Wed 26 Dec 2012 21:00, BBC Radio 4
Rachel Carson and the legacy of Silent Spring →Link
Fifty years after the publication of the book that laid the foundations for the environmental movement, what have we learned from the biologist who saw the need for science to work with nature?
Robin McKie / The Observer, Sunday 27 May 2012
Near a brook in south-east England, the bird-spotter JA Baker stumbled on a grim little scene in 1961. "A heron lay in frozen stubble. Its wings were stuck to the ground by frost. Its eyes were open and living, the rest of it was dead. As I approached, I could see its whole body craving into flight. But it could not fly. I gave it peace and saw the agonised sunlight of its eyes slowly heal with cloud."
The bird's plight was clearly unnatural. Nor was its fate unique. That year, large numbers of dead birds were found strewn across the countryside. On the royal estate in Sandringham, for example, the toll included thrushes, skylarks, moorhens, goldfinches, sparrowhawks, chaffinches, hooded crows, partridges, pheasants, and wood pigeons. Nationally, more than 6,000 dead birds were reported to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a massive leap on previous years. "We were inundated," says the RSPB's conservation director, Martin Harper.
The UK was not alone. For years, reports in the US indicated that numbers of birds, including America's national bird, the bald eagle, were dropping alarmingly. Ornithologists also noted eggs were often not being laid while many that were laid did not hatch. Something was happening to the birds of the western world.
Several causes were proposed – poisons, viruses or other disease agents – but no one had a definitive answer or seemed sure of the cause – with one exception: the biologist Rachel Carson. For most of 1961, she had locked herself in her cottage in Colesville, Maryland, to complete her book, Silent Spring. It would provide an unequivocal identification of the bird killers. Powerful synthetic insecticides such as DDT were poisoning food chains, from insects upwards.
"Sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests and homes – non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the 'good' and the 'bad', to still the song of the birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film and to linger on in the soil – all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects," she wrote. One or two authors had previously suggested modern pesticides posed dangers. None wrote with the eloquence of Carson.
Serialised in the New Yorker during the summer of 1962, Silent Spring was published that September. It remains one of the most effective denunciations of industrial malpractice ever written and is widely credited with triggering popular ecological awareness in the US and Europe. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace trace their origins directly to Silent Spring. "In the 60s, we were only just waking up to the power that we had to damage the natural world," says Jonathon Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth. "Rachel Carson was the first to give voice to that concern in way that came through loud and clear to society." Or as Doris Lessing put it: "Carson was the originator of ecological concerns."
We have much to thank Carson for: a powerful green movement, an awareness that we cannot punish our wildlife indiscriminately and an understanding of the fragility of nature's food chain. But is the environment in better shape today? Have we saved the planet? Or is it in greater peril than ever? Fifty years after Silent Spring was published, as the world warms, sea levels rise and coral reefs crumble, these questions have acquired a new and urgent relevance.
Rachel Carson possessed a rare combination of gifts. She was a brilliant marine biologist and a superb writer whose prose was exquisite in its precision and lyricism. In 1952, she won a US National Book award for The Sea Around Us. Yet her most famous work, Silent Spring, is surprisingly difficult to get through. "It is dense and technical and not a book for the beach," says ornithologist Conor Mark Jameson, author of Silent Spring Revisited, a re-examination of Carson's legacy. "By current standards of science writing, it is awkward stuff."
Literary fashions have changed, of course, though other, intriguing factors give Silent Spring a strange resonance to modern ears. In particular, Carson's relentless style is striking and unexpected, filled as it is with tales of pesticide misuse that often show little variation in tone or detail. There is the slaughter at Clear Lake, California, of grebes and gulls, poisoned by a pesticide used merely to eradicate a harmless gnat. There are the cases of aerial spraying of DDT – to eliminate gypsy moths and fire ants – which wiped out blackbirds and meadowlarks. There are the links between pesticides and genetic damage in humans. And the list goes on. Were she not such a gifted writer, the effect could have been soporific.
Her remorseless approach was deliberate, however. Carson was trying to do more than end an iniquitous practice. She had decided to write "a book calling into question the paradigm of scientific progress that defined postwar American culture," says her biographer Mark Hamilton Lytle. She was amassing her evidence, in short.
It was a brave effort. Even legitimate criticism of government policy was a risky act in the US then. "Science and technology and those who worked in these fields were revered as the saviours of the free world and the trustees of prosperity," says another biographer, Linda Lear. "In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson exposes these experts to public scrutiny and makes it clear that at best they had not done their homework and at worst they had withheld the truth."
