butterflies in an insect collection

Silent Spring

On 27 September 2022, it was 60 years since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an early warning of what human economic activity will do to nature.

I don’t like the birds singing. It’s not my thing.

A real housewife of Miami

Silent Spring was seminal. 

Google Scholar has the book cited in 22,490 articles in the last 20 years alone, and a full Google search generates 165,000,000 results.

People know this book. 

Many of them even know what it was about. Something to do with humans making a mess of the environment with pesticides. A problem we fixed by banning DDT.

Yes, organochloride pesticides were banned in most of the world, which was a good thing. But it was nowhere near enough.

Even a peripheral knowledge of the evidence tells you that the conservation of nature has failed. 

Since 1962 there have been international conventions signed, environment protection agencies established, national parks gazetted, a whole industry of environmental NGOs emerge, and even a new word to describe it all; biodiversity.

And here is what has happened

  • The World Wildlife Fund reports a 60 % decline in the populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years 
  • Research using conservative assumptions estimates the average rate of vertebrate extinctions over the last century is up to 100 times higher than the (mainly pre-industrial) background rate. 
  • Insects are declining in both numbers and loss of populations with long-term monitoring studies showing the number of invertebrates that fly have declined by 76% in 23 years
  • Seabirds have undergone a 70 % community-level population decline between 1950 and 2010 because humans are better at catching so much of their food.

Again, we are heading for a silent spring.

spider building a web
Photo by Wally Holden on Unsplash

Why has biodiversity declined?

Humans have appropriated nature.

Help has come from a huge army of fossil fuel slaves that gave the power and the machines to do the heavy lifting and allowed humans to use almost all the ecological space required by other species.

Ecologists call this competitive displacement and suggest it is the largest factor in biodiversity loss. Homo sapiens’ expansion has eliminated 83 % of wild animal and 50 % of natural plant biomass, most of it in the last 100 years. 

Today, human bodies are 36 % of the mammal biomass on earth, and our domestic livestock another 60 %, leaving just 4 % for all wild mammal species combined. 

Our poultry account for 70 % of Earth’s remaining avian biomass. 

There are numbers that should make you think.

And how did we manage to appropriate nature?

A combination of fossil energy driving the mechanical slaves, access to the land and resources of the ‘new-world’, and improvement to primary health care suppressed natural negative feedback (e.g., disease, food/land/ resource shortages) and freed the  innate capacity to expand exponentially. This is what all organisms do when presented with an energy surplus and no other constraints on numbers.

Humans got good at competitive displacement.

Photo by Eric Brehm on Unsplash

Most crops in intensive farming systems are sprayed with insecticides

What sustainably FED suggests 

Rachel Carson alerted everyone to the potential for mass extinction from pollution. It was a critical contribution.

Three generations later, there are 3 billion more people, the consequence of competitive displacement, and the prophecy is coming true as our economic activity exceeds anything imaginable in the 1970s.

And for way too many of the 7.8 billion people, it doesn’t even matter. They are too busy making ends meet.

Science Source 

Rees, W. E. (2020). Ecological economics for humanity’s plague phase. Ecological Economics, 169, 106519.

Hero image from ​​Photo by Meg Jerrard on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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