A war gone awry

Published : Oct 05, 2012 00:00 IST

Looking at the legacy of Silent Spring, Rachel Carsons best-seller on pesticides, on the 50th anniversary of its publication.

Fifty years ago, an unassuming woman wrote a book that changed the way people looked at the world and their own role in it. The book has been on the best-seller list of reputed scientific, academic and general interest publications; it has been reprinted and translated into numerous languages; it continues to be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the future of the planet; it also continues to generate controversy in much the same way it did when it was published in book form on September 27, 1962 (before that it had been serialised by The New Yorker).

Rachel Carsons Silent Spring, credited with being the forerunner of the modern environmental movement, is a well-documented story on the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture and of their widespread fatal effects on plants and animals. Rachel Carsons training as a scientist bridged the gap between lay observation and science. Her conviction in what she wrote combined with her skills as a writer ensured that the book reached readers around the globe.

The book accused the pesticide industry of being detrimental to the environment, especially of destroying bird species. Indeed, the title Silent Spring alludes to an all-too-possible spring when birds would no longer sing because they would all have been exterminated by pesticides. The author also said that the chemical industry misinformed the public about the effects of its products and that the United States administration accepted the industrys claims without verifying them.

While documenting the horrors of synthetic pesticides, the author traced the link between chemical companies and the political economy of the time and accused the two of letting profit take precedence over health. Capitalist economies and corporations that dictate to government were not new scenarios even at that time, but Rachel Carson introduced new characters into this old drama. Unselfconsciously and scientifically, she wrote that all life forms were connected and the act of injecting poisons into life cycles would soon affect human life.

Her views were encapsulated by Lord Edward Shackleton, who wrote the introduction to the British edition of Silent Spring. He was the son of Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer, but was famous in his own right as a conservationist. In 1963, he participated vigorously in a historic five-hour-long debate on Silent Spring in the House of Lords; never before was a book debated for so long in the British Parliament. In his introduction to the book, Shackleton wrote: Ecologists more and more are coming to recognise that man is an animal and indeed the most important of all animals and that however artificial his dwelling, he cannot with impunity allow the natural environment of living things from which he has so recently emerged to be destroyed.

Among the many stories Rachel Carson relates, the one of the farming community of Sheldon in eastern Illinois stands out. While the real horrors faced by the people and the wildlife can be grasped by reading all her prose, it is shocking enough to know that for about seven cataclysmic years, from 1954 to 1961, Sheldon and surrounding areas were aerially sprayed with DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) to such an extent that the poison spread over the landscape at Sheldon was roughly equivalent to 150 pounds of DDT per acre! Dead muskrats, cats, rabbits, birds of all species, foxes and earthworms were found in multitudes, their bodies found in attitudes characteristic of violent death by poisoning. Thus, in their effort to stop one pest, the Japanese beetle, the entire area was bombarded indiscriminately.

This and other facts in the book led to great public outrage after Silent Spring was published. The book was an eye-opener for the American public. It ripped apart conventional wisdom as dictated by big corporate houses. In an era when science was taken as gospel and the task of mankind was widely accepted as one of subduing nature, Silent Springs arguments were either a breath of fresh air or heretical, depending on which side of the fence you stood. In essence, the book plainly said that humans were a part of the environment and not apart from it. This idea, though an old philosophy, was quite radical at the time. It had been dismissed by the success and arrogance of post-Industrial Revolution politics, economics and popular religion. But quite obviously, there were many people who did believe in the man-nature connection and for them Rachel Carson and her book had a rallying effect.

The then President, John F. Kennedy, after reading the book, formed a special group under the direction of the Presidents Science Advisory Committee to investigate the use of pesticides. Rachel Carson was called on to testify before Congress about potential new environmental policies. Another former President, Jimmy Carter, was so impressed with her work that he posthumously awarded her Americas highest civilian honourthe Presidential Medal of Freedom. And, more recently, former Vice-President Al Gore claimed that she was his inspiration and hung a photo of her in his office. Other honours bestowed upon the book at various times include the Audubon Medal from the National Audubon Society, the Cullum Geographical Medal from the American Geographical Society, the Spirit of Achievement Award from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and a Carey-Thomas Honorable Mention for the most distinguished publication of 1962.