From this perspective, the book is not just an ecological alarm call. It is an assault on the paternalism of postwar science, though to be fair to its practitioners, many provided background material and checks of Carson's manuscripts in anticipation of the expected furious response of US industry.
And America's chemical giants did not disappoint. They tried to sue her, the New Yorker and her publisher, Houghton Mifflin. When this approach failed, they launched a $250,000 publicity campaign to rubbish Carson and her science. She was derided for being hysterical and unscientific and for being an unmarried woman. "She was an alarmist, they claimed," Lear states. "She kept cats and loved birds. Even a former US secretary of agriculture was known to wonder in public 'why a spinster with no children was so interested in genetics'. Her unpardonable offence was that she had overstepped her place as a woman."
Carson was now suffering from breast cancer and the effects of her radiotherapy. Yet she fought back. At the Women's National Press Club, she denounced the links that had been established between science and industry. "When a scientific organisation speaks," she asked, "whose voice do we hear – that of science or of the sustaining industry?" The question remains as pertinent today as it did in 1962.
The furore had one beneficial effect for Carson. Sales of Silent Spring soared, reaching a million by her death in April 1964. Pressed for his views on it, President John F Kennedy admitted an interest and later instructed his science advisory committee to investigate her claims. Its report vindicated Carson. Widespread use of pesticides was allowing poisons to build up in the food chain, posing a real risk to humans. Ten years and two presidents later, the production of DDT and its use in agriculture was banned in the US. Britain officially banned its use some years later.
Carson's opponents have long memories, however. Websites, many established by rightwing institutions backed by US industry, claim that she was a mass murderer who killed more people than the Nazis, for example. The DDT ban was responsible, these sites argue, for the deaths of countless Africans from malaria that would have been controlled had the west not stopped making the pesticide.
The claims are rejected by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway. DDT was banned not just because it was accumulating in the food chain but because mosquitoes were developing resistance to it, they state. Nevertheless, groups still blame Carson for the current blight of malaria.
US climate scientist Michael E Mann offers another explanation for this perverse belief. "Those who oppose the environment movement have developed a special strategy: 'Whenever you get the chance: attack the icon.' Then you can say the whole cause must be tainted because you have thrown so much mud at the figurehead," says Mann, himself a victim of internet vilification over his climate research. "Rachel Carson is certainly an icon. Hence her treatment. Her story has so many resonances."
In fact, Carson's warnings are still highly relevant, both in terms of the specific threat posed by DDT and its sister chemicals and to the general ecological dangers facing humanity. "The seas are now witnessing the land horrors she described in Silent Spring," says oceanographer Callum Roberts, of York University. "The seas are the ultimate sinks. Chemicals get washed out of the soil and into streams and rivers. They should settle on the sea bed and stay there. However, fishing has become so intense, with boats dredging up scallops and bottom-welling fish all the time, that we are constantly ploughing up these toxins, including DDT, and stirring them back into the water."
Roberts points to the bottlenose dolphins of Sarasota Bay, Florida, as typical victims. "When a mother dolphin has her first offspring, she transfers a huge part of her body's burden of chemicals, including toxins, to her first-born. As a result, 70% of first-born calves die within a year."
Nor have matters improved on land. Neonicotinoids, insecticides used in seed dressing, have been linked to colony collapse disorder in honeybees, a condition that saw 800,000 hives wiped out in the US in 2007 alone, while vultures in Asia have been wiped out by the chemical diclofenac used on farms. As Carson wrote: "Chemical war is never won and all life is caught in its violent crossfire."
It is a lesson that seems to have been lost over the decades, however. "Carson believed we had to have a balance between ourselves and nature but the urge to have a macho-domination of the planet seems just as strong as it was in 1962," says Porritt. "We have made much less progress than we hoped for then."
Jameson agrees. "Was she right? Emphatically so. Was she heeded? Well, over DDT, she was. But her broad message, that we need to act in moderation and achieve a balance with nature, has still not been fully grasped."
Martin Harper of the RSPB is also cautious. "It took 10 years to get DDT banned after its effects had been demonstrated. And similarly today, when warned about a chemical's danger, governments wait until research results are unequivocal. Then they suggest industry takes voluntary action. Only when that fails does it issue a ban, years too late."
Rachel Carson's legacy is therefore difficult to assess. More than any other individual, she helped raise awareness about humanity's potential to wreak havoc on nature and we should be grateful. But it is equally clear that the planet is in a far worse state today than it was in 1962. The population has risen from 3.1 billion to 6.9 billion, seas are being drained of fish, wild places destroyed and wildlife devastated.
