Last week was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the book that many say launched the environmental movement, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the first Earth Day in 1970.
In the early ‘70s, I was an impressionable high school student interested in science and the outdoors. I remember reading “The Environmental Handbook,” Frank Graham’s “Since Silent Spring” and “The Whole Earth Catalog.” I was spellbound by Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic domes. And I honestly believed that we should throw away all the cars (just like in the Three Dog Night song).
I also remember telling my dad that he should commute to his downtown job on a bike. Funny thing is, about 20 years later, after taking Metro for a while and then carpooling, I was driving my car into D.C. every day, too.
I now drive an Acura, hardly a boon to the environment. But I did own a Prius before that.
So this gets me to my point: why do we have such a fractured and schizophrenic view of the environment? On recycling day, we dutifully put out our recycling for pickup, but when we’re not at home, we think nothing of tossing a water bottle into a trash can.
We say we’re doing our part to save resources, then we go water the lawn or wash the car. We walk and ride bikes on weekends but drive SUVs during the week. In national polls, we say the government should better regulate pollution and greenhouse emissions, but we get upset when government mandates standards.
This past weekend, I attended a retreat where we read and discussed a book called “Hope for Creation” by Matthew Sleeth. The book made us think about leading greener lives, and I was struck by the little things I could be doing. For example, converting my light bulbs to those new “pigtail” bulbs could save four times the energy of a standard light bulb. On top of that, they are supposed to last 10 times longer.
The suggestions that got me thinking the most were in the area of gardening and lawn care. I have always admired lawns that are well-fertilized, weed-free and neatly cut. I’ve viewed flower beds as mostly for “show,” with no special ecological purpose.
My friend John Dodge, who led our retreat, made me reexamine those notions. He’s become a big advocate of growing native species and not being so fussy about the lawn. When we drove back from Richmond on Sunday, John showed me his yard in Annandale.
He got pretty excited about his native plant experiments. One bush, in particular, was teeming with insect life. Bees and bugs were buzzing all over the place. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” John exclaimed. Other plants had leaves that had clearly been munched on. Again, evidence that good things were happening in the garden!
I laughed and said that I always tried to kill any bugs that ate on my plants. But having some munching, I have learned, is actually the sign of a healthy ecosystem. So maybe I’ll cut down on those insecticides and fertilizer.
Rachel Carson died just two years after the publication of her watershed book. Had she lived, what would she make of today’s world? On the one hand: a growing environmental awareness and huge advances in conservation and resource management. On the other hand: perhaps far too little, too late to reverse the alarming trends she first identified in 1962. It’s hard to know how the sequel is going to turn out, but let’s hope the ending is a good one.