Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rachel Carson: Silent Spring


Rachel Carson was born in Pennsylvania in 1907. Childhood fascinations with nature and writing lead her to study English then Biology. After a stint at the US Bureau of Fisheries and its successor the Fish and Wildlife Service, she started writing on natural history in the 1950s with her famous sea trilogy, covering all aspects of marine life. But it was her 1962 book, Silent Spring, on the impact on nature of pesticides and other toxic man-made substances, which catapulted into the vanguard of environmental thinking. The book has been named as one of the 100 most influential ever, and led to the banning of many such substances and inspiring a grassroots environmental movement. Carson was diagnosed with cancer during the writing of the book, and her illness slowed its final drafting. Following extensive treatment, she died of a heart attack in 1964. Time Magazine named her as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century (having denounced Silent Spring as “unsound” at the time of its publication).


The publication of Silent Spring is often held up as the birth of the modern environmental movement. Its title comes from the short, apocalyptic opening chapter which describes a fictional small American town where pesticides and herbicides have destroyed the natural environment – there are no birds to welcome Spring. This vision was inspired by the after-effects that the blanket spraying of any ‘pest’ or ‘weed’ with insecticides and pesticides in the 1950s was having on the wildlife of vast tracts of America and much of the world.

The bulk of the book explains how these chemicals work and what their effect is on different aspects of the biosphere including water, soil and air. Carson points out that the simplistic safety tests for pesticides did not take into consideration the following key factors:
  • bioaccumulation: a 0.02 part per million dose of chemicals into a lake can result in a fatal 1600 part per million concentration in the blood of a grebe as the chemicals concentrate up the food chain;
  • ‘the cocktail effect’: where combinations of chemicals can have a toxic effect many times the effect of either individually;
  • longer term effects on cells such as genetic damage and cancer.
These issues were understood by the scientific community, but were not more widely appreciated. Carson also points out that the blanket spraying approach is useless in the long run. Due to their short lifecycles, insects develop resistance very quickly, sometimes within months whereas creatures higher in the food chain (including humans) may take thousands of years to adapt. In addition, the chemicals often knock out the target pest’s natural predators and sometimes by destroying one creature, they open an ecological niche for an even worse pest.

For a reasonably technically-minded book, Silent Spring became very widely read, appearing as a Book of the Month Club selection and in serialised form in the New Yorker. It sold a million copies in the 16 months after its release.

The response to Silent Spring from the chemicals industry, associated Governmental departments and the press was predictably ferocious. The problem for the industry was that their pillorying of a modest middle-aged naturalist as “hysterical” and “communist” simply drew more attention to the book, and the damage caused by these chemicals. They had another problem. Carson had been meticulous about the precision of her research and many in the independent scientific community stood up and agreed with her analysis.

And President John F Kennedy was listening. He commissioned a scientific review which endorsed Carson’s conclusions. DDT was banned for most uses in the USA in 1972 and the ban has been credited with the comeback of the bald eagle and other endangered species. Many other countries, including the UK, banned it soon afterwards. DDT and many of the other chemicals identified in Silent Spring were banned for agricultural purposes globally in 2004 under the Stockholm Convention. Silent Spring is also credited for the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, splitting the enforcement of environmental standards from the departments supporting agriculture and industry.

The philosophical influence of Silent Spring was an awakening to the reality that we cannot simply obliterate the parts of Mother Nature that we don’t like. We are part of the myriad cycles of natural systems whether we like it or not. These complex webs of cause and effect can mean what appears to be a short term ‘good’ (eg destroying a ferocious pest to improve food yields) can turn out to be an medium-long term bad (eg by destroying the pest’s predators, the pest can bounce back stronger than ever). As Carson herself puts it:

"The 'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of 
the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed 
that nature exists for the convenience of man."

Silent Spring is cited as an influence by Al Gore and Arne Næss amongst many others. Writing in the Guardian in 2002, poet John Burnside liken Carson to ‘Tank Man’ in Tiananmen Square, a lone frail figure halting the juggernaut of the chemicals industry in its tracks.

Silent Spring is still a bête-noir of the anti-environmental movement. Many of the same individuals and organisations who form the climate change denial movement coruscate her for sentencing millions in developing countries to be victims of malaria when, they say, DDT could have saved them. And it’s personal. The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s pro-DDT website is not called “” or “”, but “”.

One woman. One book. One hell of a difference.

© Terra Infirma 2009, all rights reserved

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Jaime Lerner: Curitiba


Jaime Lerner was born in Curitiba, Brazil in 1937 to parents of Polish descent. He trained as an architect and won a mayoral competition to develop a masterplan for the city in 1964. He was subsequently elected mayor of the city himself in 1971–75, 1979–84 and 1989–92. In 1994, Lerner was elected governor of the state of Paraná, and was re-elected in 1998 until 2002. He served as president of the International Union of Architects 2002-2005. He is a professor of the local university where he studied as a young man and is still promoting his unique brand of urban design around the world.


The city of Curitiba is Jaime Lerner’s legacy to the world. Its residents claim it is the best city in the world and it is hard to argue with them. Lerner applied almost childlike common sense and simplicity to develop solutions that make the urban environment work for its residents rather than the other way round.

The public transport network consists of major radial bus routes and secondary concentric routes which meet at major transport hubs. There is a flat fare system and tickets are pre-purchased to allow access into a boarding tube. This cuts boarding time to a minimum as the system operates more like a metro than a normal bus network. The road layout and traffic light systems are designed to favour buses. Unsurprisingly 80% of the population uses the buses, despite having the highest car ownership in Brazil.

