meet specialists from around the world and insight into the theory and practice of food politics.
After the conference, I spoke to Zachary Goldberg, a third year student at the MSE and the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Science, who attended the conference as a sponsored student. He explained that in addition to “gaining international perspectives,” the GFSC was also an opportunity to head more diverse perspectives than are available at McGill, which he said could be “very FAO,” working within the framework of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Goldberg was particularly enthused by the discussion at the conference of small-scale farmers and local solutions to food security issues in developing countries. However, as he was quick to point out, the presenters at the GFSC were far from consensus on a variety of issues.
At one panel, focussing on the “Role of Societal Actors in Solving the Food Crisis“, there was heated debate amongst the presenters and audience members about whether a farmer centric approach was the right one. Although measures such as trade tariffs and government import and export policies can help maintain stable food prices and thus benefit rural small holder farmers, sustained high prices can have negative impacts on urban populations, including urban poor in developing nations.
More generally, there was heated debate throughout the three-day conference about the nature and effects of price volatility, which some argue has skyrocketed in the last five years, with major surges in the price of rice and wheat, seen notably in 2008 and 2009.
However, the conference’s keynote speaker, Dr. Jean Lebel of the International Development and Research Centre (IDRC), a federal development agency, gave a provative talk entitled “What goes up must come down.” He argued that the spikes in the prices of staple foods were temporary phenomena, and did not necessarily need to be considered the leading threat to global food security.
The next morning, Prabhu Pingali, Deputy-Director of Agricultre for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation presented a very different picture, pointing to massive changes in global income and development that have led to major changes in diet, and hence in demand for certain foods. In short, he argued that both large price fluctuations and high prices are here to stay for some time and that we need concrete solutions so that they do not have major effects on the world’s access to nutritious and adequate food.
Though there was a significant degree of debate and many competing claims both about the nature of global food systems and how best to manage, the conference had a collegial atmosphere – at least to an outsider. However, at times an explicitly environmental perspective seemed to be lacking. Goldberg had a simiar experience, noting that “there were almost no ecological perspectives.” In comparison, he said that environmental concerns such as climate change are “something they think about quite a bit” in Agriculture at McGill.
-Emilio Comay del Junco
A democratic and environmental manifesto: Silent Spring at Fifty
Wednesday September 26th 2012, 02:41 PM
Filed under: Uncategorized
Fifty years ago this Thursday, Silent Spring was published. Rachel Carson’s scientifically and politically compelling book about the misuse of pesticides is often credited with sparking the environmental movement as we know it. In addition to presenting powerful evidence for the harmful effects of chemical pesticides, such as DDT, the book was nothing short of “democratic manifesto” as Carson’s biographer Linda Lear.
Yet despite this impressive legacy, it was ignorance about Carson that prompted Lear to write her biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, which appeared in 1997. Teaching environmental history to undergraduates at George Washington University, Lear was stunned to find that none of her students knew about the woman she described as “one of the key thinkers of the twentieth century about where we are and where we’re going.” Since then, Lear has devoted much of her professional life to researching and representing Carson – she has edited a volume of her unpublished speeches and writings and written introductions to new editions of all of her published work.
Though climate change has eclipsed pesticide use and other concerns as the dominant issue in environmental science and politics, Lear believes that Carson’s work still has a profound relevance. “Fundamentally, her book comes down to seeing environmental rights as human rights,” she explained. “And that I think is the galvanizing issue. It isn’t just about whose world it is … the environment is us and we are it.” Such basic philosophical concerns are part of what made Carson’s work so powerful, and what continue to make it relevant today.
In a political climate Lear described as “so fractured and so poisoned … by the questions of whose science is right and what science is,” Silent Spring reminds us “that everything is connected to everything else. And I think that is still the issue. Until we see ourselves as part of dual systems, of interconnected systems, we’re not going to go anywhere.”
For Carson, this meant not only viewing nature in a particular light, but had deep political consequences. Lear suggests that what she “was really suggesting was this: ‘You don’t believe it now, but the government and the legal system can lie to you because of money and because they want to protect themselves.’”
Nonetheless, despite the valuable lessons Silent Spring offers, the impact it had when it was released seems hard to repeat. Lear noted that, though “there have been some very good books on global warming and climate change … there hasn’t been a single one that’s been able to wrap them all together and get people galvanized in quite the same way” as Silent Spring. In a recent article for the New York Times Magazine, Eliza Griswold notes that although high profile environmentalists like Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Kolbert and Al Gore “are widely considered responsible for shaping our view of global warming, … none was able to galvanize a nation into demanding concrete change in quite the way that Carson did.“
Lear took a slightly more optimistic approach. She noted that although “environment has become a real battlefield now,” Silent Spring was primarily “about a moral issue: what are we doing to the environment and should we be doing that.” She compared Carson’s book to the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its ability to distil a burning moral and political question into a wildly successful book and noted, hopefully, that “Another book taking a moral issue of our time could also have that kind of impact it were written well.”
