Book Discussion Series #1: Silent Spring

Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species -man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world. ”

– Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

I’m (finally!) starting my book discussion series with the book that effectively set me on the path of environmentalism… Silent Spring by the wonderful Rachel Carson. It has taken me longer than I anticipated, not only because a busy few weeks at work has prevented my finishing the book, but also because I struggled a little bit with this one… that is, to coherently put down everything I wanted to say without it turning into a novel in itself!

When I first read Silent Spring I was nineteen years old, and it’s probably the only book to have had such a profound affect on my study and career choices… having already decided that I wanted to study science (a choice I made over creative writing, funnily enough), it helped me choose the environment as my specialism. And I’m far from the only one, Silent Spring initiated, catalysed, and drove the modern environmental movement, and to that end, I owe Rachel Carson a whole heap of gratitude. This book truly was a game-changer.

Rachel Carson herself was a remarkable lady, a biologist and writer, she fought to publish and publicise her book in an era that didn’t necessarily appreciate the merits of a female scientist and in an era where large corporations attempted to prevent it being read, in an effort to continue to line their pockets. I wonder what she would think of current times… in many ways these issues haven’t changed. Sadly she died of cancer only two years after the publication of Silent Spring aged just fifty-six.

Top predators and long-lived species are particularly vulnerable to bioaccumulation

My copy of the book contains an Afterword by Linda Lear and in that she describes some of the difficulties presented to Carson, both because of her gender and, naturally, corporate greed. Carson’s battle was twofold, firstly against the chemical corporations and of course secondly because she was a woman. And as a woman in science in the 1950s and 60s she was simply not valued or respected. Lear calls this her “handicap of gender” and notes the resistance that Carson came up against, explaining how reviewers labelled her a “hysterical woman” and the former Secretary of Agriculture wondered “why is a spinster with no children was so interested in genetics”.

The very concept of a silent spring is devastating, the name of the book derives from the catastrophic effect of pesticides on bird life which was witnessed in America and the wider world leading up to the publication of the book in 1962. Of course the book is not all about birds, Carson discusses the wider ecosystem, livestock, cell biology, genetic and subsequent human health effects of these pesticides too. It’s a fascinating read about the consequences of the cocktail of chemicals as humans we were (and still are in some cases) exposing the world to.

There are particularly shocking passages about the horrifying effects of these “elixirs of death” that come devastatingly, disturbingly and vividly to mind as a result of Carson’s excellent penmanship. One such example is the violent deaths of ground squirrels (poor things!) as a result of Dieldrin application in Sheldon, Illinois, of which Carson states “by acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being”.

The book discusses various chemical substances, some of which are outright lethal, and others, like the classic example of DDT, develop their potency by being magnified up a food chain in a process called bioaccumulation. Carson also discusses the unforeseeable or untested – chemicals of course can break down or react in the environment, or indeed interact with other substances in the body, thus producing unpredictable effects.

American robins are one of the book’s classic examples

In bioaccumulation, after application of a pesticide the substance is present in the soil and therefore is taken up by plants in small amounts, small animals then take in a small amount of the substance, larger animals subsequently eat lots of the smaller animals and thus accumulate larger doses and so on, until it is fatal or detrimental effects such as sterility are observed. It is particularly evident in substances that accumulate in fatty tissues like Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (better known as DDT).

Take the American robin example in the book, the robin is affected by DDT not because it is directly sprayed onto the birds, but because it was sprayed on elms, washed into the soil, where it was taken up by earthworms which were subsequently eaten by the robins. The really disturbing thing about substances that bioaccumulate, is that it often takes time for this to become evident, what may seem safe now a decade later could be devastating. Take the presence of Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in killer whales for example, widely regulated since the 1970s, these substances are still found in killer whales and other cetaceans now.

However it’s not all doom and gloom, Carson’s last chapter suggests an alternative, she argues for the use and continued research into biological control i.e. using nature as our best defence against pest species, after all why not use what has been so expertly crafted by evolution? Mother nature is surely our best weapon.

Substances like PCBs are still found in killer whales today

You may be wondering how can a book penned in 1962 be relevant today? Yes, a lot of the issues highlighted have been addressed, but the book conveys a certain attitude, a philosophy if you like, that can certainly apply to the current environmental issues we face. Carson was not afraid to make some very bold claims in the text, including detailing the offences of scientists, farmers, governments and the chemical industry alike, something that resonates as clearly today as it did more than fifty years ago.

Although many of the issues discussed have been addressed and pesticides are much more highly regulated, we do still use them. I come from a place where gardening and having an allotment (a small allocation of land for production of food) is common place, and the frequency of slug pellets and rat poison applied by some is upsetting. I do wonder if they realise the effect they can have on other wildlife, like the already declining hedgehog. Yes the more natural methods of pest control may have limited efficacy but it’s got to be better than causing a poor hedgehog to die in horrifying convulsions? Perfect veg is simply not worth it.

We can also certainly draw some parallels between the effects of pesticides and the effects of things like plastics and associated pollutants now. Is plastic the DDT of the early 21st century? Will we look back on our use of plastic with gay abandon much the same as we look back on our over-use of pesticides? And we still continue to cause widespread destruction for the sake of consumerism… have we really learnt any lessons?

Re-reading now I know why it had such an impact, Carson writes with a passion, flare and creativity that is captivating, yet she is scientific and accurate – there are no less than fifty-eight pages of principal sources in the back. Technical at times though it may be, I truly believe that anyone could pick up this book and understand it (and I strongly encourage you to do so). Environmentalist or not this is one of those books that everyone should read at least once. A classic. A stark warning. An important lesson from history.

It’s a real shame that Carson didn’t live to see her legacy, to see DDT and others banned or tightly regulated, or to see the movement of people she so heavily influenced, but for this book I (and I’m sure many others) will be eternally grateful.

“The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilised”
― Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

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