Reflecting on a new ‘Silent Spring’ for the 50th Earth Day

Denise Valenti ・ The Office of Communications

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, people around the world find themselves in a different kind of “Silent Spring.” Rachel Carson’s iconic 1962 book, which inspired the environmental movement that established the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, spoke of a natural world rendered silent by human activity and pollution.

But today, as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic, human activity around the world has been brought to a halt through social distancing and shelter-in-place orders. Nature quickly filled the quiet. The crystalline canals of Venice, Italy, teem with marine life. The Himalayas dominate the smog-free horizon of Punjab for the first time in a quarter-century. Wildlife roam urban streets.

PEI lecturer Shana Weber, director of Princeton’s Office of Sustainability, talks about this unusual Earth Day when the Earth itself is taking center stage on the latest episode of “We Roar,” a podcast featuring Princetonian’s voices on the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re in this extraordinary moment where the silence — the human silence — is allowing other voices to come forward and be noticed,” Weber said. “So bird calls, for example — they’re not being drowned out by other sounds.”

Shana Weber (Photo by Nick Donnoli, Office of Communications)

Not only are we seeing a resurgence in nature, but we’re experiencing a renewed appreciation for the natural world as we get outdoors more frequently — one of the few activities that offer solace as we keep distance from one another.

Weber was in the midst of teaching her environmental studies course “Investigating an Ethos of Sustainability at Princeton,” when instruction went online for the rest of the spring term. She invited students to capture soundscapes of the natural world and to reflect on the sensory experiences of this other kind of “silent spring.”

“The realities that we’re facing now with COVID-19 have made us rethink how we celebrate not only the anniversary, but how we think about sustainability and environmental issues more broadly,” she said.

Weber called the pandemic a “unifying global experience” that has revealed our interconnection with each other and with nature. “The global pandemic clearly illustrated how intimate those connections are and how quickly we link with people physically all over the world,” she said.

We Roar” episodes are available for free on Apple Podcasts (formerly iTunes), Spotify and other podcast platforms. New episodes will be released on Tuesdays and Fridays.