"I think she would have been horrified about the state of the planet today," Porritt admits. "Silent Spring outlined a clear and important message: that everything in nature is related to everything else. Yet we have not taken that idea on board or fully appreciated its significance. In that sense, we have let her down."
Rachel Carson Didn’t Kill Millions of Africans →Link
How the 50-year-old campaign against Silent Spring still distorts environmental debates.
By William Souder / SEPT. 4 2012 5:02 AM
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s landmark warning about the indiscriminate use of pesticides, turns 50 this month. By extension, that puts the environmental movement also at the half-century mark—along with the bitter, divisive argument we continue to have over both the book and the movement it spawned. The terms of that argument, which emerged in the brutal reaction to Silent Spring from those who saw it not as a warning but as a threat, haven’t changed much. And they leave us with a vexing question: Why do we fight? How is it that the environment we all share is the subject of partisan debate? After all, the right and the left inhabit the same planet, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.
Carson’s book was controversial before it even was a book. In June 1962, three long excerpts were published by The New Yorker magazine. They alarmed the public, which deluged the Department of Agriculture and other agencies with demands for action, and outraged the chemical industry and its allies in government. In late August 1962, after he was asked about pesticides at a press conference, President Kennedy ordered his science adviser to form a commission to investigate the problems brought to light, the president said, by “Miss Carson’s book.” A month later, when Silent Spring was published, the outlines of the fight over pesticides had hardened. Armed with a substantial war chest—Carson’s publisher heard it was $250,000—pesticide makers launched an attack aimed at discrediting Silent Spring and destroying its author.
The offensive included a widely distributed parody of Carson’s famous opening chapter about a town where no birds sang, and countless fact-sheets extolling the benefits of pesticides to human health and food production. Silent Spring was described as one-sided and unbalanced to any media that would listen. Some did. Time magazine called the book “hysterical” and “patently unsound.”
Carson’s critics pushed her to the left end of the political spectrum, to a remote corner of the freaky fringe that at the time included organic farmers, food faddists, and anti-fluoridationists. One pesticide maker, which threatened to sue if Silent Spring was published, was more explicit: Carson, the company claimed, was in league with “sinister parties” whose goal was to undermine American agriculture and free enterprise in order to further the interests of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. The word Communist—in 1962 the most potent of insults—wasn’t used, but it was understood. Silent Spring, said its more ardent detractors, was un-American.
And there the two sides sit 50 years later. On one side of the environmental debate are the perceived soft-hearted scientists and those who would preserve the natural order; on the other are the hard pragmatists of industry and their friends in high places, the massed might of the establishment. Substitute climate change for pesticides, and the argument plays out the same now as it did a half-century ago. President Kennedy’s scientific commission would ultimately affirm Carson’s claims about pesticides, but then as now, nobody ever really gives an inch.
Carson was also accused of having written a book that, though it claimed to be concerned with human health, would instead contribute directly to death and disease on a massive scale by stopping the use of the insecticide DDT in the fight against malaria. One irate letter to The New Yorker complained that Carson’s “mischief” would make it impossible to raise the funds needed to continue the effort to eradicate malaria, and its author wondered if the magazine’s legendary standards for accuracy and fairness had fallen. Apparently unaware of the distinction between science authors and nudists, the letter writer referred to Carson as a “naturist.”
The claim that Rachel Carson is responsible for the devastations of malaria, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, has gained renewed traction in recent years. The American Enterprise Institute and other free-market conservatives have defended the safety and efficacy of DDT—and the claim of Carson’s “guilt” in the deaths of millions of Africans is routinely parroted by people who are clueless about the content of Silent Spring or the sources of the attacks now made against it. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a limited-government, free-enterprise think tank, maintains the website rachelwaswrong.org, which details Carson’s complicity in the continuing plague of malaria. In 2004, the late writer Michael Crichton offered a bite-sized and easy-to-remember indictment of Carson’s crime: “Banning DDT,” Crichton wrote, “killed more people than Hitler.” This was dialogue in a novel, but in interviews Crichton made it clear this was what he believed.
Rachel Carson, who stoically weathered misinformation campaigns against her before her death from breast cancer in 1964, would find the current situation all-too predictable. As she said once in a speech after the release of Silent Spring, many people who have not read the book nonetheless “disapprove of it heartily.”
Rachel Carson never called for the banning of pesticides. She made this clear in every public pronouncement, repeated it in an hourlong television documentary about Silent Spring, and even testified to that effect before the U.S. Senate. Carson never denied that there were beneficial uses of pesticides, notably in combatting human diseases transmitted by insects, where she said they had not only been proven effective but were morally “necessary.”
