Learning from the Past

Published: October 2nd, 2012

By Sarah Parkinson

Looking Backwards to Move Forwards in a Year of Anniversaries

Happy anniversary to Silent Spring, The Limits to Growth, and other environmental milestones! (Image credit: lou.veyret via Flickr)

While making progress on social and environmental issues requires looking forward with vision and resolve, there’s also good reason to look backwards. This year marks the anniversary of a number of historical events important to the current push for a sustainable, equitable society—2012 is the 40th anniversary of World Environment Day, the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, and the 20th anniversary of the EPA’s environmental justice work, to name a few. It’s also the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring and the 40th anniversary of The Limits to Growth, two of the most influential and highly debated environmental books ever written. While we can learn a lot about the issues by reading the books themselves, we can learn just as much about the environmental movement by studying how the titles have influenced individuals, debates, and policies in the years since their publication.

Because of its 50th anniversary on September 27, Silent Spring has been showing up in environmental blogs and news dailies a lot recently, including the New York Times, USA Today, and The Guardian. The theme of many of the articles is the same—Rachel Carson inspired today’s environmental movement—but the lessons that people take away from Silent Spring are numerous. In his September 27 column, Leo Hickman documented the reactions of himself and others:

“I learned from Carson that if we don’t make peace with nature we won’t make peace with ourselves.”  —Satish Kumar

“We can change things for the better. But first we have to listen and learn humility and value wisdom above cleverness or success or point-scoring or winning in any pathetic way. And even now Rachel Carson is as good a model for this as anyone.”  —Monty Don

“[Silent Spring] taught its readers to be suspicious of grand claims made by vested commercial interests” –Leo Hickman

A separate opinion column from the New York Times included this reaction: “We’ve all got to stop ignoring uncertainty, and instead learn to manage it. Fifty years later, I think that’s one of the primary lessons of Silent Spring.” —Kenny Walker

Similarly, 2012 has seen a lot of focus on The Limits to Growth. In March, the Smithsonian Institution hosted a full-day event celebrating the study, including speeches from authors Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers on the lessons of LTG and talks by others in the field such as Lester Brown and Richard Alley. In the 40 years since it’s original publication, the science behind The Limits to Growth has remained largely intact, and yet it has been a source of contention and denial among economists, politicians, and the public. As Jorgen Randers summarized with a quote from GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt, “We know the solution. But we don’t like it.” An article published by the Solutions Journal takes a deeper look at this history, describing both how the debate around LTG got derailed by criticism and how the study can serve as part of a solution even four decades after its publication. The authors conclude by saying, “Clearly, the book has withstood the test of time and, indeed, has only become more relevant.”

For both Silent Spring and The Limits to Growth, history shows that the stories of these two books are so much more than the words contained within their pages.

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About The Donella Meadows Project

The mission of the Donella Meadows Project is to preserve Donella (Dana) H. Meadows’s legacy as an inspiring leader, scholar, writer, and teacher; to manage the intellectual property rights related to Dana’s published work; to provide and maintain a comprehensive and easily accessible archive of her work online, including articles, columns, and letters; to develop new resources and programs that apply her ideas to current issues and make them available to an ever-larger network of students, practitioners, and leaders in social change.  Read More

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