PETER FROST celebrates a book that over fifty years has changed the way we look at the natural world.
We all owe a tremendous debt to Rachel Carson who published her book Silent Spring on September 27, 1962, half a century ago. Almost single handed the book launched the environmental and green movements first in the USA and then all across the globe.
Carson was already a well-known writer on natural history, but her new book was different. Silent Spring inspired widespread public concerns with pesticides and damage they were inflicting on the environment.
In ten years Silent Spring, with its warnings of a spring without birdsong, would shift public opinion enough to facilitate the ban of the widely used and very profitable agricultural pesticide DDT in the United States.
The book explained the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment, particularly as they moved up the food chain. Many birds were affected. Even America’s most iconic bird the bald eagle was close to extinction due to heavy and sustained pesticide use.
Carson went further; she accused the agricultural chemical industry of spreading lies, and the authorities of accepting industry claims uncritically. Predictably the greedy chemical industry including companies like Monsanto so involved in today’s GM battles, fought back.
Tame scientists were wheeled out to accuse Carson of being a ‘hysterical woman’. Her book was described as panicky non-scientific nonsense.
Despite the attacks the book has never been out of print in fifty years and recently it was named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of the prestigious US Discover Magazine. It is considered a foundation stone of the world conservation movement.
Silent Spring was inspired by a letter written in 1958 by Carson’s friend, Olga Owens Huckins, to The Boston Herald, describing the death of numerous birds around her property resulting from the aerial spraying of DDT.
That letter prompted Rachel to turn her attention to environmental problems caused by the uncontrolled use of chemical pesticides. She herself had been concerned about the wider effect of DDT and other pesticides that had been part of the Pacific war effort since 1940.
The book argued that massive pesticide use was harming and even killing not only animals and birds, but also humans.
The book makes it clear that Carson was not seeking the banning or complete withdrawal of useful pesticides, but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use, with careful study of how the chemicals affected each ecosystem.
The book and the uproar it caused saw President John F. Kennedy direct his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson’s claims. They agreed with her warnings and the result was stronger controls on chemical pesticides.
In fact DDT was banned for agricultural use in the United States in 1972. But only in the USA, just two years later Cecily Watkins-Pitchford, the wife of one of Britain’s best wildlife writers died in her Northamptonshire garden after suffering from chemical spraying by a neighbouring farmer.
DDT wasn’t banned in the UK until 1984.
No responsible person believes that insect-borne disease should be ignored. Rachel Carson asked if it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that actually make it worse.
DDT isn’t your average pesticide. It’s the only one with a Nobel Prize. Paul Mueller won it in 1948 for having discovered its insecticidal properties. Joni Mitchell sang “Hey, farmer, farmer put away your DDT now” surely the only pop song about a pesticide.
DDT still has its uses today. Many African governments – South Africa included – are advocating the use of DDT, believing that it’s their best hope against malaria, a disease that kills at least three million people each year, a large proportion of them children. Hundreds of millions also suffer from the disease but survive.
Malaria is spread by a parasite transmitted by mosquitoes. There are two major ways to combat the disease; killing the parasite or killing the mosquito.
Killing the parasite is difficult. Many older drugs are no longer effective, new ones expensive. Destroying the mosquito has long been the preferred way to fight malaria.
DDT does a good job killing mosquitoes at first and it is cheap compared with other insecticides. But mosquitoes get immune to it quickly.
Despite that, used sensible DDT still has a place in our armoury of weapons to be used against killer insect born diseases.
The United Nations Environment Program however says that DDT can cause major environmental harm. They want to add it to a ‘dirty dozen’ for worldwide reduction or eventual elimination.
The DDT debate goes on, but it’s a wiser more educated debate because Rachel Carson wrote her book Silent Spring fifty years ago.
Without her all the decisions would still be made behind closed doors by the profit driven agricultural chemical multi-nationals. I don’t think they would mind a silent spring as long as they could still hear the cash registers ringing.
This Blog is dedicated to Rachel Louise Carson,
Marine Biologist and Conservationist 1907 – 1964
Author of Silent Spring