Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rachel Carson: Silent Spring


Rachel Carson was born in Pennsylvania in 1907. Childhood fascinations with nature and writing lead her to study English then Biology. After a stint at the US Bureau of Fisheries and its successor the Fish and Wildlife Service, she started writing on natural history in the 1950s with her famous sea trilogy, covering all aspects of marine life. But it was her 1962 book, Silent Spring, on the impact on nature of pesticides and other toxic man-made substances, which catapulted into the vanguard of environmental thinking. The book has been named as one of the 100 most influential ever, and led to the banning of many such substances and inspiring a grassroots environmental movement. Carson was diagnosed with cancer during the writing of the book, and her illness slowed its final drafting. Following extensive treatment, she died of a heart attack in 1964. Time Magazine named her as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century (having denounced Silent Spring as “unsound” at the time of its publication).


The publication of Silent Spring is often held up as the birth of the modern environmental movement. Its title comes from the short, apocalyptic opening chapter which describes a fictional small American town where pesticides and herbicides have destroyed the natural environment – there are no birds to welcome Spring. This vision was inspired by the after-effects that the blanket spraying of any ‘pest’ or ‘weed’ with insecticides and pesticides in the 1950s was having on the wildlife of vast tracts of America and much of the world.

The bulk of the book explains how these chemicals work and what their effect is on different aspects of the biosphere including water, soil and air. Carson points out that the simplistic safety tests for pesticides did not take into consideration the following key factors:
  • bioaccumulation: a 0.02 part per million dose of chemicals into a lake can result in a fatal 1600 part per million concentration in the blood of a grebe as the chemicals concentrate up the food chain;
  • ‘the cocktail effect’: where combinations of chemicals can have a toxic effect many times the effect of either individually;
  • longer term effects on cells such as genetic damage and cancer.
These issues were understood by the scientific community, but were not more widely appreciated. Carson also points out that the blanket spraying approach is useless in the long run. Due to their short lifecycles, insects develop resistance very quickly, sometimes within months whereas creatures higher in the food chain (including humans) may take thousands of years to adapt. In addition, the chemicals often knock out the target pest’s natural predators and sometimes by destroying one creature, they open an ecological niche for an even worse pest.

For a reasonably technically-minded book, Silent Spring became very widely read, appearing as a Book of the Month Club selection and in serialised form in the New Yorker. It sold a million copies in the 16 months after its release.

The response to Silent Spring from the chemicals industry, associated Governmental departments and the press was predictably ferocious. The problem for the industry was that their pillorying of a modest middle-aged naturalist as “hysterical” and “communist” simply drew more attention to the book, and the damage caused by these chemicals. They had another problem. Carson had been meticulous about the precision of her research and many in the independent scientific community stood up and agreed with her analysis.

And President John F Kennedy was listening. He commissioned a scientific review which endorsed Carson’s conclusions. DDT was banned for most uses in the USA in 1972 and the ban has been credited with the comeback of the bald eagle and other endangered species. Many other countries, including the UK, banned it soon afterwards. DDT and many of the other chemicals identified in Silent Spring were banned for agricultural purposes globally in 2004 under the Stockholm Convention. Silent Spring is also credited for the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, splitting the enforcement of environmental standards from the departments supporting agriculture and industry.

The philosophical influence of Silent Spring was an awakening to the reality that we cannot simply obliterate the parts of Mother Nature that we don’t like. We are part of the myriad cycles of natural systems whether we like it or not. These complex webs of cause and effect can mean what appears to be a short term ‘good’ (eg destroying a ferocious pest to improve food yields) can turn out to be an medium-long term bad (eg by destroying the pest’s predators, the pest can bounce back stronger than ever). As Carson herself puts it:

"The 'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of 
the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed 
that nature exists for the convenience of man."

Silent Spring is cited as an influence by Al Gore and Arne Næss amongst many others. Writing in the Guardian in 2002, poet John Burnside liken Carson to ‘Tank Man’ in Tiananmen Square, a lone frail figure halting the juggernaut of the chemicals industry in its tracks.

Silent Spring is still a bête-noir of the anti-environmental movement. Many of the same individuals and organisations who form the climate change denial movement coruscate her for sentencing millions in developing countries to be victims of malaria when, they say, DDT could have saved them. And it’s personal. The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s pro-DDT website is not called “” or “”, but “”.

One woman. One book. One hell of a difference.

© Terra Infirma 2009, all rights reserved

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At July 27, 2009 at 3:15 AM , Blogger Energy Meister said...

Not 'one book' don't forget her I think pervious one called 'The Sea Around Us'

The Energy Meister

At July 28, 2009 at 12:40 AM , Blogger Gareth Kane said...

I haven't read the 'Sea' trilogy, but I understand they are about natural history rather than environmentalism. The 'one book' refers to the explosive effect of Silent Spring.

At August 11, 2009 at 6:58 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Interesting discussion of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.


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