Silent Spring - Rachel Carson


This has to be the most important book written in terms of making ecology and green issues something that was discussed around the kitchen table. It is a book written to appeal to the general public in an era before Greenpeace even existed.

It is important to understand the background to this book. Carson completed her Masters degree in marine zoology at Johns Hopkins University. Her first job was with the US Bureau of Fisheries, writing radio scripts on marine life. She stayed with the Bureau until 1952 as a marine biologist and science writer, ending up as the Editor-in-Chief of the Information Division.

When WW2 finished and chemical companies, which had made a large amount of money from developing chemicals used during the war, now focused on promoting the use of many of these same chemicals as well as many new chemicals in the domestic market. A number of 'perfect pesticides' where released onto the market. These pesticides and other chemicals where promoted heavily through most media devices and as being the answer to all of our problems. Chemicals are still promoted today as being the answer to all of our problems.

It was the era that saw the development and widespread application of DDT, lead additives in petrol, CFC's, PCB's, HCB, amitrol and others. After the war the prevailing attitude in the US was that it should be a land of plenty, pests were not going to get in the way of process and advances in technology would be the solution of all problems. Articles repeatedly appeared that made claims such as 'Farming is being revolutionized by new fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides, weedkillers,leaf removers, plant hormones, soil conditioners, trace minerals, antibiotics and synthetic milk for pigs'. Today many of these things are cuasing problems with the health of the environment and ourselves.

In 1945 the US Bureau of Fisheries documented a number of DDT related fish deaths. There are many documented cases of DDT killing fish and birds from all around the US which Carson had access to. She noted that the spraying contractors were paid by the gallon and not the acre which meant that many towns received repeat spraying in short periods of time. Bees were killed in many areas with a huge decrease in crop production, other crops got burnt by the sprays. Many bird populations declined greatly. You can see that the decline in Bees was noticed more than 70 years ago, and has now reached concerning levels.

In 1957 Carson began her research for Silent Spring. While she was undertaking this research a number of chemical related problems began to emerge. Thalidomide which had been prescribed to pregnant women in Europe and Canada was found to cause birth defects. Reports in the US spoke about 'an arrogant and impetuous medical establishment' who made 'excessive claims for their new wonder chemical without careful testing'. It became known that every restaurant meal contained DDT. Many insects began to develop chemical resistance. It became known that there were less than 500 pairs of Bald Eagles left in the wild. All of this contributed to the success and wide readership of Silent Spring.

The book was first published in 1962 and immediately had an impact. Chemical companies (many with new public relations officers) spent large amounts of money trying to discredit Carson, she was accused of being a communist. In May 1963 during the launch of the space capsule Faith 7, CBS held a special. They interviewed Carson, government officials and White-Stevens (hired by the chemical companies to discredit Carson). Carson had worried, as the presenters of the show had not been supportive of her views previously. During the special the government officials and White-Stevens came of as overbearing and ill informed while Carson came across as calm and knowledgable.

Her message was simple:

'We have a right to know, and if knowing we conclude that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals, we should look about and see what other course is open to us'

An estimated 15 million people watched the special. The next day a number of government committees were set up to investigate pesticides and book sales soared.

In April 1964 Carson died from cancer.

In 1969 Sweden banned DDT, in 1972 the use of DDT was banned in the US and Australia finally banned its use in 1987. It is estimated that huge areas in Australia are still contaminated by DDT and that it is still stockpiled in some areas. DDT is still used in India and China today. Perhaps this is another reason we should by Australian grown.

Nearly 50 years on the book is still a confronting read.

In the opening chapter, depicting a barren countryside of the future, the reader watches poorly understood chemicals choke waterways, fields and forests and learns how these materials work their way up the food chain, decimating wildlife along the way. Obviously this is something most of us learnt during high school but back then it didn't have the same impact as reading about is from Carsons point of view. Carson explains how organophosphorus insecticides can fatally damage the human nervous system, and how certain organochlorines can be linked with leukaemia and other forms of cancer.

Finally and most importantly, Carson emphasises that nature is a vast interdependency and is a complex system, and to meddle with one part of it can have alarming consequences for many others. This is why it still resonates so well with readers today.

Rachel's Network' is an organisation named in honor of Rachel Carson and together with many other organisations is working on raising awareness on the problems associated with Glyphosate.

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