William Souder On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson New York: Crown Publishing, 2012
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty
Innovation in the public sector, the private sector and even in the personal lives of individuals is a rather meaningless concept in itself, for it begs the deeper question: "Innovation for what?" Change itself, or change merely for the sake of change raise but do not address profound issues of morality and ethics. Change requires us to think about the consequences of innovation and the kind of social relations that particular modifications of our principles and practices are apt to promote. Failure to consider such matters is, I believe, a prelude to nihilism.
Now, of course, not everyone would agree with my premise. Marx and Engels (1848), for instance, well understood the pattern of economic development that he witnessed and its sustaining "bourgeois" morality of which he heartily disapproved. He wrote perceptively about the urge to "constant revolution of production" under industrial capitalism and he sometimes appeared to feel a measure of sadness or, perhaps, sentimental nostalgia for the way of life it shattered on the path to full-bore modernity. He understood that the result of capitalist innovation was the destruction of traditional beliefs and patterns of behaviour: "all that is solid melts into air," he said, and "all that is holy is profaned." Of course, on reflection, Marx also thought that this devastation of tradition was a price worth paying in order to allow capitalism to fulfill its historical role. For Marx, the hideous conditions of the industrial revolution did not betoken nihilism, but a social catharsis that would be redemptive in the end.
Then, about a century later, economists like Joseph A. Schumpeter (1942, pp. 82-85) took a decidedly different view. They embraced the notion of "creative destruction" or, in its milder form, "planned obsolescence." Perpetual change in the name of progress was heralded as a sign of a healthy capitalist economy. Today, the disposable culture is seen nowhere better than in the obsession with the newest sorts of information technology. No sooner is a fashionable new communications technology purchased than it is rendered obsolete by the next flashy toy. And, in all of this frantic and frenetic impulse to skate along the cutting edge of novelty, not only is growth considered good, but so is self-justifying change and its chief motivating factor, greed.
Only when people like Donella and Dennis Meadows used clever computer models to explain that there were actual Limits to Growth (1972), when Gregory Bateson spoke of taking the first tentative Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) proclaiming that both official Communism and official Capitalism were equally "monstrous," when E. F. Schumacher provided a mantra for tree-huggers and aspirant Luddites by announcing that Small Is Beautiful (1973) and when Stewart Brand launched his Whole Earth Catalog did a forceful "change of consciousness" question and seem momentarily to threaten the robust assumptions of modern economics and the apparent inevitability of technological innovation.
These early, striking symbols of what Charles Reich had hopefully called The Greening of America (1970) were not, however, the first of their kind. They did not make the initial foray into the public mind with a coherent expression of an alternative vision of a technologically mediated future in which modern society would fulfill the Biblical injunction to exercise "dominion" over the Earth. They were the second wave of contrarians up against a colossal political economy and an equally tremendous justificatory ideology. Their lineage dates back at least to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and any number of dystopian novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, of course, their opposite utopian fictions of the same era. They were nonetheless extraordinary in their ability to interrogate explicitly the "megatrends" our society seemed incapable of keeping under control. …