Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
It is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston 1962, and I hope that you have the opportunity to read this book.
Ms. Carson used the words “silent spring” as her book’s title to describe an eerie absence of birds in a spring sky due to the aerial spraying of chlorinated hydrocarbons represented by a chemical called “DDT” and organic phosphorus insecticides represented by malathion and parathion. She wrote that if toxic chemicals like DDT continued to be used, particularly in an indiscriminate manner, there might be a time when the sound of birds would no longer be heard.
Chapter by chapter, Ms. Carson recounted the reports of scientists in the field chronicling the death of animals and fish and witnessing the long term ineffectiveness of herbicides and insecticides. She advanced her argument, until she revealed stories of human carcinogens and childhood leukemia. If you had not been stirred by the desecrated landscapes, tainted soil, empty rivers and soundless skies described in the early chapters of Silent Spring, you would have, at this point of the narrative, skipped a heartbeat.
After detailing the unintended effects of the use of herbicides and insecticides, Ms. Carson argued that there was no reason to continue the indiscriminate, aerial spraying of these substances on wide swaths of our farms, swamps, river, lakes and forests in order to kill insects and other microorganisms. She noted that local, on the ground, targeted chemical or biologic pesticides could be used instead.
She observed that because of the lack of diversity of the crops grown on our farms they were “unlike anything nature ever conceived” (p 293.) This observation might have been the precursor to the thought that we ought to stop mono crop farming by having different crops on our farms in order the prevent infestation of the one type of pest that would feed upon one particular crop.
She posited that the best check on insects attacking our crops and trees were other insects and microorganisms. Nature, she said, already provided the prey and the predator. She thought that use might be made of insects’ own secretions, venoms and lures and we ought to study these in order to find the best way to ensure that insects did not harm us, our forests, waters and our food supply.
She stated that the destruction of some insects by use of insecticides led to the evolution of these insects to more virulent, resistant and harmful strains or, to the eradication of insects, fish and animals that were beneficial to us.
Most importantly, she stated again and again that there was an interconnection between our selves and the earth, its fresh and salt waters, its soil and rocks and its animals. She argued on no uncertain terms that toxic insecticides and herbicides were putting our natural world out of balance. The indiscriminate use of these substances was, in her reasoned opinion, undertaken at our own risk.
I came of age after Silent Spring was published. The facts regarding herbicides and insecticides, brought to our attention by this book, had by then become part of our national dialog. By this time, DDT was finally banned in the United States for agricultural use, the Environmental Protection Agency was created, the war on cancer was declared and the harmful effects of human interference with our natural environment were acknowledged.
But the use of herbicides and insecticides continued. At the very time the war on cancer was declared, our country was raining the herbicide Agent Orange on Vietnamese civilians and guerillas and our own American soldiers causing cancer and deformities. To this day, we use insecticides in our programs to combat infectious disease and we use herbicides on our farms to increase crop yield.
Rachel Carson was an independent biologist and gifted writer who spent a great deal of time researching her subject and who respected the findings of her peers. She was fearless in the face of a powerful chemical industry and entrenched naysayers in the United States Department of Agriculture that sought to discredit her. Had she lived, what would she say, I wonder about our “control” of our environment fifty years after the publication of her book?
I would hope that she would again use her courage and call- to- arms style of narrative to revisit herbicide and insecticide use. But I would also hope that she would address such subjects as the continued deaths of our most susceptible, our children, due to infectious disease, bio-terrorism, selective breeding of animals, hybridization of plants, loss of species and seed, genetic engineering and the tenor of debate between the overzealous adherents invoking her name and the new critics trying to discredit her work.
Rachel Carson as scientist and writer mustered all that she knew 50 years ago to inform us of the dangers of the unfettered use of insecticides and herbicides. We now have 50 years of further research about this, and many other big questions. And yet, the writings about today’s big questions seem not to distill these questions to their essentials or use quite the same eloquent, cogent and heartfelt language found in Silent Spring.
After reading Silent Spring, you too will wish that Rachel Carson, briefed on our 50 years of new findings and discoveries, was here to write again about our new challenges. But in the absence of her voice as to these new challenges, you will still hear her forthright perspective on what she would describe on the last page of Silent Spring as “the fabric of life – a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient….”