Linda Lear visited McGill from 20-21 September, 2012 to participate in a variety of events for the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, including a public lecture co-hosted by the McGill School of Environment and the Marcel Desautels Institute for Integrated Management.
-Emilio Comay del Junco
Silent Spring at Fifty: Talking to Rachel Carson biographer Linda Lear
What brought you to Rachel Carson and sustained your interest in her over several decades?
Originally it was because I was teaching environmental history to undergraduates and none of them knew who Rachel Carson was. Some of them had heard of Silent Spring, but there was a huge gap in their education in highschool. So my initial reaction was that this was terrible, because this is one of the key thinkers of the twentieth century about where we are and where we’re going. And it’s a book that is not only rich in a scientific way – it’s rich in public policy as well. So I began to write a classroom biography to remedy the situation. Then I found I had a whole bunch of personal connections with Rachel Carson that I didn’t know about. We were from the same area outside of Pittsburgh; her mother and my grandmother were in the same women’s circle, which I found out after my grandmother’s death. My high school biology teacher turned out to have been one of Rachel’s best friends in college and one of the four students in science at Rachel’s college – there were only four allowed to be in science [ed.: Carson attended Pennsylvania Women’s College in Pittsburgh in the late 1920s]. Finally my parents moved to an area that was a former cranberry bog that Rachel used to come to with her mentor from Chatham College to study wildflowers. So I sort of had these three personal connections and I turned from just writing a classroom biography to writing a big biography. And no one had been able to do that because of various problems with the Carson estate. So I just began to interview all the people who were still alive and knew Carson. Thank goodness I did, because I took about two hundred interviews and now they’re all dead except for one man and he’ll be one hundred next year. So the book has some important staying power because of the original research that went in to it with people that actually knew her and could talk about what it was like to live through Silent Spring.
What was the research process like and what kind of obstacles were there to writing the book?
The research process was first to read everything Carson ever wrote. I got a fellowship to the Beinecke library at Yale where her papers are. And then I interviewed all these people and started writing at the Smithsonian. The hang-up with the estate was that there were some sensitivities in Carson’s life. They were loath to have a biography and made it impossible to do by charging a lot of money to quote Carson. I was able to get in because I did my homework the other way. I went the back streets and got these other people to say that I wasn’t some hack and was going to write something judiciously done that wasn’t just an exposé.
Silent Spring had such a consciousness changing effect when it came out. We have a different set of concerns, but it seems like there’s a need for that kind of change again. Do you think that kind of public impact is something that’s still possible?
There’s an article coming out in the New York Times Magazine this Sunday by Eliza Griswold asking exactly if it’s possible for a book today to make the kind of splash that Silent Spring made. And a lot of people are convinced that it isn’t, both because of the historic day in which we live and the multiplicity of issues but also because policy questions that make no one able to speak for as many as Carson could speak for. However, I think the author of the article and I disagree on that – I think it’s kind of a bogus question. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin a hundred years before Carson and it made exactly the kind of splash that Silent Spring did a hundred years later. And who knows, maybe that same kind of book could be written today. Uncle Tom’s Cabin took a moral question, slavery. Rachel’s book is also about a moral issue: what are we doing to the environment and should we be doing that. I think there are similarities between the two. Another book taking a moral issue of our time could also have that kind of impact it were written well. That’s a big caveat because no one can write like Carson did; she was one of the best writers of the twentieth century.
Pesticides seem quite distant from current environmental concerns, where climate change is so dominant. What is the continued relevance of Silent Spring?
The environment has become a real battlefield now; there are so many competing interests. There have been some very good books on global warming and climate change, but there hasn’t been a single one that’s been able to wrap them all together and get people galvanized in quite the same way. I think that the body politic is so fractured and so poisoned really by the questions of whose science is right and what is science – how do we know for sure and that since science is never certain maybe it [climate change] doesn’t exist and it’s all a hoax. There’s that aspect that Carson didn’t face in her day.
But even Carson was attacked with very similar arguments.
Do you think there’s something about how broad an issue climate change is?
I think so. Carson went into groundwater and air as well as carcinogens and so forth, but her real point was to galvanize people to take some action and to morally question their government and not just to sit back and assume that whatever they say must be right.
Silent Spring isn’t just about pesticides though, but about having a ecological consciousness.
Right. That everything is connected to everything else. And I think that is still the issue. Until we see ourselves as part of dual systems, of interconnected systems, we’re not going to go anywhere.
Fundamentally, her book comes down to seeing environmental rights as human rights. And that I think is the galvanizing issue. It isn’t just about whose world it is – it’s our world and the environment is us and we are it. The politicization is going to happen no matter what, but if we frame the discussion of environmental rights in the framework of a human rights discussion – that environmental rights are human rights – then we see two, dual, systems as one. And that’s the only hope.
Carson worked for the federal government and DDT was developed for the military. How can Carson help us chart a path between the necessary role of government and also the danger of government and military dominance in scientific research?
