The book has been reprinted in these days: silent spring, published 60 years ago by Rachel Carson. This is the first book he exposes openly the risks posed by pesticides to human health. There had already been some works that had raised the problem. But this synthesis work, accessible to the general public, really started the debate.
A short excerpt, which appeared in the press, caught my attention: Future historians may be confused by our madness; how, they will say, have intelligent people dared to use, to destroy a handful of undesirable species, a method that has contaminated their world and endangered their very existence? ” There have been political reactions, however, following the hype caused by the book. It was around this time that environmental agencies were created in the United States, and ten years after the book’s publication in 1972, the use of DDT was permanently banned.
But, for the rest, the question posed in 1962 by Rachel Carson has lost none of its relevance. How have we collectively managed to repeatedly make choices that put our existence at risk?
Intelligence is a more complex reality than we imagine
In principle, as Rachel Carson says, we are smart. But the claim is not as obvious as it seems. Smart … that is? Many of us, I imagine, have had the opportunity to confront people who are very bright in their field of expertise, and perfectly dull about the rest. The intelligence that leads to reasoned arbitration between different options is difficult to acquire. It is easier to make an optimal calculation in a given field than to undertake multi-criteria assessments that bring complex and contradictory realities into play.
Basically, if we restore those forms of “intelligence” that have led, and still lead, to endanger our health, we will say that we have used pesticides because they have simplified the work of those who implemented them, thus lowering production costs. And they all followed this logic: Consumers prioritized cheaper food, public subsidies encouraged those production methods that raised collective living standards, and who will reject an innovation that makes work easier?
We see that, if intelligence, in Rachel Carson’s sense, were to exist, it would reverse most of the assumptions on which our social life is built. It is therefore simple to perform calculations within a given hypothesis field, but it is much more complex to question these hypotheses.
I tend to think (and this was probably also Rachel Carson’s point of view) that true intelligence is about questioning these famous assumptions, which build our long-term social choices. But in this area, I fear, we have not progressed at all since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We have progressed in our local knowledge and efficiency, but we have failed in our overall assessment.
Job’s monologue, still relevant today
And this echoes a somewhat separate text in the Old Testament, a kind of monologue that we find in the book of Job (chapter 28) and that breaks with the dialogue between Job and his friends. This poem begins by describing the technical knowledge of the time: Certainly there is no shortage of places from which to extract silver and where to refine gold. Iron is extracted from the ground and the rock is melted into copper. We have ended the darkness and are digging deep into the dark stone in the shadow of death. We have dug tunnels far from inhabited places, there, inaccessible to passers-by, we swing, suspended far from man“etc. From verse to verse, the text gives us some ideas about the processes carried out in mining. And then, suddenly, there is a break: but wisdom, where to find it? where intelligence resides »? And here we enter a much more complex research. The wisdom ” it hides from the eyes of all living beings. “
The conclusion of this chapter insists on the intertwining of ethical considerations and intelligence that he has in view: the fear of the Lord is wisdom. Getting away from evil is intelligence ! “
Does this mean that arriving at a synthetic point of view requires a certain ethical commitment? Yes, as it is necessary to consider not only the immediate benefit of one’s choice, but also the consequences that, possibly, affect other people, or fall into areas a little distant from our most direct interests. And we see the indirect repercussions of what we do all the more easily, the less we are captured by individualistic calculations.
Perceptions difficult to convey
The plural in Rachel Carson’s sentence also presents a difficulty: ” smart people he says, but how is collective intelligence built? Indeed, intelligence is difficult to convey when it comes to multi-criteria assessments. One can always dispute, or not see, the importance of one criterion among others.
Indeed, since 1962 and since the publication of this book, our societies have regularly encountered this difficulty. In the long run, and in retrospect, it’s pretty easy to see how companies have gone off the rails. But in the heat of the action, the alerts hardly make it up the ramp.
In other words: despite all the knowledge accumulated for centuries, it is not at all obvious that, collectively, we are truly intelligent.