On the Legacy of Silent Spring

On the Legacy of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, 1962

Upon preparing an overview of Silent Spring, as one of Clare College’s “Great Book” soirées, I was immediately taken back to my childhood. Memories of my WWF Panda badge and starter pack, my pressed flower collection (Sheet 1) (Sheet 2) (the second image having been overwritten by my mother as we laboured late into the night in preparation for display at Stroud Show), and JFK. (And yes, I can remember exactly where I was, and how I heard, but that is another story…). Within a few months of publication in the autumn of 1962, Carson had made a considerable impact giving evidence to his Presidential Science Advisory Committee.

There is a wealth of biographical detail regarding her life and untimely death from cancer in 1964. But given the challenge of revisiting this book, how would I now evaluate her contribution, the impact of her work, and parallels for current environmental issues? When her cancer recurred, she must have had a realistic expectation for her own lifespan. She had been editor in chief for publications by US Fish and Wildlife Service until 1952, and then seen her own career flourish as a popular scientific author. How best to capture popular attention beyond the procrastination, prevarication and obfuscation of government bureaucracy, academic ecologists and agrochemical industry?

Initially I was rebuffed by the opening chapters, which were couched in very emotive terms and lacked cross references. In Chapter 2, “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.” And later, “When the public protests… fed little tranquilizing pills of half-truths… false assurances… sugar coating of unpalatable facts”. Many of the audience took me to task for my criticisms. My argument had been that we all dress up and promote data for scientific publications to some extent, but would use a more conditional or hypothetical style “in this book, I contend….”, or “I set out to show…..” or “evidence will be presented to demonstrate/prove/convince…” Her style was also used in part as the basis for the widespread campaign to undermine her scientific authority and personal integrity, waged by agrochemical companies, politicians and the like.

Subsequently, as each emotively titled chapter unfurls, the reader is won over by the sheer weight of examples, mostly cross-referenced to peer-reviewed papers or government reports. There are many devastating examples whereby entire catchments, counties and regions demonstrated catastrophic (with the emphasis on ‘-trophic’) declines in insects and terrestrial invertebrates, birds and mammals. These resulted from repeated and indiscriminate applications of compounds (DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, lindane, organophosphates) usually in a futile effort to control native or invasive insects. By 1972 many had been banned worldwide, or with use now controlled or restricted see (Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants).

So what are the parallels for mass action? Perhaps one is the Montreal Protocol, which reached a global agreement to ban the use of dangerous chlorofluorocarbons only 18 months after the discovery of the ozone hole. But alternative compounds were available, and we all inadvertently bought in to their introduction with each replacement fridge or freezer. Another lesson is to realise how lobbying, spin and special interest groups increasingly shape political or popular opinion by campaigns of misinformation, prejudice or sheer financial greed- and to unpick the actual science which lies behind hype of campaigns waged by those ranging from Greenpeace to Exxon or Monsanto. My thoughts on the need to buy in to climate change, and act urgently to meet the cost of CO2 emissions, have been advocated on these pages previously.

In conclusion, with the recovery of raptor populations in the UK, http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/wingprayer_tcm9-188788.pdf, and US, we see the results of her whistleblowing. To what extent she accelerated the banning of these compounds is a matter of conjecture- maybe a decade? For those who suggest that her actions led to millions of deaths from malaria- well read the book, and the preface of the UK edition by Lord Shackleton, as both allude to the widespread occurrence of resistance to pesticides in malarial mosquitoes in the 1960’s. And the audience left me with the challenge of developing my own popular science legacy, for which this blog, and earlier postings, represent my initial tentative steps.

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About Howard Griffiths

Professor of Plant Ecology, physiological ecologist, for whom the challenge is to marry molecular and physiological processes to ecological habitat preferences.

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