Silent Spring

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In its honour, I am spending a couple of hours walking around my neighbourhood listening for bird song. In the meantime, here are three short posts I wrote a year and a half ago, reflecting on the book:

White to Carson

I’ve been doing a bit of catch-up reading of a diptych of eco classics; today I finished Gilbert White’s “Natural History of Selborne, and started Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”.

White’s book is in the form of letters, and he often hopes they “may not be unacceptable” to his two correspondents! He was a meticulous observer of birds, weather and other phenomena, and went some way to interpreting and understanding his observations, for example in the wonderful passage on house martins cited in the introduction. His methods were at times questionable, involving shooting many of his subjects! And his theories did not always fit the facts, for example why clear nights are colder, or whether swallows migrated or hibernated. But science is a process of developing theories and collecting evidence to test and accept/reject/refine the theories, or developing new methods of collecting evidence which may lead to radical new theories. Hence White is not content with just observations, but continues to seek understanding and applications: “The standing objection to botany has always been, that it is a pursuit that amuses the fancy and exercises the memory without improving the mind or advancing any real knowledge… The botanist… should be by no means content with a list of names; he [sic] should study plants philosophically, should investigate the laws of vegetation, should examine the powers and virtues of efficacious herbs, should promote their cultivation; and graft the gardener, the planter, and the husbandman, on the phytologist.”

Carson I suspect is just as meticulous. So far, she has been describing the pesticides and herbicides – DDT, malathion, dieldrin, etc. It’s incredible (now at least) to think that some of these chemicals used on food crops were closely allied in structure to the nerve gases developed by Germany and used during the war.

Silent springboard

After a bit of a hiatus, I have finished reading “Silent Spring”. After her early description of the pesticides and herbicides, Carson goes on to describe their effects on ground water, soil and insect life, plants, birds, other wildlife and domestic animals, rivers and inshore waters, human organs and cell-level processes; the brutality of various spraying programmes in the US and their horrendous results; the common availability of chemicals and the build-up of small-scale exposures; the negative effect on the ecological balance and the build-up of resistance in the pests; and finally, alternative pest control methods. All is beautifully written and meticulously references the latest scientific findings.

Predictably, the chemical industry and scientific establishment (funded by the chemical industry) responded ‘robustly’, as described in an afterword to my edition of the book. Carson was attacked for being a hysterical woman, unqualified to write such a book, and for writing for the public, “a calling the scientific establishment consistently denigrated.”

But the attacks only increased the PR for Carson’s book, and it changed the world. While reading, I caught myself thinking more than once: “I hope someone does something about this”. Which of course they did. President Kennedy directed his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson’s claims, which led to an immediate strengthening of the regulation of chemical pesticides, arguably a more significant action than the launch of the Apollo programme. And the book is widely credited with helping to get the environmental movement going.

Now in the 21st century, “Silent Spring” is again being criticised by writers who claim that “environmental regulation unnecessarily restricts economic freedom”. Others say that this is “a cynical ‘better living through chemistry’ campaign, intended to discredit the environmental health movement”. And I would ask how much economic freedom do we have, living as we do on one planet and bound by a web of relationships?

Observing boiling frogs

Two more thoughts on Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”…

The book was first published in 1962, and the science and understanding of cell-level processes has moved on hugely in the last 50 years. But Carson’s description of e.g. the specialised roles of enzymes in mitochondria, and small facts like bone marrow producing 10 million red blood cells per second (the current estimate is 2.4 million) highlight again for me how “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14; NRSV).

And a quote: “Responsible public health officials have pointed out that the biological effects of chemicals are cumulative over long periods of time, and that the hazard to the individual may depend on the sum of the exposures received throughout his [sic] lifetime. For these reasons the danger is easily ignored. It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster.” As with chemicals, so with climate change. Are we in danger of becoming the proverbial frog that, when placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, doesn’t realise its peril and is boiled alive? Or do we observe nature carefully, and learn that real frogs would probably jump out of the pot… and so could we?