Welcome to Living Classics, our new book review column. Upcoming issues of Alternativeswill include a look back on classic environmental books and reports. We’ve dusted off old copies of Silent Springthe Berger Report, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, and more to see how they resonate today.

We invite you to suggest your favourite living classics, and most of all, enjoy.

There’s no end of explanations for the recent greening of politics: a weirdly warm and stormy winter, energy insecurities, Katrina. And then there’s Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth; it testifies to one person’s ability to reshape the debate. This has happened before. Forty-five years ago, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring voiced inchoate fears of a poisoned planet, thereby compelling the creation of environmental politics.

Gore and Carson make a curious pair. One is a public figure, accustomed to attention and power. The other was happiest with family, and a few friends and colleagues, and devoted many solitary hours to the writing life. The contrast is evident in their works: Carson displays logic and eloquence, but never herself; Gore never leaves the stage. Carson’s evidence speaks for her through striking accounts of ugly and unlikely matters: chemical poisons, the formation of soil, the metabolism of cells. Silent Spring has no photos and few drawings; Carson’s crisis is not just silent, but unseen. In contrast, Gore’s language is visual: the jagged ascent of carbon dioxide, glaciers melting off mountains, hurricanes pounding cities, rising seas swamping coastlines.

  These images also reflect the man. Just as Gore’s status puts him not so much within, as above the rest of the environmental movement, so his view of the world is an elevated one. Jetting around the planet – one day in China, another in Antarctica – his lofty perspective is mirrored in his images of weather and the Earth seen from space, and of environmental catastrophes in distant places – floods in Switzerland, India, and China; droughts in Chad, Egypt and Texas – that convey by juxtaposition a single message of global change. His view is accentuated by panoptic climate science itself: reliant on satellite data, global modelling and changes recorded in the polar ice caps.

In contrast, Carson, writing at the birth of the Space Age, conveys an understanding of nature gained not via satellite, but by gazing into tidal pools and watching birds in the backyard.  One imagines dirt under her fingernails when she wrote about soil life or her sadness on hearing of robins dropping dead after eating worms laced with DDT. Yet, even in her time, a global environmental consciousness – propelled by concerns about radioactive fallout – was beginning to emerge. To Carson, chemical poisons were akin to the by-products of nuclear weapons testing: both demonstrated our novel capacity to contaminate every inch of the planet. 

Carson and Gore faced the same challenge, to persuade non-scientists to accept some complicated science, but they responded in different ways. Carson piled on the evidence, seeking to persuade by weight of impersonal scientific authority. (Silent Spring includes 55 pages of technical references.) In contrast, Gore makes little mention of the massive literature on climate change. Instead, he asserts its authority through images of scientists at work. Their results, he implies, can be trusted by virtue of their display of effort and expertise. Scientists are also introduced as friends – just as Gore trusts them, so can his viewers and readers. Their reliability, Gore emphasizes, is in sharp contrast with the deceptions and distortions of the hired guns of the oil companies and the Bush Administration. Ultimately, as he often notes, An Inconvenient Truth is his personal voyage of discovery, and thus, its persuasiveness depends on his own credibility.  The contrast with Carson – self-effacing to the end – is remarkable.

Silent Spring and An Inconvenient Truth exhibit ample awareness of their political contexts.

Gore’s frustration with the current president is palpable and in striking contrast with John F. Kennedy’s receptiveness to Carson. (She lectured at the White House on The Male Screw Worm.) But most of all, the works exhibit how environmental politics have changed. Gore ends by suggesting what individuals can do: drive less, bike more, turn off the lights. In contrast, Carson urged transformation: coexistence with, rather than control of, nature, and a wresting of decisions over deadly chemicals away from agencies that heed only their own narrow purposes. One wonders if Silent Spring would have been as transformative if it had ended by merely advising consumers to seek out pesticide-free lettuce. Perhaps in the 1960s one could be more confident of the possibilities of collective, not just individual action.

But some striking similarities also help explain why Silent Spring was so influential, and whyAn Inconvenient Truth may prove to be. Both seek not only to present information, but also to convey a particular view of nature. Carson portrayed a nature in harmony, easily upset by ignorant meddling. Gore’s view is similar, but on a larger scale: humans may disrupt not only the ecology of orchards and meadows, but also ocean currents and polar ice caps. Drawing on language unknown in Carson’s time, Gore also invokes nonlinearity and the specter of sudden change. Both had a similar view of the central problem: humanity’s dangerous combination of technological brilliance and lack of wisdom. Gore not only agreed with Carson on this point, but learned it from Silent Spring, which his mother had read to him.

Above all, both see the issue as not just scientific, but moral. Gore tells of his son’s accident, his sister’s death from cancer, his own defeat in 2000 – experiences that forced him to reassess his life and values. Carson never mentioned herself or her family, yet her account may be even more intimate. She explains how DDT and other chemicals exert their effects even within ourselves. Ecology, she insists, includes our own bodies. And her passion sometimes displaces scientific objectivity, as when she asks whether “any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized,” or when she insists that the “‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy.”

Carson would understand and approve of Gore’s moral crusade, but might wonder if the times call for more than turning down the thermostat.

Stephen Bocking teaches environmental and resource studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

Stephen Bocking, a regular contributor to Alternatives, is professor at and chair of the Environmental and Resource Science/Studies Program at Trent University and author of A\J's EcoLogic blog.

You can follow Stephen on Twitter at @BockingStephen or read his blog: Environment, History and Science.

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