When she makes a speech that’s in my book Lost Woods to the Garden Club of America she says that when you here someone make a claim about something, you have to ask “who speaks and why?” And that was quite a revolutionary statement. She was being very political there, I think. What she was really suggesting was this: “You don’t believe it now, but the government and the legal system can lie to you because of money and because they want to protect themselves.” Money and power are the operating system, even more so today. So in suggesting that scientists and government officials was a huge blow and it was revolutionary. I see many seeds of social revolution in Silent Spring – in suggesting that governments lie, that we have to be vigilant, that money and not just goodwill is a motive, in suggesting that environmental rights are human rights. It’s really a democratic manifesto.
-Emilio Comay del Junco
The Lost Bird Project: “Forgetting is Another Kind of Extinction”
In late March, the MSE assisted in the promotion of a film titled, “The Lost Bird Project,” which was showcased at FIFA (the International Festival of Films on Art) in Montreal.
The film tells the story of Todd McGrain, an artist whose passion for birds leads him to create five enormous statues of North American birds that were driven to extinction by the modern age. He wants to use his sculptures to commemorate the lives of these birds, and to remind the world of this loss.
But for McGrain, the creation of the sculptures proved to be the easy part of his quest. The film documents McGrain’s journey as he travels across eastern North America in hopes of finding the perfect location to place each sculpture. This might be the place where the bird was last seen or a common habitat for the bird. It needs to be a place in the wild, in the bird’s natural habitat, but needs to also be somewhere where people will see it regularly. After choosing each location, McGrain battles with park rangers and state officials to gain permission to place his sculptures.
McGrain hopes that his works will remind passers-by of the absence of the birds and will teach them that forgetting is another kind of extinction. If we can hold onto the memories of what has been lost, perhaps we can prevent more loss in the future.
LOOP – Life Out of Plastic
Irene Hofmeijer, B.Sc. May 2010, Major Environment - Ecological Determinants of Health Domain - Population
MSE Grad Starts Up Environmental Social Enterprise in Peru
Irene Hofmeijer, who graduated from the McGill School of Environment program in 2010, has taken her knowledge down south to Peru, where she has started up a social enterprise called LOOP (Life Out of Plastic), which raises awareness about plastic pollution.
The idea was born one evening at her Prince Arthur apartment in Montreal, when her roommate encouraged her that if she really wanted to make a difference, she needed to “pick one issue, just one that really gets to you, and try to fix it.” Heading this advice, Hofmeijer remembered her recent trip to Peru, where she was appalled by the plastic bag pollution she had seen. “No one recycles plastics in Peru,” she says, so she decided to come up with a plan to introduce resusable shopping bags made from recycled bottles into the Peruvian market.
After graduation, Hofmeijer worked as a research assistant under professors Lea Berrang-Ford and James Ford. During that summer, she was sent to the Peruvian Amazon to carry out field work. “It was saddening,” she says, “to see the amount of plastics accumulating along the Amazon river due to the lack of waste management services in rural communities.”
For Hofmeijer, that was the final straw. After her contract as a research assistant ended in January 2011, she moved to Peru and founded LOOP. “The day we got the final product set up was one of the happiest days of my life,” says Hofmeijer. Setting up the company was not easy, especially since Hofmeijer insisted that all their products be 100% Peruvian.
In just over a year, the small business has seen extraordinary success. LOOP has commercialized locally manufactured reusable bags made from rPET fiber (a textile made from recycles plastic bottles). They have introduced recycling services, organized educational campaigns, and engaged in beach clean-ups.
However, environmental issues are relatively new to the Peruvian discourse, and Hoffmeijer says that getting people to care about the problem and its habits is a big challenge that LOOP faces daily.
Hofmeijer reflects back happily on her MSE degree. “How I miss the MSE!” she laughs. She particularly values the systems-thinking approach that she learned from the MSE, and says it is extremely valuable in the work that she does today. She particularly has fond memories of ENVR 302, 400 and 401. “I even found myself looking back at ENVR 200 slides the other day for a class I was going to teach at a school. I really wish I still had that textbook!”
Hofmeijer recommends that MSE students take an economics or finance class if they have the opportunity. In both the work she does with LOOP and in her research work, she has constantly come across accounting and budgeting and MSE students would be well-equipped to handle these important tasks if they study finance during their degree.
Finally, Hofmeijer implores MSE students to get involved as much as possible with the MSE community. Hofmeijer was an executive member of MESS (the McGill Environment Students’ Society) in both her third and fourth years at McGill, serving as co-president in her final year. “The skills I gained from being involved in MESS have been extremely helpful over the last year,” she says.
From Montreal to Peru, Hofmeijer’s story is an inspiration to MSE students, reminding them that they are capable of accomplishing anything they put their minds to.
For more information about LOOP, visit the website: www.lifeouotfplastic.com or facebook group: www.facebook.com/lifeoutofplastic.