Visions, specialisms 
and blinkers

“What has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America?”
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962

Rachel Carson was a marine biologist, a well-established scientist who had already achieved great success in her field of study.
What pushed her, therefore, to ask herself that question? Why did she take on a problem that risked pushing her outside her comfort zone?
We can speak of the idea of vision, applied to the construction of what, today, we call "environmental thinking". The meaning we can give to this word is above all the ability to see beyond, the ability to gather together the broadest consequences within a single phenomenon. A process that can lead to conflict with dominant ideas, but that doesn't necessarily start with this intention.

A different gaze, that of a well-known marine biologist whose friend asks her to look, with the same efficacy with which she observed the ocean, at another environment: the agricultural areas of the United States. To search for the reasons for a phenomenon that had no explanation, that is, the disappearance of birds and insects. Silent Spring investigated and documented all this, and led, within a decade, to the prohibition of DDT, identified as the primary culprit of that unnatural silence, not to mention its effects on human beings.

At the time, the attacks that she - even more than her book - suffered were vicious. The fact that one of her most persistent detractors was the chemical industry will obviously not surprise anyone, but what she wrote provoked reactions from those who - scientists or institutions - considered her work to be an invasion of their field, which, what is more, dared to challenge one of the greatest successes of the time (the inventor of DDT was awarded a Nobel prize).

What happened here clearly reveals a mechanism: where there wasn't proven dishonesty, it had to do with the blinkers of specialism, that is, the opposite inclination to what allowed the birth and development of the environmental movement.

In 1965, Lester Brown was in India, a young official in the Department of Agriculture of the US government, sent to Delhi with the task of contributing to a report on agriculture as part of their five-year development plan. But, as he says himself, he decided to broaden his gaze. He read, he compared, and he became aware of an imminent, very serious famine that would be produced by the drought that was afflicting all the states of the subcontinent. The monsoon season had not been behaving normally for some time, and there was no reason to believe that the basic food requirements estimated in the report would be able to be satisfied. Brown managed - going against the official position - to reach a higher level of the US administration and set aid delivery in motion in sufficient time.
He broke with the official view, with the bureaucratic frame of thinking and procedures, with the established hierarchies. But, above all, his strength was built on having understood very clearly, already 10 years previously - in the months he spent in rural Indian villages just after graduating - the fundamental connection between population and resources, which would be the basis of the later development of his business. Brown stepped outside the limits of the task he had been assigned, precisely because of his ability to see what others weren't able, or didn't want, to see. All of his later work would be distinguished by a vision that allowed him to draw attention to the connections between phenomena and processes regarding different environments: energy, population, environment, climate, education, consumption, resources, politics, agriculture, research, etc.
He made a fundamental contribution to the ideas and science behind sustainability. In 1974, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, he founded the Worldwatch Institute, the first institute dedicated to the analysis of global environmental issues.

This openness to seeing beyond one's own specific field of activity, making connections between different phenomena and drawing awareness from this that can challenge apparent certainties, is found in many of the central figures of environmental thought. This view can come from the most disparate directions and experiences.

This fact is confirmed by a much more recent story, with a young British yachtswoman as its protagonist: Ellen MacArthur.
Coming into play here are her passion for sailing and the attraction of the immense spaces of the oceans, which in 2001 earned her the title of the youngest person to sail around the world.

During the trip, and on the following solo journey completed in record time in 2005, what did Ellen see beyond the confined space of her boat? That this globe is all we have. She also discovered that in her "sailed microcosm", the resources available for survival were even more drastically limited. Managing them without any waste was the only possible strategy. Five years later, she stopped sailing and decided to do something decisive in order for this vision to become a widespread practice in companies and politics. And she succeeded.
Today, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is the most influential of all the institutions that promote the transition of our economy towards an alternative model to the take-make-waste one that has characterised development from the end of World War Two until today.

The idea of "looking beyond", embodied in these and many other people, has no desire to represent a rule. It only tells us that to explore, understand and transform our relationship with nature, we cannot allow ourselves to become blinkered, whether due to specialisms, prejudices or partisan interests, which manage to find a place even in the academic, research and professional world. They then pass on to politics, the media, and public opinion. In other words, to us.


Images Credits:
illustrations © Laura Zavalloni

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