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Issue 14

The Storyteller approach: Scientific writing since Silent Spring

Rishita Chaudhary

Rachel Carson’s famous work, Silent Spring turns 60 in 2022. Rishita Chaudhary tracks how fact, fiction, and non-fiction are speaking to each other in a new emerging genre.

As Rachel Carson stood in front of the US Congressional Hearing in 1963, waiting to testify as a witness against the agricultural practice of reckless usage of pesticides, she knew her words could have consequences for the health of millions in America. “I have pointed out before, and I shall repeat now, that the problem of pesticides· can be properly understood only in context, as part of the general introduction of harmful substances into the environment. In water and soil, and in our own bodies, these chemicals are mingled with others, or with radioactive substances. There are little understood interactions and summations of effect.” 

The publication of her book Silent Spring in 1962 had brought the ecological danger of these practices into public consciousness, threatening the chemical and agricultural industry. They critiqued her writing as anemotional and inaccurate outburst and her style as “hysterically over empathetic” and However, Carson’s meticulous research was verified by experts and she stated on record that she had “never asked the reader to take my word. I have given [the readers] a very clear indication of my sources.” 

Master Scientist and Wordsmith

The questions that Rachel Carson raised through her writing sparked the modern environmental movement in the US. A host of environmental and health laws concerning solid-waste disposal, clean air, and protection of endangered species were passed in the years after Silent Spring came out. The US government also created the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), a federal agency tasked with ensuring the protection of such laws, in 1970. Two years later, the pesticide DDT was banned in the US

First of its kind in the world of American publishing, Silent Spring also spawned the genre of science non-fiction literature. Carson blended empirical scientific research with fiction writing and storytelling. She sprinkled the book with cautionary metaphors. With chapter titles like River of Death, The Rumblings of an Avalanche, and The Human Price. Well aware of her audience, she played directly to their fears. In one instance, she spoke directly to suburban housewives, painting a portrait of having to discover mutilated, dead squirrels right in their curated backyard, as a result of pesticide accumulation. 

Carson and her new genre gave rise to works such as Bill Mckibben’s The End of Nature (1989) and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe (2006), both relaying red alerts about climate change; and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), which tied the systems connecting agriculture, food, and health together. As Dr. Salma Monani, Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at Gettysburg College argues, Al Gore was inspired by and borrowed from Carson’s rhetoric, in his documentary film, An inconvenient truth.

Is there scope for making science more popular? 

The bulk of climate communication in the past has been spearheaded by scientists employing an arsenal of facts and figures. Behind such an approach is the science comprehension thesis, which assumes ordinary individuals will act to mitigate the climate crisis if they are presented with more scientific facts. However, a 2017 study shows it is not only what you present to the public that matters, but how. “Every day, all over the world, online and in print, in newspapers and magazines, there are scientists and academics droning on and on in boring ways about this and that in terms of climate change. They never talk about emotions, they never talk about culture, they never talk about poetry….Their discussions don’t and won’t change a thing,” remarks former journalist and blogger Dan Bloom. 

Usual doom and gloom climate crisis messaging can send readers spiralling, leading both to different kinds of severe mental illnesses and making it difficult to carry out effective climate action. Instead of raw data, dire statistics, and loud proclamations of the end of the world, activists are now switching gear, to tell stories. The handbook for IPCC authors highlights several pointers for groups working with climate communication – Connect with what matters to the audience; Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas, and Tell a human story

59 years after publication, Silent Spring remains a landmark piece in environmental literature because it does precisely that. While deeply rigorous in the scientific method, it eschews overreliance on jargon and data, working the literary tool instead, pathos, personification, and fable. Silent Spring starts with A Fable for Tomorrow, where Carson paints the picture of an imagined tragedy on the verge of becoming a stark reality, where a town afflicted with some evil spell had silenced all life. 

It quickly becomes apparent that this fable is not meant to enchant the reader but to jolt him out of enchantment,” writes Dr. Lisa Sideris, an Associate Professor at Indiana University. “The fabled town is a composite sketch of actual disasters occurring all over communities in America,” she explains, “and so it is not quite factual but neither is it fabrication. It is the sort of science-fiction fantasy that Carson now fears is possible.” Speculative fiction as a writing tool has been used by scores of writers since, leading to the emergence of an entirely new genre called climate-fiction or Cli-Fi.

When Fact meets Fiction 

Coined by Dan Bloom, Cli-Fi is a branch of fiction literature driven by the human-induced climate crisis. At bookshop sections earlier, it would show up under science fiction. But no longer. From ​​surviving in skyscrapers half-submerged by sea-level rise (George Turner’s The Summer and the Sea) to living in a world erupting in a civil war, over scarce water rights (Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife), these storylines also imagine life differently in the near future. Sometimes they can be dystopian and sometimes not. For instance, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future reckons with a world where nation-states have begun geo-engineering, to respond to climate changed daily life. They are effective, says Dan Bloom, because, “They use heart to write stories about these issues, not brain. They create characters the reader will care about and perhaps even identify with. Novels are about empathy.

Together, the popularity of this genre signals a shift in climate communication. With an emphasis on scientific accuracy and non-fictional description of social science, perhaps it can help unravel the inherent tension between communicating urgency and instilling hope. In many ways, Silent Spring’s message remains salient today, provoking not only emotional resilience but the courage to recognise what is to be done and by whom. Rachel Carson, in her own words, remains an inspiring silo-breaker. “Many people have commented with surprise on the fact that a work of science should have a large popular sale. But this notion that ‘science’ is something that belongs in a separate compartment of its own, apart from everyday life, is one that I should like to challenge. …Science is part of the reality of living;… It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.”

Rishita Chaudhary is a second-year student studying political science, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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