Case Study

Rachel Carson – Silent Spring

US marine biologist Rachel Carson is widely feted as having launched environmentalism as a political ideology in the early 1960s with this hugely influential work, the title of which forewarns of a future world without birdsong. The book highlighted the harmful effects of organochlorine insecticides such as DDT on birds and other wildlife, bringing into question the use of newly synthesised chemicals until then near universally lauded for their role in controlling insects responsible for diminishing crop yields or transmitting diseases.

Carson’s determination to present nature’s case against profitable and, in many ways, beneficial human practises saw her succeed in getting Silent Spring published in 1962 despite a long-standing personal fight with cancer and attempts to block the book’s publication by a hostile chemical industry. The book had been serialised in the New Yorker magazine prior to its release and caused such interest that chemical companies began fearing a consumer backlash against their products and mounted vitriolic attacks on the scientific authenticity of the work. The attacks, though, failed to prevent the book becoming a major success commercially and politically, both in the US and across the developed world, such was the scientific rigour of Carson’s arguments.

‘Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides,” but “biocides”’ (Carson 1962: 7).

Olof Palme

The world-renowned Swedish social democrat politician was twice Prime Minister between 1969 and his assasination in 1986. Domestically, Palme moved the Social Democrats to the left, leading to their defeat in the 1976 elections which broke the party’s forty-year hold on power. Internationally he was a passionate supporter of decolonisation and highly critical of both the US and Soviet Union in a firmly non-aligned foreign policy. His fierce condemnation of apartheid led to suspicions that the South Africans may have had a role in his murder (although this has not been proven and the assassin has yet to be caught in spite of 130 claims of responsibility).

Palme was also an environmentalist and a pivotal figure at the 1972 Stockholm Convention, particularly in articulating the idea of the global commons:

 The air we breathe is not the property of any one nation –we share it. The big oceans are not divided by national frontiers –they are our common property. What is asked of us is not to relinquish our national sovereignty but to use it to further the common good. It is to abide by certain agreed international rules in order to safeguard our common property, to leave something for us and future generations to share.

Palme, though, was also a somewhat divisive figure domestically. He was not universally liked in the Green movement since he supported nuclear energy as a less polluting source of power than coal or gas. This, though, is a position many renowned environmentalists, such as Lovelock, have subsequently converted to. 

Rowland and Molina

In 1974 US Scientists Dr. Sherwood ‘Sherry’ Rowland and Mario Molina produced an article for the journal Nature warning that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the synthetic chemicals used in aerosol sprays and refrigerators, were damaging the earth’s ozone layer. The research built on previous findings by James Lovelock which had detected CFCs in the atmosphere above the Atlantic (Lovelock 1971). Predictably the research was, at first, rubbished by the chemical industry but patient and persuasive lobbying by Rowland, Molina and other scientists began to convince the US government, public opinion and, eventually, even  some chemical companies that CFCs were eroding the ozone layer through the release of chlorine, so allowing in dangerous amounts of ultraviolet rays from the sun.

In 1985 The British Antarctic Survey were able to prove Rowland and Molina to be correct by photographing a large hole in the ozone layer in the stratosphere above the frozen continent. This discovery and the causal role of CFCs were corroborated by NASA and others and by 1987 – rapid in International Relations terms – International Law was in place committing countries to a phase out of the chemicals.

Rowland and Molina were subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995.

End of the world? Wanna bet on it?

In 1980 Paul Ehrlich and his arch critic the Economist Julian Simon agreed to move their academic enmity, until then played out in academic journals, to a new, more populist level by having a wager on the future of the world.

Simon bet Ehrlich that the price of five metals of his choice (of which the remaining reserves in the world were known) would fall over the next decade in spite of population growth, thus disproving the notion that the Earth’s resources were going to be put under increasing strain with more people consuming more resources and prices rising as a result. Ehrlich bought $1000 worth of five metals and they agreed to settle the bet according the price of those metals in 1990, taking account of inflation.

Simon won the bet and Ehrlich was forced to pay him just over $576. As is the case in Economics, numerous factors can explain changes in price and Ehrlich did not consider that this outcome proved population growth not to be a drain on resources. Simon, however, felt vindicated in his Cornucopian belief in human ingenuity and that people are a resource rather than a drain on resources.


Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin