The Carsonian Revolution

This year, the modern environmental movement turns 40. Earth Day in 1970 marked the first mass environmental protest, and whilst some ecological ideas have a much older pedigree, it is only during the past four decades that they have attracted mainstream attention. As the disappointment of the Copenhagen climate talks sinks in, it is easy to be pessimistic about the future of environmentalism. But I would argue that, taking the longer-term perspective, it is still very much in the ascendant.

John McNeill, in his seminal book on environmental history, Something New Under the Sun (2000), argued that the emergence of ecological concerns represents a fundamental change in human thinking. “Between 1960 and 1990 a remarkable and potentially earth-shattering (earth-healing?) shift took place,” he writes; “Pollution no longer signified industrial wealth but became a crime against nature and society. … This extraordinary intellectual and cultural shift started in the rich countries but emerged almost everywhere.” McNeill concludes: “The full meaning of this new current will take decades, conceivably centuries, to reveal itself.”

A decade since those words were written, environmentalism has embedded itself still further into mainstream politics and culture. Despite their clear shortcomings, the Copenhagen talks received unprecedented coverage in the world’s media, as the graph below from media researcher Max Boykoff shows. Over the Christmas period, James Cameron’s eco-epic Avatar won over audiences and critics alike, going on to smash box office records. Saci Lloyd’s popular teen fiction novel The Carbon Diaries is being considered for adaptation by Hollywood, whilst bestselling author Ian McEwan’s next novel, Solar, due out in March, is about a climatologist.

So whilst it is incumbent upon cynical activists like me to criticize the slow progress made by politicians in tackling climate change, it’s also important to remind ourselves how far such concerns have penetrated popular culture and thought.

Modern ecology challenges us to rethink our world-views to an extent equal to the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. During the 16th century, Copernicus and his followers turned conventional Church teachings on their head by showing that the Earth orbited the Sun, not vice versa, thus unseating humanity from the centre of creation. Darwin – whose bicentenary was celebrated effusively by the scientific community last year – revolutionised our understanding of biology, the natural world, and our own origins, with seismic repercussions for European religion and, later, in genetics and medicine. As Thomas Kuhn wrote in his classic text, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1957), the cultural and political ramifications of these developments stretched far beyond scientific circles:

To describe the innovation initiated by Copernicus as the simple interchange of the position of the Earth and Sun is to make a molehill out of a promontory in the development of human thought. If Copernicus’ proposal had had no consequences outside astronomy, it would have been neither so long delayed nor so strenuously resisted.

Ecology, and the understanding that our species has the power to affect biological and chemical processes on a planetary scale, poses a similar fundamental challenge to the way we think about humanity and its place in the world. Not only are we a young species, descended from apes, inhabiting a small rock very far from the centre of the universe; we are also an upstart organism, with a profoundly destructive impact on our fellow species and biosphere, which is undermining our own ability to survive. In honour of Rachel Carson, the American ecologist whose book Silent Spring did much to kick-start modern environmentalism in the 1960s, I propose this transformation of thinking be given a name: the Carsonian Revolution.

Of course, this revolution has not – and will not – sweep through society unopposed. Consider the following statement, made by a man writing in 1980:

One of the most interesting things to have happened in the past decade or so has been the emergence of the so-called ‘ecology’ movement. By the end of the Seventies… [there is] beginning to dawn, all over the world, a new attitude to nature – an awareness that man is inextricably part of some great Whole, that he disturbs the balance of the Whole at its peril, and that somehow he must find the way to restore the harmony between himself and nature.

The author of these words is Christopher Booker ((Christopher Booker, The Seventies (1980), pp. 314-15.)), now one of the UK’s most vehement climate deniers. In recent columns in the Telegraph, Booker regularly attacks “warmists” for their belief in global warming, conveniently forgetting his past fondness for environmentalism. In 1980, he was rather more of a fan, declaring his support for green thinker Fritjof Capra, condemning the ‘arrogance of humanism’, and even aligning himself with New Agers (“‘The dawning of the Age of Aquarius’ constitutes part of the most remarkable shift in Western consciousness for several hundred years”).

That someone so seemingly open to new ideas can turn so rabidly against them is a timely warning for the environmental movement. On the one hand, we have clearly come a long, long way since 1970, successfully forcing environmental issues to the forefront of the public consciousness and political agendas. On the other, the Carsonian Revolution is no less susceptible than its Copernican and Darwinian precursors to attacks from opponents. Copernicus and Darwin had to confront the doctrinal might of the established Church and the conservatism of a Christian public when propagating their views; and though ‘flat-earther’ has now become a byword for stupidity, there are still many Creationists. We can expect resistance from the fossil fuel lobby and climate contrarians to continue for many decades yet.

As for the ongoing political implications of the Carsonian Revolution, I leave the last word to a revolutionary famous for thinking in the long-term. When Zhou Enlai, foreign minister of Mao’s China, was asked about the significance of the French Revolution some 180 years after the event, he replied that it was still too early to tell. So it is, after only 40 years, with modern environmentalism.