“It is not my contention,” Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge.”
Many agreed. Editorializing shortly after The New Yorker articles appeared, the New York Times wrote that Carson had struck the right balance: “Miss Carson does not argue that chemical pesticides must never be used,” the Times said, “but she warns of the dangers of misuse and overuse by a public that has become mesmerized by the notion that chemists are the possessors of divine wisdom and that nothing but benefits can emerge from their test tubes.”
Carson did not seek to end the use of pesticides—only their heedless overuse at a time when it was all but impossible to escape exposure to them. Aerial insecticide spraying campaigns over forests, cities, and suburbs; the routine application of insecticides to crops by farmers at concentrations far above what was considered “safe;” and the residential use of insecticides in everything from shelf paper to aerosol “bombs” had contaminated the landscape in exactly the same manner as the fallout from the then-pervasive testing of nuclear weapons—a connection Carson made explicit in Silent Spring.
“In this now universal contamination of the environment,” Carson wrote, “chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life.”
The Competitive Enterprise Institute—to its credit—acknowledges that Carson did not call for the banning of pesticides in Silent Spring. But they claim Carson’s caveat about their value in fighting disease was so overwhelmed by her general disapproval of their use that “negative publicity” around Silent Spring halted the use of DDT against malaria, notably in sub-Saharan Africa, where some 90 percent of the world’s malaria cases occur.
It’s true that Carson found little good to say about DDT or any of its toxic cousins—the chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbon insecticides developed in the years after World War II and after the Swiss chemist Paul Muller had won a Nobel Prize for discovering DDT. But it’s a stretch to see how the mood surrounding Silent Spring was the prime cause of DDT’s exit from the fight against malaria. And, as the New York Times and other publications proved, it was understood by anyone who took time to read Silent Spring that Carson was not an absolutist seeking to stop all pesticide use.
DDT had been effective against malaria in Europe, in Northern Africa, in parts of India and southern Asia, and even in the southern United States, where the disease was already being routed by other means. But these were mostly developed areas. Using DDT in places like sub-Saharan Africa, with its remote and hard-to-reach villages, had long been considered problematic. It was an old story and one still repeated: Africa was everybody’s lowest priority.
And in any case, the World Health Organization had begun to question its malaria-eradication program even before Silent Spring was published. One object lesson was that the heavy use of DDT in many parts of the world was producing new strains of mosquitoes resistant to the insecticide. Much as it can happen with antibiotics, the use of an environmental poison clears susceptible organisms from the ecosystem and allows those with immunity to take over. The WHO also faced declining interest in the disease among scientists and sharp reductions in funding from the international community.
When the recently created Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT for most domestic uses in 1972, this ruling had no force in other parts of the world and the insecticide remained part of the international anti-malaria arsenal. The United States continued to manufacture and export DDT until the mid-1980s, and it has always been available from pesticide makers in other countries.
One result is that DDT is still with us—globally adrift in the atmosphere from spraying operations in various parts of the world, and also from its continuing volatilization from soils in which it has lain dormant for decades. The threat of DDT to wildlife—as a deadly neurotoxin in many species and a destroyer of reproductive capabilities in others—has never been in doubt. Carson’s claims in Silent Spring about DDT’s connection to human cancer and other disorders have not been completely resolved. The National Toxicology Program lists DDT as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” The same holds for two of its common break-down products, DDD and DDE, which are also suspected of causing developmental problems in humans.
These are cloudy but worrisome presumptions. DDT is stored in fat tissues—including ours—and that storage amplifies with repeated exposures over time, as well as through food chains, with unpredictable consequences. We walk around with our personal body-burden of DDT, a poison we still consume both from its decades-old residuals and its ongoing uses. If Rachel Carson hoped to end the use of DDT and our exposure to it, she did a lousy job.
In 2006, the World Health Organization announced a renewed commitment to fighting malaria with DDT, mainly in Africa—where the WHO had never lifted its approval for this purpose. The move was backed by environmental groups, as it surely would have been by Rachel Carson had she been with us still.
What is the legacy of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring? →Link
Fifty years after its publication, Rachel Carson's investigation into pesticides still divides opinion.
Leo Hickman / Thursday 27 September 2012 18.10
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring Reaches Its 50th Anniversary →Link
How Silent Spring Became the First Shot in the War Over the Environment. 50 years old this month, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring helped kickstart the environmental movement and led the U.S. to ban the pesticide DDT. So why do some people blame Carson for millions of malaria deaths in Africa?
By Bryan Walsh @bryanrwalshSept. 25, 2012