“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?” - Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”
In the early 1960′s, the word ecology was barely known to most Americans. It was an age in which science was the great savior and governments could be trusted to do what was best for their citizens. Silent Spring was a full frontal attack on those sacred institutions: It condemned the chemical companies which manufactured the new weed and insect killers and embarrassed the government officials who approved their use without understanding the science or consequences.
Author Rachel Carson‘s assault on the chemical industries which manufactured pesticides and herbicides was greeted with enthusiasm by the public (a bestseller then and still in print) and with callous indignation by the subjects of her attack. The book’s secret to success was Carson’s thorough investigation of the effects of these chemicals on nearly every aspect of the environment: man, animal, reptile, amphibian, insect, plant and soil, and presented it in such a fluid style that anyone with a middle school science education could understand it. She even included a List Of Sources to verify her claims.
Forest Service faux pas
Early in Silent Spring, Carson tells of the US Forest Service, who under pressure from Wyoming cattle ranchers intent on getting more grazing land for their herds, sprayed herbicide across ten thousand acres of sageland in the Bridger National Forest so grasses appropriate for cattle grazing could be planted. Along with wiping out the sage, the meandering willow trees which gave the forest its beauty were also killed, driving out the Moose and vast amounts of wildlife for which the forest had become a destination. Gone too were the beavers who through prodigious labor had used the forest wood to build a dam over a stream, backing up a lake in the process. The trout in that lake sometimes grew up to 5 pounds while the trout in the stream rarely grew to more than six inches. But when the beavers left, the dam fell into disrepair, and the lake drained away, taking with it those prize trout which were too large to live in the stream. Gone too were the anglers and the tourists.
She uses this story and many others to reinforce her statement that all of nature works as one and when you attack one part, you affect all, in frequently unanticipated ways.
Carson’s science credentials and understanding of the subject were impeccable. Having spent her career as a marine biologist for the US Fish & Wildlife Service, she was also the author of three previous best selling books: The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea, and Under the Sea-Wind. Her experience as an author breathed life into what might have been an extremely dry book in other hands.
The Blowback and the Kennedy Investigation
Those she attacked in Silent Spring responded viciously. According to Peter Matthiessen, writing in Time Magazine in 1999, ‘Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a “hysterical woman” unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto Company, Velsicol, American Cyanamid — indeed, the whole chemical industry — duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.” The uproar found its way to the Oval Office when President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee investigated the claims that Carson made in Silent Spring . To the chagrin of her attackers, the investigation vindicated Carson’s work, and led to an immediate strengthening of the regulation of chemical pesticides and the eventual ban on domestic use of DDT in 1972.
Is Silent Spring still valid?
If you think that a science-based book written in 1962 might be outdated, you’ll be surprised to learn that many of the insecticides and herbicides Carson describes in Silent Spring are still in use, but in some cases under different trade names. Some have been banned from use in the U.S., but are still used in developing countries.
Since Silent Spring‘s publication these chemicals have been banned: DDT, Aldrin, DDD, Lindane, 2,4,5-T (one of the key components in Agent Orange); and Toxaphene. But still in use are Malathion; Heptachlor; 2,4,D; and Amitrol, known now as 3-Amino-1,2,4-triazole (or A3-T). Frightening stuff.
What Carson’s detractors missed then and still miss today is that she never called for a complete ban on all chemical means to fight “pests” and “weeds”. In fact, she encouraged their study and use in limited quantities as long as they were used with eyes wide open, that is, awareness of the possible consequences. She stressed that we should always use the scalpel of biological controls first instead of the shotgun of chemical killers.
“…The chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life-a fabric on one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways. These extraordinary capacities of life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no “high minded orientation”, no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper.
“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… 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.”
Rachel Carson, 1962
FTC Disclosure: book purchased for review