What Makes a Revolution?

Ingredients for environmental awakening

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006

In the 1990s the inhabitants of Shishmaref, an Inupiat village on the Alaskan island of Sarichef, noticed that sea ice was forming later and melting earlier. The change meant that they could not safely hunt seal as they had traditionally and that a protective skirt of ice no longer buffered the small town from destructive storm waves. Shishmaref was being undone by a warming world. To survive, the villagers recently decided to move to the mainland. Soon Shishmaref on Sarichef will be gone.

Pithy and powerful, the opening of Elizabeth Kolbert's book about global warming, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, echoes that of another book that also originated as a series of articles in the New Yorker magazine. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring starts in much the same way, with a fable about a town that lived in harmony with its surroundings and that fell silent. The question is, Can Field Notes galvanize a national movement to curb global warming in the same way Silent Spring sparked one to curb the use of pesticides?

Silent Spring's success as a transformative force came about because of Carson's scientific authority, the way she shaped her argument, the immediate nature of the threat, and the many movements afoot in American society in 1962. Carson was a scientist, and she had credibility when she described how synthetic chemicals, DDT in particular, affect living things. That authority convinced her readers and withstood critics and attacks by the chemical industry. Carson's writing was direct and her rhetoric carefully chosen, as her biographer Linda Lear and other scholars have noted. Carson appreciated Americans' fears about nuclear fallout: something invisible was contaminating their food. She made clear DDT's similar qualities: "No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves." Concerned that her audience might be solely women--mothers worried about the health of their children--she also spoke directly to hunters, outdoorsmen. She deliberately sought, and got, the widest possible reach.

Although Carson was describing something people could not see in their food, she was writing about something they could viscerally understand: they saw pesticides being sprayed. They could connect their health with their surroundings, and that kind of connection can lead to powerful activism. It did after Silent Spring. It did in the late 1970s in Woburn, Mass., as Jonathan Harr describes in A Civil Action, the story of families whose children were dying of leukemia. It did in 1978 at Love Canal in New York State. It continues to do so in communities around the world. If we can see the problem--in our family, in our neighborhood, in the natural world we are intimate with--it is not necessarily easier to tackle, but it becomes more immediate, more mobilizing.

Just as important as Carson's credentials, her literary brilliance and the tangibility of her topic was the time at which she was writing. In the 1960s Americans were energetically exercising their freedom of transformation. As Adam Rome, an environmental historian at Pennsylvania State University, has written, the environmental movement that blossomed after Silent Spring owed a great deal to the Democratic agenda set in the mid-1950s, to the growing activism of middle-class women, and to a counterculture raised in fear of the bomb and the planet's end. The power of Silent Spring lay in what people and politicians did with it.

Field Notes from a Catastrophe is not arriving on a similar scene. There is not much widespread U.S. protest about anything--not about the war with Iraq, not about the administration's links to oil and other industry, not about the diminishing of our civil rights. It is strangely quiet here. Americans are also burned out on environmental catastrophism. Many people have noted that with each new catastrophe that has not appeared--the extinction of nearly everything by the end of last year and food shortages, to mention two examples--doomsayers have lost more of their clout and their audience. The problems grow, but apathy has set in.

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