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The Legacy of Silent Spring

Pollinating insect

Last month marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, a book that had an enormous impact on the way we understand how we interact with the natural world. Carson was prompted to write the book by what she saw as incontrovertible evidence that man’s over-reliance on pesticides would lead to the destruction of entire ecosystems. Despite intense attacks from the chemical industry, the book became an instant bestseller and changed government policy. It has inspired environmentalists ever since, but 60 years later, is the legacy of Silent Spring being forgotten?

Rachel Carson the Marine Biologist

Born in Pennsylvania in 1907, Carson’s background was in marine biology. She studied at the famous Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts before completing a masters in zoology at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. In 1936 she began working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a marine biologist. Her talent for science communication meant that she also wrote educational material for the department as well as her own articles and, from 1941, books.

Sea anemones
Rachel Carson was a marine biologist fascinated by the interconnectedness of ecosystems

Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, used the life cycles of three different creatures (a sanderling, a mackerel and an eel) to illustrate the interconnectedness of life. As each organism migrates, Carson showed its relationships with a multitude of other species. This understanding of the intricate webs that link all forms of life in an ecosystem also dominated her next two books, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea. The books became bestsellers and allowed her to leave her job to concentrate fulltime on her writing.

DDT and Silent Spring

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) is an extremely potent insecticide that was first used in the second half of WWII. The United States military used it to clear islands in the Pacific of malaria-carrying insects, and it was also used as a delousing powder elsewhere. In 1945, it became available for public use and was very quickly taken up for large scale agricultural use due to its effectiveness. Unlike other available insecticides, DDT doesn’t just affect one or two types of insect, but hundreds of different species. Despite its popularity, there were a few dissenting voices in the early days who pointed out that DDT would also wipe out important pollinating insects. Regulators and the industry, however, ignored these fears.

peregrine falson
DDT’s affects on peregrine falcon eggs were first noted in the late 1950s

As a result of her dismay at the effects DDT and other chemicals seemed to be having on the wider environment, Carson began gathering evidence in the late 1950s. The result was Silent Spring, published in 1962. In the book, she showed how chemicals, in particular DDT, used to spray crops entered the food chain and the devastating results of this. Far from targeting insect ‘pests’ alone, the pesticides became increasingly concentrated in organisms further up the food chain, causing genetic mutations and cancers in animals, including man. One of the hazards she highlighted was the effect on bird eggs. Increased levels of DDT in the systems of birds of prey, such as peregrine falcon and bald eagle, were shown to lead to high levels of either infertility or extremely thin eggshells that were unable to survive to hatching. Testing in the 1960s backed this up.

A Wider Call to Arms

Carson also used the book as a call to arms. She recognised that targeted and responsible chemical use was necessary to a certain extent. But she was concerned that our desire for continual economic growth means we are too uncritical, both in government and as individuals. Not enough research was carried out before the introduction of new chemicals because all that mattered were higher production levels. Carson felt that this focus on unrestrained economic expansion was incompatible with the survival not only of the natural world, but of humans as well. Silent Spring aimed to highlight how much a part of nature we are and that imagining we are separate from it, or can master it, would have devastating consequences. This message was one that has had a lasting influence on our relationship with the world around us ever since.

Backlash and Vindication

The backlash Carson received from the chemical industry and other interested parties was swift and vitriolic. Dissenters accused her of being unscientific, hysterical and alarmist. Some criticised the book by saying she clearly wanted a return to a time of low yields, rampant disease and uncontrollable pest invasions. Carson pre-empted this, however, by researching her subject meticulously. She gathered examples of the negative effects of pesticide use from around the world and consulted with a number of other scientists before publication. She was also careful to stress that she wasn’t advocating for a complete ban on insecticide use, just more research and more responsible use.

Silent Spring was attacked by the chemical industry

Following serialisation of the book in The New Yorker magazine, the public’s awareness of the issue grew as did their concern about the consequences of unchecked chemical usage. Carson gave evidence before John F Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee who then issued a report backing up her research. As a result, DDT was subsequently much more tightly controlled in the US. In 1972, the States banned it completely. One consequence was the dramatic recovery of bald eagle populations. DDT was banned in the UK in 1986 and worldwide in 2001, except in countries that need to combat high levels of insect-borne diseases, such as malaria.

A Backwards Trajectory?

Unfortunately, this does not mean the story is over, despite the book’s success. Research in the United States shows that the effects of DDT in the environment are long-lasting, and despite the 1972 ban it is still present in the soil, and consequently food and humans, fifty years later. There are also elements of the chemical industry who would still like to see the bans on DDT overturned, citing its effectiveness against malarial-carrying insects as justification.

Bee and flower
Certain neonicotinoid pesticides have been shown to harm pollinators

In the UK, despite 60 years of awareness about the widespread harm chemicals can cause, a combination of inaction and even the reversal of bans on various substances means wildlife is increasingly threatened. DDT will almost certainly never be permitted again, but many other pesticides are still in use or may return. In 2018, the EU banned a trio of neonicotinoid insecticides for use on flowering plants. This was a result of laboratory trials which showed they adversely affect pollinators such as bees. Against scientific advice, the UK government lifted the ban on one of these chemicals, thiamethoxam, in March this year, allowing its use in the sugar beet industry. The government had already failed to produce its National Action Plan on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides, promised for 2018.

There are now also even greater concerns because September’s Retained EU Law Bill will remove all current pesticide regulations. Even if the government chooses to impose its own restrictions on pesticide use, this will take time and, in the meantime, much damage may be done. Rachel Carson’s book, after all, showed how just one application of chemicals to an area can have wide-ranging and long-lasting effects.

Sixty Years of Silent Spring

Carson’s book was revolutionary. Not only did it expose the devastating effects man can have on the natural world, but it also made many people reassess the type of relationship we need to have with nature. Carson herself sadly died of breast cancer in 1964 and did not live to see the USA’s DDT ban of 1972 and many of the other victories against wholesale chemical use. However, one cannot help but think she would despair at the way the tide has turned in the UK today and how many of her lessons are being ignored.