Friday, 18 October 2013

50 years after 'Silent Spring'

Silent Spring has come to be regarded as an environmental classic which instigated the modern environmental movement. The book’s warning about the dangers of pesticides touched a nerve, but also reflected wider concerns in the emerging counter-culture of the sixties – that modern technologies, combined with rampant consumerism, were causing environmental problems that had otherwise not been widely noticed or, worse, suppressed by vested interests.

Personally, the book has a special meaning.  It was one of the first books that I borrowed when a public library opened in our village in 1962, when I was 14.  How much of the book I actually read, I cannot now remember – but what I can recall is the impact that the introduction made upon me then.  It was almost like reading the science fiction to which I was addicted at that time:

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of colour that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently across the fields, half hidden in the mists of the autumn mornings.

Among the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveller’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and autumn people travelled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. Sot it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.

Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example – where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled an disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs – the litters were small and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.

The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. Anglers no longer visited them, for all the fish had died.

In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and the streams.

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.

This town does not actually exist, but it might easily have a thousand counterparts in America or elsewhere in the world. I know of no community that has experienced all the misfortunes I describe. Yet every one of these disasters has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them. A grim spectre has crept upon us almost unnoticed, and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality we all shall know.

It was here that, for the first time, I was introduced to the idea of the inter-connectedness of all living things, and the pernicious effects of industrial development on the environment.  It was a concept that sank like a pebble in a pool, lost in my consciousness for many years, but resurfacing a decade or so later. For someone of the ‘ban-the bomb’ generation, reading the following passage so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis was particularly alarming:

The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species man acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.

During the past quarter century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world and the very nature of life. Strontium 90, released through nuclear explosions into the air, comes to earth in rain or drifts down as fallout, lodges in soil, enters into the grass or corn or wheat grown there, and in time takes up its abode in the bones of a human being, there to remain until his death. Similarly, chemicals sprayed on crop lands or forests or gardens lie long in soil, entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death. Or they pass mysteriously by underground streams until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells. As Albert Schweitzer has said, “Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation.”

It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth eons of time in which that developing and evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings. The environment, rigorously shaping and directing the life it supported, contained elements that were hostile as well as supporting. Certain rocks gave out dangerous radiation; even within the light of the sun, from which all life draws its energy, there were short-wave radiations with power to injure. Given time – time not in years but in millennia -  life adjusts, and a balance has been reached. For time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world there is no time.

The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature. Radiation is no longer merely the background radiation of rocks, the bombardment of cosmic rays, the ultraviolet of the sun that have existed before there was any life on earth; radiation is now the unnatural creation of man’s tampering with the atom. The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.

To adjust to these chemicals would require time on the scale that is nature’s; it would require not merely the years of a man’s life but the life of generations. And even this, were it by some miracle possible, would be futile, for the new chemicals come from our laboratories in an endless stream; almost five hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone. The figure is staggering and its implications are not easily grasped: five hundred new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience.

Among them are many that are used in man’s war against nature. Since the mid-1940′s over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described in the modem vernacular as “pests”; and they are sold under several thousand different brand names.

These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the “good” and the “bad,” to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides,” but “biocides.”

Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war, the central problem of our age has therefore become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends. . . .

What is the legacy of Silent Spring?  There are some interesting opinions and archive materials in this discussion, hosted on The Guardian website,while the Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson can be explored on this website.

There’s an excellent essay, Re-Reading Silent Spring, published by Earth Island Journal that draws attention to how much was already known in 1962 about the environmental health impacts of petrochemicals, and how little the  regulatory response to the environmental impact of chemicals has changed, despite the advances in scientific understanding since then:

Reading Silent Spring today, it is disquieting to realize how much was already known in 1962 about the environmental health impacts of petrochemicals. Even more shocking is to recognize how little our regulatory response to these chemicals’ effects has changed, despite the past five decades’ great advances in scientific understanding.

Best known for its alarming account of DDT’s decimation of bird life across the United States, Silent Spring is widely credited with sparking the public concern that lead to the chemical’s ban in the US ten years later. “Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of birds, and the early mornings, once filled with the beauty of bird song, are strangely silent,” Carson wrote, describing the toll pesticide use had taken on American birds. Without changes in practice, brought about in part by Silent Spring, the bald eagle (whose numbers had plummeted to about 400 breeding pairs in the continental US by 1963) might well have disappeared from the lower 48 states.

But Carson also described the accumulation of synthetic chemicals in people – including newborns – and these chemicals’ interaction with the innermost workings of living cells. “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death,” Carson wrote. “These chemicals are now stored in the bodies of the vast majority of human beings, regardless of age. They occur in the mother’s milk, and probably in the tissues of the unborn child,” wrote Carson more than 40 years before an Environmental Working Group study found 287 industrial chemicals in newborns’ umbilical cord blood, and decades before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began finding such chemicals in the majority of Americans tested.

A year ago I wrote that I had been listening to The Essay on Radio 3:  five talks on the theme ‘Before Silent Spring‘ in which five writers, scientists and environmental campaigners reflected on how Carson built on the work of others who had gone before her, figures whose ideas preceded Silent Spring and laid the foundations of the contemporary environmental movement.  Read that post here.


There’s an excellent essay in the Guardian by Margaret Attwood in which she assesses the significance of Silent Spring.  Here’s an extract:

One of the core lessons of Silent Spring was that things labelled progress weren’t necessarily good. Another was that the perceived split between man and nature isn’t real: the inside of your body is connected to the world around you, and your body too has its ecology, and what goes into it – whether eaten or breathed or drunk or absorbed through your skin – has a profound impact on you. We’re so used to thinking this way now that it’s hard to imagine a time when general assumptions were different. But before Carson, they were.

In those years, nature was an “it”, an impersonal and unconscious force; or, worse, malignant: a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw bent on afflicting humanity with all the weapons at its disposal. Against brute nature stood “we”, with our consciousness and intelligence. We were a higher order of being, and thus we had a mandate to tame nature as if it were a horse, subdue it as if it were an enemy, and “develop” it as if it were a female bustline or a male set of Charles Atlas biceps – how awful to be underdeveloped! We could then exploit nature’s resources, which were thought of as inexhaustible.

Three streams of thinking fed into this civilisation/savagery construct. The first was biblical dominionism: in Genesis, God proclaims that man has dominion over the animals, and this was construed by some as permission to annihilate them. The second was informed by the machine metaphors that colonised linguistic space after the invention of the clock, and that spread across the west during the 18th-century enlightenment: the universe was an unfeeling machine, and life forms too were machines, without souls or consciousness or even feeling. Therefore they could be abused at will, because they weren’t really suffering. Man alone had a soul, situated inside the machine of his body (possibly, thought some, in the pituitary gland). In the 20th century, scientists threw out the soul but kept the machine: for a strangely long time, they held that to ascribe anything like human emotions to animals was anthropocentrism.

Ironically, this was a direct contradiction of the granddaddy of modern biology, Charles Darwin, who had always maintained the interconnectedness of life, and – like any dog owner or farmer or hunter – was well aware of animal emotions.

The third line of thinking came – again ironically – from social Darwinism. Man was “fitter” than the animals, by virtue of his intelligence and his uniquely human emotions; thus in the struggle for existence man deserved to triumph, and nature would have to give way eventually to a fully “humanised” environment.

But Carson questioned this dualism. Whatever airs we might give ourselves, “we” were not distinct from “it”: we were part of it, and could live only inside it. To think otherwise was self-destructive:

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. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.

Gerry Cordon: First Published on-That's How The Light Gets In