Silent Spring Redux

March 15, 2022 • Larry Kane

Welcome to CLIMATE MOMENTS, a series of essays sponsored by the Creation Care Committee of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church that address our changing climate and its impacts, as well as actions that can be taken to mitigate this potentially catastrophic phenomenon. Our goal for each issue is to provide you – our reader – with useful information that may inspire you to become more engaged in positive action aimed at constraining the scope and severity of climate change. In this issue, we provide insights into an increasingly serious decline in bird populations in North America. While climate change is not identified as the sole causative factor, it is considered to be a contributing and exacerbating factor.

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.”

-- John James Audubon

Birds! For many of us, the presence of birds elicits a smile as we contemplate their melodic trilling or their graceful soaring and aerial acrobatics. Cardinals, blue jays, gold finches, and Baltimore orioles add colorful hues to an otherwise monotonous backdrop of green or grey, depending on the season. Birds bring a sublime hint of the natural world into sterile urban or suburban environs. As we view migrating bird flocks in the fall, our imaginations are stretched as we wonder at the vast distances they may be traveling or envy their exotic destinations.

But something quite worrisome is afflicting the avian communities that grace our world. Those of us who pay closer attention to the birds that inhabit our neighborhoods have noticed in recent years – and especially this spring and summer – a quite perceptible reduction in their numbers and diversity. Those perceptions have been confirmed recently by a group of ornithologists, wildlife biologists, ecologists and other environmental scientists in a paper entitled Decline of the North American Avifauna, published in Science, Vol. 366, Issue 6461, October 4, 2019. In this report, the authors state, “Our study documents a long-developing but overlooked biodiversity crisis in North America – the cumulative loss of nearly 3 billion birds across the avifauna. Population loss is not restricted to rare and threatened species, but includes many widespread and common species that may be disproportionately influential components of food webs and ecosystem function.” The loss of 3 billion birds is said to reflect a loss of 29% from 1970 populations, including representatives from almost all biomes, with the unexpected exception of wetlands. A summary of this study reported in the Business Insider referred to its results as descriptive of “an avian apocalypse.” (Business Insider, Jan. 16, 2020.)

This situation evokes comparisons to that addressed in Silent Spring, authored by Rachel Carson, a previously unheralded marine biologist, and published on September 27, 1962. The book documented the devastating impact of DDT and other potent pesticides on bird populations in North America. Notwithstanding the fierce opposition mounted against Carson’s claims by the chemical industry of that day, the book became a prime factor in spurring the nascent environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its complement of federal environmental regulations. Silent Spring has been acclaimed by esteemed naturalist David Attenborough as the book that, aside from Darwin’s Origin of Species, has had the greatest impact on the scientific world.

The recurrence of conditions reminiscent of those that inspired Carson’s masterpiece six decades ago reminds us, once again, that mankind has a grievous tendency to forget the hard-won, hoary wisdom of our ancestors and to repeat their tragic past mistakes. The Decline study focuses on an inventorying of the status of bird populations and does not investigate causation. It does, though, include some broad inferences on potential causative factors, including the retrogressive practice of “more toxic pesticide use”.

Decline’s authors somberly observe that, “Birds are excellent indicators of environmental health and ecosystem integrity” and continue with a warning that “. . . monitoring data suggests that avian declines will likely continue without targeted conservation action” and that “their [unabated] population reductions and possible extinctions will have severe direct and indirect consequences” as a result of a loss of the ecosystem benefits they provide, such as seed dispersal, pollination, and pest control.

The Decline paper hints at causes for the reported avian population losses within the context of this compelling call to action: “Our results signal an urgent need to address the ongoing threats of habitat loss, agricultural intensification, coastal disturbance, and direct anthropogenic mortality, all exacerbated by climate change, to avert continued biodiversity loss and potential collapse of the continental avifauna.” [Emphasis added.]

Given that the health of avian populations is an indicator of overall ecological integrity, the prospective collapse of those populations can be understood as a predictor of yet broader ecological collapse. This is consistent with the broad recognition among the scientific community that we are witnessing the early stages of a sixth mass extinction event (and the first for which man is the driving force) that began to rapidly accelerate in the latter half of the 20th Century. However, even without the threat of such broader adverse ramifications, our lives would be immeasurably impoverished were the birds to disappear.

The Creation Care Committee is a part of the Ministry of Contemplation and Justice of St. Luke’s UMC, Indianapolis, IN.

Creation Care arises out of God’s charge to mankind to have dominion over God’s creation. Gen.1:26-28. We understand this to mean that God appointed mankind as God’s agents in caring for the Earth and its creatures – to be conscientious stewards of the Creation, employing the same loving care and regard as God would.

“Dominion”, as used in Gen. 1:26, is not a license for exploitation and spoliation of the Earth as it has sometimes been wrongly interpreted. Such an understanding would be wholly inconsistent with God’s character. The destructive impacts of sinful man’s avaricious exploitation of the natural world underlie Paul’s words in Romans 8:21 that, “the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption” when Christ’s redemptive promise is fully revealed.

Accordingly, the Creation Care Committee engages in and supports actions to relieve the adverse impacts of environmental degradation and to prevent further degradation, including, quintessentially, that resulting from climate change. These actions include, e.g., advocating improved energy efficiency in church facilities, facilitating the recycling of waste from church functions, and disseminating information, including Climate Moments, that educates about and encourages actions we all can take to mitigate climate change and its impacts. It is also important to note that the impacts of climate change tend to fall disproportionately on marginalized and impoverished groups and communities, including those of color. Thus, actions to mitigate climate change impacts also promote racial justice objectives.

Larry Kane