It is because of Rachel Carsons expose of DDT in Silent Spring that the chemical was ultimately banned in the U.S. in 1974. In a chapter titled Elixirs of Death, she wrote, DDT is now so universally used that in most minds the product takes on the harmless aspect of the familiar. Part of the myth of harmlessness of DDT stems from its widespread use during wartime when thousands of prisoners were dusted with it to prevent lice. Rachel Carson explained that in powder form DDT is not readily absorbed through the skin but when dissolved in oil, as happens when it is sprayed, it is definitely toxic.

Her work naturally had its share of detractors but she was not alone in her opinion. She herself quoted Owen J. Gromme, Curator of Birds at the Milwaukee Public Museum, who wrote in the Milwaukee Journal: DDT kills indiscriminately, including natures own safeguards or policemen. In the name of progress are we to become victims of our own diabolical means of insect control to provide temporary comfort, only to lose out to destroying insects later on? By what means will we control new pests, which will attack remaining tree species when natures safeguards (the birds) have been wiped out by poison?

Uproar from the industry

As can be expected, Silent Spring resulted in an uproar from the chemical industry. The challenge to its very profitable business enraged it. Its ire was fuelled further by the fact that it was a woman who had dared to question what was one of the most powerful and politically influential industries in the U.S. at that time. Retribution was fast and brutal. Rachel Carson was belittled at every level, from the quality of her research to her gender. Oddly enough for the times, she remained steadfast and unmoved by the attacks. Her standing as a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made it all the more difficult to dismiss her.

Her calm demeanour, however, would probably have registered some shock if she were still alive. Fifty years after she wrote a comprehensive and compelling documentation of the dangers and horrors of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, the world continues to use the very same chemicals. It is as if Rachel Carson never wrote Silent Spring. None of her research has been disproved. In fact, new research has been added to the body of her work but the resistance to facts now is as strong as it was when the book was released half a century ago. The tragedy of Silent Spring is that its urgency has been lost for the majority of individuals, corporations and governments.

Over the decades, little has changed apart from the generic and brand names of many chemicals that Rachel Carson had proved were highly dangerous. DDT, malathion, parathion and dieldrin continue to be used in many parts of the world in spite of the fact that she had proved, 50 years ago, that they had fatal consequences. The chemicals alter genes, disrupt the endocrine system, damage the nervous system, deform foetuses and cause diseases ranging from cancer to Parkinsons disease. Sadly, Rachel Carson developed breast cancer and died in 1964.

Throughout the world there are battles being fought by individuals, communities and non-governmental organisations against the enforced use of chemicals in agriculture. The ongoing Pitchfork Rebellion in Oregon, U.S. is perhaps the most organised attack at present. Residents of an area called Triangle Lake have been protesting against the aerial spraying of herbicides over their lands, saying there is a direct link between an increase in illnesses there and the spraying. It is now a public health matter and is under investigation by three federal agencies and the state.

If the thousands of carcasses of birds, foxes, cats and other creatures of the countryside found in contorted attitudes of extreme poisoning and written about by Rachel Carson were not enough evidence, then current research provides more. Any health publication will offer reams on natural versus synthetic. There is enough literature scientific, academic and observational to prove that Silent Spring is a long-denied truth but the book and its facts still draw only a grudging nod from policymakers while their actions continue to support chemical corporations.

Destinys child

Rachel Carson was certainly destinys child. Her first career choice had been that of a writer but while at college she changed her course of study from literature to biology and did her Masters in aquatic biology. She worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, writing radio scripts. She spent 15 years there as a scientist and editor, and rose to be editor-in-chief of all publications of the organisation. She later resigned to devote her time to writing. Her books expressed the magic of nature and were well received. From 1941 to 1955, she wrote and published Under the Sea Wind and The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Seaall books that had established her as an author long before Silent Spring in 1962. But it is for Silent Spring that she is remembered because it was a courageous book.

Silent Spring is a book for all ages and can be understood at different levels. At some deep level, the book reflects the essential nihilistic nature of humankindthe subconscious struggle that never ceases; the choice between right and wrong and the frequent choice of an option that can only be defined as a death wish. How else does one explain why deadly chemicals continue to be favoured even when their use has proved toxic?

Silent Spring should have been the equivalent of the canary in the minea wake-up callbut it was not allowed to be.

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