Rachel Carson, revisited

Lead, follow or get out of the way. Such a pithy imperative, this battle cry of the impatient. The guy holding the paintbrush gets the last word on wall colors. But, there are pitfalls…

One of our grad students at WAAC just painted the back stairwell. I peeked in while he was busily at work and made some comment about the colors. My acceptable spectrum is extremely limited as I am one of those dreary Washingtonians who wears too much black and grey. (I have branched out a bit. Today I’m wearing brown.) So, the color selection of the back stairwell isn’t, well, my thing, but as Alec helpfully pointed out, if I don’t like it I am free to repaint.

I spend a lot of time in my exhibition. That’s kind of like saying “I spend a lot of time at home.” It seems pointlessly obvious, but time spent in familiar places can provoke new thoughts or just absent-minded disattenuation. Giving in to disattenuation is the danger. That’s why we can walk past, step over, and ignore environmental conditions that should rightly enrage us. Litter, broken things, dead street trees, idling buses…doors propped open. Instead, moving through familiar places in a state of mindfulness can nudge us to action. Alec reached his tipping point walking through the WAAC back stairwell, past the pinpricked, scuffed, and dingy walls. And he, unlike the rest of us, did something about it.

As I take one group after another through Green Community, I challenge myself to continue to see it anew. Recently, Rachel Carson’s quote from 1962 seemed more prominent than usual.

“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery - not over nature but of ourselves.”

The early 60’s produced a raft of literature on building and the environment that deserves a re-read…or a first read for all of us game enough to admit that we never read them in the first place. Reyner Banham’s The Well-Tempered Environment. Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. And, of course, copious verbiage from the early prophets of sustainability Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri. (Paolo deserves a post of his own, so look for that next week.)

I’ve reached a sort of intellectual tipping point myself. I realized that I can't keep talking about the tragedy of the commons, quoting Rachel Carson, or tossing around the phrase "triple bottom line" so liberally (although as a liberal, I cannot do otherwise) any more without having read the sources. And so, I am. My tragedy of the commons quest became a regress back from Garrett Hardin to William Forster Lloyd. (see earlier post) Now I'm deep into Silent Spring, as nightmarish today is ever. I can't help wondering about the streams, communities, and wildlife refuges she wrote about. Did they recover? Or did we really irreversibly screw things up?

The thinking that led to the catastrophic actions Carson writes about seemed at the time perfectly rational, but tragically naive and shortsighted. Sadly, there was no dearth of leadership, no end to the number of experts weighing with recommendations. Spray, baby, spray. And there were plenty of followers too, following their leaders right off an ecological cliff. The legacy of so much of the leadership Carson describes is more than just a toxic landscape; it’s a toxic distrust of leadership in general, of the expert, big science. With more complex problems facing us than even Carson foresaw—climate change, for one—we need to know that ours are leaders to trust, leaders worth following. We can not be inattentive. Carson lays out the dilemma of leadership and trust better than I can:

“Who has decided—who has the right to decide—for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.”

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