First day of the conference celebrating Rachel Carson’s and Ruth Harrison’s books – 50 years on

I’m attending the ‘Rachel Carson & Ruth Harrison 50
years on conference’, which is taking place on 12-13 March 2013, at the Oxford
University Biodiversity Institute. These two women whose books changed science
certainly deserve the recognition. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was a wake-up call for the environment and
helped to turn conservation into the mainstream scientific and public concern
it is today. In Silent Spring, she described
how DDT entered the food chain and accumulated in animals and human tissues, causing
cancer and genetic damage. Ruth Harrison’s Animal
(1964) was also a wake-up call for the conditions of farm animals and
helped to turn animal welfare into the mainstream scientific and the public
concern it is today.

The conference is enlightening many of us attending on the
major issues around conservation, animal welfare and more importantly the
sometimes conflicting links between them. CABI has launched the reissue of Animal Machines at the end of the
first day of the conference. 

The first day of the conference included expert and engaging presentations
by Conor Mark Jameson (RSPB), John Webster (University of Bristol), Irus
Braverman (SUNY Buffalo Law School), Kurt Vogel (University of Wisconsin-River
Falls), Claudio Sillero (WildCRU, University of Oxford), Andrew Balmford
(Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge) and Amanda Vincent (University
of British Columbia).

Prof Marian Dawkins, from Oxford University,
introduced Ruth Harrison’s book Animal Machines, and stressed how it is a
comprehensive approach and not just a single issue; while Prof Kathy Willis introduced the
Biodiversity Institute and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the talks at the conference. Prof Willis talked about the key actions in Rachel Carson’s books, i.e.
industry, government, scientists and the public. Talking about the
"Earth's Green Mantle" she highlighted the importance of broad,
inclusive approach – genetics to landscape.

Conor Mark Jameson, who has written extensively about Rachel
Carson, summarised her achievements in his talk entitled ‘Silent Spring
Revisited: Our debt to Rachel Carson’. He said that Rachel Carson’s two main
aims were to: firstly to alert the public, and secondly to ‘build a fire’ under
government. He ended his talk by pointing out our debt to her, which included
humility, balance, ecology, kinship with nature and collaboration. "Humility
and wonder" are key to Rachel Carson’s view on our relationship with
nature, someone tweeted.

Prof John Webster’s talk on "The Book of
Ruth" and the achievements of Ruth Harrison followed. He pointed out that
Ruth Harrison’s book stood the test of time more than Rachel Carson’s book
because of her pragmatic approach, i.e. Animal Machines was based on careful
evidence gathered by Harrison herself. The book does not condemn industry but
presents evidence. During the questions time, someone asked him what has driven
the public to demand change, to which his answer was ‘images’. He said it is
not his job as a scientist to tell the public what is wrong – this is up to
image-makers. He added that scientists then have to make sure the images are
correct, i.e. validate them.

Dr Irus Braverman’s talk was entitled ‘Conservation
without Nature: Moving beyond in situ and ex situ conservation.’ She introduced
the idea of two types of conservation: in situ (on site) and ex situ (off
site). In situ is the conservation of ecosystems inside the natural habitat,
while ex-situ is the conservation of components of biological diversity outside
the natural habitat. She discussed the three in-situ / ex-situ model
assumptions: that nature actually exists; that such nature is always in place,
while anything other is out of place; and that “in” is normatively preferable
to “out”. She pointed out that in situ/ex situ conservation divide should be
challenged just as nature v culture divide should be.

Prof Kurt Vogel gave an stimulating talk about ‘Mechanisms of Practical change in
animal welfare’. He quoted Ruth Harrison’s “…the animals do not live before
they die, they only exist" and the need for change. He said the cultural gap
has grown between the net food producers and the net food consumers. There’s
never been a better time for change as now with all the technology available. He mentioned the instruments to voice our opinion such as twitter.
The catalysts for change are: public interest; consumer outrage; and financial
implications. He asked the question: how do we develop positive and lasting
change in this environment? Legislation alone will not work and his three take home
messages were: the need to reconsider the ethical values; science won’t make
the decisions for us; and the key to real and measurable change is cultural
shift. I found the many personal examples he gave to illustrate his statements particularly stimulating.

Dr Claudio Sillero talked
about synergy between animal welfare & conservation. He said welfare tends to refer
to individual and its right to live, while conservation is about population and
their right to be left alone. Compassionate conservation brings together animal
welfare and conservation. It requires shared ethical viewpoint to address it.
Conservation can also cause cruelty, for example when one species is fed to
another in captivity. Can conservationists and welferists work together? Obvious
examples for 'yes' – whaling, bush meat hunting. WildCRU looks at various
aspects of welfare connected to reintroductions. He pointed out that ethics
must be firmly implanted in conservation biology.

Prof Andrew Balmford’s talk was entitled ‘The Glass Half Full: Prospects
for nature 50 years on.’ To give just three examples of the emptying glass: a
50% decline in wild habitats; 87% of fish stocks are fully overexploited and
depleted; and a 59% decline in large mammals’ population. Why is this
happening? Habitat conversion, overharvesting, introduced species, climate
change, eutrophication, ocean acidification. The underlying drivers of changes
are population growth, rising per capita consumption, externalities and
discounting. There is also a disconnection from nature, he added – how can we
be motivated to conserve if we no longer know nature? One way of increasing
conservation successes is working with local population, finding conservation
benefits to people. He gave various examples of how conservation can succeed,
even in difficult circumstance. Conservation is doing well, but has to be
self-critical. There is a need for changes, such as scaling up conservation,
much larger reserves, tighter regulations of exploitation, stronger control of
invasive species, drastic decrease of CO2 and N emissions and pesticides, slow
birth rate, among others. He said that 50 years from Silent Spring nature’s
glass has drained alarmingly, but it is still half full.

Dr Amanda Vincent’s presentation was entitled: ‘The sea around
us: 50 years of marine conservation.’ She gave a very interesting and engaging
presentation of marine life through the eyes of Rachel Carson, who, she added,
wrote three marine books before Silent Spring and all a lot more lyrical in
nature. She pointed out that 50% of shorebirds are in decline, but that means
50% are holding their own and she also pointed out that in fact 16% are showing
increase. Since Rachel Carson, threats have increased, but so have the tools we
have to deal with them (eg IUCN's Red list).

I’m looking forward to the second day of the conference.

Various participants are tweeting about the presentations
live. To follow the comments go to @bioinstituteox and #RCRHconference.

You may also read the detailed blog by Prof Marian Stamp Dawkins,
Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of Oxford, which was posted
here a week  before the conference.

Animal Machines launch – CABI book stand at the RCRH conference.


One thought on “First day of the conference celebrating Rachel Carson’s and Ruth Harrison’s books – 50 years on

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