The closer a new residential or commercial development is to a transport interchange, the larger it may be. Therefore the city is shaping itself around the transport network and not vice versa as occurs in other cities. Developers also get tax breaks for building open space into their designs.

Curitiba is surrounded by flood plains. Instead of installing flood protection and building, Lerner has let them carry out their natural function by designating them as parks. This is the biggest parkland in any city (52 square metres per person) and restricts urban sprawl, while protecting biodiversity. To keep costs down, sheep are used to maintain the grass.

Like all South American cities, Curitiba has a poverty problem which manifests itself in street children. Rules compel shopkeepers to employ a street child to clean the pavement outside the shop. Homeless people and those living in barrios can also take waste to recycling centres in return for food vouchers. Fishermen are paid to remove garbage from the bay. The city has a 70% recycling rate – the highest in the world.

What is remarkable is where Curitiba is – in a country renowned for grinding poverty, shantytowns and uncontrolled sprawl. It is not a shiny, expensive, technological masterpiece designed from scratch, but a living, breathing, historical city. As Lerner told the TED conference in 2007, “Creativity is when you lose a zero off your budget”.

Lerner is a true visionary, and, unlike many of the gurus here, has demonstrated the clear benefits of his vision in practice. While Curitiba is unique, the principles are now being applied around the world from Los Angeles to Afghanistan.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Amory Lovins: Soft Energy and NatCap


Amory Lovins was born in Washington DC in 1947. Educated at Harvard he became a junior research fellow in Merton College, Oxford before joining the British Friends of the Earth where much of his early work on energy took place.

In 1979 he married Hunter Sheldon and the two set up the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in 1982. Hunter was co-author in Amory Lovins’ two most famous books, Factor Four (with Ernst von Weizsacker) in 1996 and Natural Capitalism (with Paul Hawken) in 1999. However the pair had separated as a couple in 1989, divorced in 1999 and Hunter left the RMI in 2002 to pursue other options. This was presented as a mutual agreement at the time, but she appears to have been sacked by the RMI board.

Lovins has won a bucket full of awards and published 29 books. He has worked with a huge number of top companies, and reportedly commands astronomical consulting fees for RMI.


Amory Lovins’ first big concept was the idea of ‘soft energy paths’ shifting away from tradition, centralised ‘hard’ energy systems to a more distributed system of localised networks, energy efficiency and renewables. Generation and distribution are matched to local energy needs. The soft energy concept was scorned at the time (1973-1976) and hard energy is still the prevalent approach in the world, but many of Lovins’ predictions have come true. An interesting spin-off of this work was the formalisation of the ‘backcasting’ concept (designing future scenarios and working back to the present to develop a strategy) by John Robinson which was later adopted by ‘The Natural Step’.

One of the recurrent themes of Lovins’ work is that systems level thinking will lead to large efficiency and economic gains or ‘tunnelling through the cost barriers’. While incremental efficiency improvements may add cost to a project, by aiming for these large Factor 4, Factor 10 or even Factor 20 improvements in efficiency, costs are reduced overall. For example, if you design process plant with short, fat, straight pipes rather than long, thin, convoluted pipes, you can reduce the size of pump motors and other components leading to reduced capital and operating costs. Likewise, with super-insulated buildings you need little or no heating and air-conditioning plant and minimise your operating costs. The RMI building demonstrates this – despite being high in the Rockies they grow their own bananas in the foyer and heat the building with a couple of small wood-stoves and “a 50W dog – if it gets really cold we throw a ball and he generates 100W.”

Lovins has remained implacably opposed to any role for nuclear power in a green future. He characterises nuclear plants as expensive, unreliable and intertwined with the nuclear weapons industry. He claims that other methods of reducing climate change (renewables, efficiency) are 2 to 10 times more effective per dollar than nuclear.

One of Lovin’s gifts, which is at odds with his uber-techno-geek approach to solutions, is his way with words. He has coined phrases such as ‘negawatts’ - the energy you don’t use which he says is more valuable than the energy you do use. Another famous quote is “The markets make a good servant but a bad master, and a worse religion.” This ability to boil an argument down to a memorable catchphrase, usually delivered in a deadpan manner, lifts Lovins above all the other techies in the field.

Like many of the gurus discussed here, it is easy to criticise what Amory Lovins has changed in practice. He released the design for the highly efficient (100mpg) ‘Hypercar’ in 1993, yet it has never got to the prototype stage. The company created to promote the Hypercar went through various collaborations with major motor manufacturers before being reborn as a developer of the ultralight composite materials required to produce such an efficient vehicle.

He has also been criticised for being relentlessly positive and not properly accounting for the risks of his proposals. Certainly, reading Natural Capitalism one is left with the lingering thought “If it really is this easy and obvious, why isn’t everyone doing it?” When the author met him at Schumacher College, UK in 2002, Lovins did not appreciate questioning of any of his points and, when challenged, turned prickly very quickly. He also had a worrying tendency to quote chapter and verse from Natural Capitalism as if quoting from the Bible (although he did reveal himself to be an extremely talented pianist).

While these are undoubtedly weaknesses in a person, they could be argued to be strengths in a guru. Given the amount of negativity and short-sightedness directed at green solutions and the inability of many critics to see the big picture, we need an evangelist for a brighter future – to stretch our imaginations and fire us up for what could be. Lovins is brilliant, resilient and visionary, and, while I for one am resistant to the ‘cult of Amory’ that surrounds him, I still rate him as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the green gurus.

© Terra Infirma 2009, all rights reserved

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