We know more every day, but we’re dumber than ever

Silent Spring and the arrogance of technology

When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, a revolution followed. The book was a genuinely shocking piece of activist journalism, documenting the terrible impact that pesticides were having on the environment.

Our mastery of toxic chemicals, many of them developed as a direct result of military efforts in World War Two, meant being able to create new and more complex poisons. After being concocted in commercial labs, these poisons were then sold to farmers, municipal governments, and other managers of the land to deal with pests and weeds.

What made a pesticide popular wasn’t really its ability precisely target a specific danger—killing a specific invasive beetle, say, or eradicating a fungus that was destroying native trees. What made a pesticide exciting seemed to be defined by its capacity to kill things at a larger scale, and through new applications.

There were poisons sprayed liberally over tree bark that could last for many seasons, or toxins that could be mixed with oil and indiscriminately dusted on fields from a low-flying aircraft, or fungicides that could be used to coat seeds before planting and destroy unwanted bugs before they ever got a chance to infest a crop.

Carson, who had worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, spent nearly two decades collecting information and examples of how this approach to managing pests was turning the environment into a wasteland. She compiled these into a sequence of essays, each one explaining how these toxic substances had accumulated in the food chain and infected ecosystems for generations, and perhaps forever.

The death toll in this book is astounding, a boundless graveyard that counts millions upon millions of birds, livestock, pets, wild mammals, fish, insects, trees, flowers, and often people too. And Carson shows how the chemical companies—which had ecstatically proclaimed poisons like DDT as the equivalent of the atomic bomb for insects (yes, really)—had influenced farmers and directed government advice. After this grim parade of profiteering and death, her message is powerful, even now: In mastering nature, we destroy it.

Chemical companies lined up to threaten Carson’s publisher with legal action, as well as targeting magazines like The New Yorker and Audubon that ran excerpts or serializations. Carson was called a fanatic, a luddite, and an opponent of progress. Even today, more than 50 years after she died, the anti-environmental movement keeps blasting her with criticism.

And yet she wasn’t even saying pesticides should never be used—in fact, as I read the book I don’t think she ever actually calls for the banning of DDT, just asks for greater awareness. Perhaps that’s because she recognized intimately that properly-directed poison can sometimes be useful: as she finished the book, Carson was dying of breast cancer and undergoing radiotherapy, essentially using small doses of poison in order to try and treat a disease.

Still, Silent Spring’s impact was direct—a reduction in pesticide use, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the galvanizing of the green movement.

But it is really a book about the difference between knowledge and wisdom, and that was the underlying message I thought about a lot this week.

This past few days have been difficult. They have been an extension of the never-ending political and social hellscape of the last few weeks, and months, and years. We’ve seen our own children protest against our pathetic inaction on climate change, we’ve seen planes fall from the sky apparently because of bad software, and we’ve seen the sickening result of a white supremacist terrorist ideology and hate-filled speech, incubated in online forums and social platforms.

We know so much; we’ve built so many things. And yet we’ve barely understood the consequences of any of these inventions. (Even though the consequences are often visible to those who go looking for them.) We nurtured all of these tragedies and catastrophes through our decisions and our indecisions.

You only have to look around to see the what we’ve created by using all this knowledge without wisdom. Facebook, a world-eating platform that controls the information diet of billions, ignores warnings because it demands growth. When, too late, it tries to restore some balance, it ends up making the propaganda of Fox News more popular than ever. Twitter—a radioactive cesspool disguised as a funny, vibrant conversation—shows how morally-ambivalent leadership is entirely indistinguishable from active malevolence.

It’s all there as the consequences become apparent: The cars we drive, the television shows we watch, the foods we eat, the plastic we create, the energy we consume. If we knew what we know now, would we make those decisions again? Did someone already know the dangers before we started?

Somehow, despite knowing more than anyone else in history—the amount of information and experience at our fingertips is unparalleled—we are dumber than ever. Or perhaps it’s because we know more that our inability to think through the consequences is so derelict.

Listen, I like evolution and improvement. I genuinely think we can make things better. And I’ve spent years documenting and thinking about the ways technology can improve our lives. But progress is never free of consequences, and it’s on us to think harder, to listen more, to try and be wiser. We know enough that the consequences should never be a surprise.

This morning, as I started writing this, the sun crept up across the rooftops and over the trees. There were a few trills and whistles as the world woke up and started to drag itself through another exciting, infuriating, inspiring, unrelenting day.

I enjoy progress. But I like to hear the birds sing too.

That’s it for now.