50 years after ‘Silent Spring’

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, originally published on 27 September 1962.

Silent Spring has come to be regarded as an environmental classic which instigated the modern environmental movement. The book’s warning about the dangers of pesticides touched a nerve, but also reflected wider concerns in the emerging counter-culture of the sixties – that modern technologies, combined with rampant consumerism, were causing environmental problems that had otherwise not been widely noticed or, worse, suppressed by vested interests.

Personally, the book has a special meaning.  It was one of the first books that I borrowed when a public library opened in our village in 1962, when I was 14.  How much of the book I actually read, I cannot now remember – but what I can recall is the impact that the introduction made upon me then.  It was almost like reading the science fiction to which I was addicted at that time:

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of colour that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently across the fields, half hidden in the mists of the autumn mornings.

Among the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveller’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and autumn people travelled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. Sot it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.

Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example – where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled an disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs – the litters were small and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.

The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. Anglers no longer visited them, for all the fish had died.

In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and the streams.

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.

This town does not actually exist, but it might easily have a thousand counterparts in America or elsewhere in the world. I know of no community that has experienced all the misfortunes I describe. Yet every one of these disasters has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them. A grim spectre has crept upon us almost unnoticed, and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality we all shall know.

It was here that, for the first time, I was introduced to the idea of the inter-connectedness of all living things, and the pernicious effects of industrial development on the environment.  It was a concept that sank like a pebble in a pool, lost in my consciousness for many years, but resurfacing a decade or so later. For someone of the ‘ban-the bomb’ generation, reading the following passage so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis was particularly alarming:

The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species man acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.

During the past quarter century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world and the very nature of life. Strontium 90, released through nuclear explosions into the air, comes to earth in rain or drifts down as fallout, lodges in soil, enters into the grass or corn or wheat grown there, and in time takes up its abode in the bones of a human being, there to remain until his death. Similarly, chemicals sprayed on crop lands or forests or gardens lie long in soil, entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death. Or they pass mysteriously by underground streams until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells. As Albert Schweitzer has said, “Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation.”

It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth eons of time in which that developing and evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings. The environment, rigorously shaping and directing the life it supported, contained elements that were hostile as well as supporting. Certain rocks gave out dangerous radiation; even within the light of the sun, from which all life draws its energy, there were short-wave radiations with power to injure. Given time – time not in years but in millennia –  life adjusts, and a balance has been reached. For time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world there is no time.

The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature. Radiation is no longer merely the background radiation of rocks, the bombardment of cosmic rays, the ultraviolet of the sun that have existed before there was any life on earth; radiation is now the unnatural creation of man’s tampering with the atom. The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.

To adjust to these chemicals would require time on the scale that is nature’s; it would require not merely the years of a man’s life but the life of generations. And even this, were it by some miracle possible, would be futile, for the new chemicals come from our laboratories in an endless stream; almost five hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone. The figure is staggering and its implications are not easily grasped: five hundred new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience.

Among them are many that are used in man’s war against nature. Since the mid-1940’s over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described in the modem vernacular as “pests”; and they are sold under several thousand different brand names.

These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the “good” and the “bad,” to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. 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? They should not be called “insecticides,” but “biocides.”


Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war, the central problem of our age has therefore become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends. . . .

What is the legacy of Silent Spring?  There are some interesting opinions and archive materials in this discussion, hosted on The Guardian website two days ago, while the Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson can be explored on this website.

There’s an excellent essay, Re-Reading Silent Spring, published by Earth Island Journal that draws attention to how much was already known in 1962 about the environmental health impacts of petrochemicals, and how little the  regulatory response to the environmental impact of chemicals has changed, despite the advances in scientific understanding since then:

Reading Silent Spring today, it is disquieting to realize how much was already known in 1962 about the environmental health impacts of petrochemicals. Even more shocking is to recognize how little our regulatory response to these chemicals’ effects has changed, despite the past five decades’ great advances in scientific understanding.

Best known for its alarming account of DDT’s decimation of bird life across the United States, Silent Spring is widely credited with sparking the public concern that lead to the chemical’s ban in the US ten years later. “Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of birds, and the early mornings, once filled with the beauty of bird song, are strangely silent,” Carson wrote, describing the toll pesticide use had taken on American birds. Without changes in practice, brought about in part by Silent Spring, the bald eagle (whose numbers had plummeted to about 400 breeding pairs in the continental US by 1963) might well have disappeared from the lower 48 states.

But Carson also described the accumulation of synthetic chemicals in people – including newborns – and these chemicals’ interaction with the innermost workings of living cells. “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death,” Carson wrote. “These chemicals are now stored in the bodies of the vast majority of human beings, regardless of age. They occur in the mother’s milk, and probably in the tissues of the unborn child,” wrote Carson more than 40 years before an Environmental Working Group study found 287 industrial chemicals in newborns’ umbilical cord blood, and decades before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began finding such chemicals in the majority of Americans tested.

A year ago I wrote that I had been listening to The Essay on Radio 3:  five talks on the theme ‘Before Silent Spring‘ in which five writers, scientists and environmental campaigners reflected on how Carson built on the work of others who had gone before her, figures whose ideas preceded Silent Spring and laid the foundations of the contemporary environmental movement.  Read that post here.

Two interesting videos from YouTube about the impact of Silent Spring:

Footnote, 8.12.2012

There’s an excellent essay in today’s Guardian by Margaret Attwood in which she assesses the significance of Silent Spring.  Here’s an extract:

One of the core lessons of Silent Spring was that things labelled progress weren’t necessarily good. Another was that the perceived split between man and nature isn’t real: the inside of your body is connected to the world around you, and your body too has its ecology, and what goes into it – whether eaten or breathed or drunk or absorbed through your skin – has a profound impact on you. We’re so used to thinking this way now that it’s hard to imagine a time when general assumptions were different. But before Carson, they were.

In those years, nature was an “it”, an impersonal and unconscious force; or, worse, malignant: a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw bent on afflicting humanity with all the weapons at its disposal. Against brute nature stood “we”, with our consciousness and intelligence. We were a higher order of being, and thus we had a mandate to tame nature as if it were a horse, subdue it as if it were an enemy, and “develop” it as if it were a female bustline or a male set of Charles Atlas biceps – how awful to be underdeveloped! We could then exploit nature’s resources, which were thought of as inexhaustible.

Three streams of thinking fed into this civilisation/savagery construct. The first was biblical dominionism: in Genesis, God proclaims that man has dominion over the animals, and this was construed by some as permission to annihilate them. The second was informed by the machine metaphors that colonised linguistic space after the invention of the clock, and that spread across the west during the 18th-century enlightenment: the universe was an unfeeling machine, and life forms too were machines, without souls or consciousness or even feeling. Therefore they could be abused at will, because they weren’t really suffering. Man alone had a soul, situated inside the machine of his body (possibly, thought some, in the pituitary gland). In the 20th century, scientists threw out the soul but kept the machine: for a strangely long time, they held that to ascribe anything like human emotions to animals was anthropocentrism. Ironically, this was a direct contradiction of the granddaddy of modern biology, Charles Darwin, who had always maintained the interconnectedness of life, and – like any dog owner or farmer or hunter – was well aware of animal emotions.

The third line of thinking came – again ironically – from social Darwinism. Man was “fitter” than the animals, by virtue of his intelligence and his uniquely human emotions; thus in the struggle for existence man deserved to triumph, and nature would have to give way eventually to a fully “humanised” environment.

But Carson questioned this dualism. Whatever airs we might give ourselves, “we” were not distinct from “it”: we were part of it, and could live only inside it. To think otherwise was self-destructive:

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. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. 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.

Before ‘Silent Spring’

Before ‘Silent Spring’

This week I’ve been listening to The Essay on Radio 3, five talks on the theme ‘Before Silent Spring‘. Rachel Carson’s book was first published in 1962, a warning about the long-term effects of pesticides and a call-to-arms that is widely regarded as the starting point for the modern environmentalism.

Five writers, scientists and environmental campaigners reflected on how Carson built on the work of others who’d gone before her, figures whose ideas preceded Silent Spring and laid the foundations of the contemporary environmental movement.

The first essay was presented by Vandana Shiva, a veteran of the Indian Chipko movement in which Indian villagers, predominantly women, have sought to protect their livelihoods through non-violent resistence. She explained that the forests of India are a critical resource for the subsistence of rural people, especially in hill and mountain areas, both because of their direct provision of food, fuel and fodder and because of their role in stabilising soil and water resources. During the 1970s and 1980s the forests were increasingly felled for commerce and industry and resistance to their destruction spread throughout India and became known as the Chipko Movement.  But her main theme was the first recorded Chipko protest that took place in 1730, when 363 villagers in Rajasthan sacrificed their lives while protecting trees considered sacred by the community, hugging them and dying under the axes of men sent by the local ruler.

In the final essay, Richard Mabey told how he only encountered Silent Spring several years after its publication, since at the time he was absorbed in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the peace movement. One night at the height of the crisis, when all life seemed about to end, he distracted himself by building a bookcase. The following day, the crisis over, Silent Spring was not one of the books placed on the shelf.  If it had been, Mabey suggested, he would have been struck by its argument that threats to nature were also threats to humanity, and might have reflected that both toxic chemicals and nuclear weapons had sprung from a common well of hubris.

It was later that Mabey discovered Silent Spring – around the same time that he also stumbled upon the work of the 19th century poet John Clare.  He was surprised to find so many similarities between them. Both highlighted the complex links between all living things and both gave stark warnings about the dangers of breaking those links. In his essay, Mabey explored John Clare’s purpose in bringing the beauty and fragility of the natural environment to wider public attention in his poetry, ‘dropping down’ to see nature as it might appear to other creatures, exploring the ‘extraordinariness of small things’.

Clare was an early voice articulating  the impoverishing effects of agricultural intensification – a process beginning with the enclosures in his time and culminating in the toxic chemistry of Silent Spring. The best of Clare’s poetry, Mabey asserted, is an attack on our abuse of the land. He found it natural to turn to Clare for an epigraph when he was writing his own seminal work, The Common Ground, in 1980, the British equivalent to Silent Spring that helped  launch the conservation movement in this country. Mabey recalled the passage from Clare’s autobiography that he chose as the epigraph for the book:

I often pulled my hat over my eyes to watch the rising of the lark, or to see the hawk hang in the summer sky and the kite take its circless round the wood. I often lingered a minute on the woodland stile to hear the woodpigeons clapping their wings among the dark oaks.  I hunted curious flowers in rapture and muttered thoughts in their praise. I loved the pasture with its rushes and thistles and sheep-tracks. I adored the wild, marshy fen with its solitary heronshaw sweeing along in its melancholy sky. I wandered the heath in raptures among the rabbit burrows and golden-blossomed firze. I dropt down on a thymy mole-hill or mossy eminence to survey the summer landscape….I marked the various colours in flat, spreading fields, checkered into closes of different-tinctured grain like the colours of a map; the copper-tinted clover in blossom; the sun-tanned green of the ripening hay; the lighter charlock and the sunset imitation of the scarlet headaches; the blue corn-bottles crowding their splendid colours in large sheets over the land and troubling the cornfields with destroying beauty; the different greens of the woodland trees, the dark oak, the paler ash, the mellow lime, the white poplars peeping above the rest like leafy steeples, the grey willow shining in the sun, as if the morning mist still lingered on its cool green.  .  . I observed all this with the same rapture as l have done since. But I knew nothing of poetry. It was felt and not uttered.

Mabey went on to consider how Clare, in many of his poems, was unashamedly political, writing ‘calls to arms against profit-driven assaults on nature’. Two examples chosen by Mabey were Remembrance and To a Fallen Elm:

I see a picture that thy fate displays
And learn a lesson from thy destiny
Self interest saw thee stand in freedoms ways
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be
Thoust heard the knave abusing those in power
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free
Thoust sheltered hypocrites in many an hour
That when in power would never shelter thee
Thoust heard the knave supply his canting powers
With wrongs illusions when he wanted friends
That bawled for shelter when he lived in showers
And when clouds vanished made thy shade ammends
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom…

Discussing ‘Remembrance’, Mabey quoted the historian EP Thompson, who remarked that, ‘So close is the mutual ecological implication of the human and the natural here that each might stand for the other. Clare might be described…as a poet of ecological protest:

Here was commons for the hills where they seek for freedom still
Though every commons gone and though traps are set to kill
The little homeless miners- O it turns my bosom chill
When I think of old ‘sneap green’ puddocks nook and hilly snow
Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew
And the hills of silken grass like to cushions to the view
When we threw the pissmire crumbs when we’s nothing else to do
All leveled like a desert by the never weary plough
All vanished like the sun where that cloud is passing now
All settled here for ever on its brow […]

By Langley bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill
On cowper green I stray tis a desert strange and chill
And spreading lea close oak ere decay had penned its will
To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey
And cross berry way and old round oaks narrow lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again
Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still
It runs a naked brook cold and chill

O had I known as then joy had left the paths of men
I had watched her night and day besure and never slept agen
And when she turned to go O I’d caught her mantle then
And wooed her like a lover by my lonely side to stay
Aye knelt and worshipped on as love in beautys bower
And clung upon her smiles as a bee upon her flower
And gave her heart my poesys all cropt in a sunny hour
As keepsakes and pledges to fade away
But love never heeded to treasure up the may
So it went the comon road with decay.
– from Remembrances

Mabey introduced ‘Wood Pictures in Autumn’ by noting its ‘extraordinary evocation of a landscape in which every element is interlinked’:

The woodland swamps with mosses varified
And bullrush forests bowing by the side
Of shagroot sallows that snug shelter make
For the coy moorhen in her bushy lake
Into whose tide a little runnel weaves
Such charms for silence through the choking leaves
And whimpling melodies that but intrude
As lullabies to ancient solitude
The wood-grass plats which last year left behind
Weaving their feathery lightness to the wind
Look now as picturesque amid the scene
As when the summer glossed their stems in green
While hasty hare brunts through the creepy gap
Seeks their soft beds and squats in safety’s lap

Mabey concluded his essay with these words:

Of the many things [Clare’s] poems teach us – the value of the local, the mutual dependence of all living things – the best is perhaps that language may be our greatest ecological gift and that the answer to the threat of a silent spring is for us to sing against the storm.

In a further essays this week, Curt Meine considered Aldo Leopold, forester, philosopher and author of A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949, a classic in American nature writing and a cornerstone of environmental ethics; botanist Sandy Knapp discussed 19th century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, best known for co-proposing the theory of natural selection with Charles Darwin;  while historian Donald Worster explored the life of John Muir, the nineteenth century Scot who emigrated to the United States to become an outspoken advocate for the American wilderness – resulting in the founding of National Parks.