Fifty years ago, a book was published that changed the way people thought about the environment. When Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962, few had any idea that pesticides had a detrimental effect on their health and that of the world around them.
Essentially, she was responsible for the founding of today’s environmental movement — bringing it out from the “perceived” realm of the crackpot to mainstream acceptance. Even industries now have to act responsibly to mitigate their impact on the environment, and governments today consider environmental impacts when approving projects. As well, the senior levels of government have environmental ministers, which wasn’t the case in Carson’s day. And out of her musings on the destruction of nature by synthetic chemicals emerged Earth Day, which is celebrated annually by millions of people across the globe on April 22 (locally, the Fort Whyte Centre and Oak Hammock Marsh hold Earth Day events).
The message she conveyed began to resonant with so many people that her book became an international best-seller. It was one of those books that could be said to have “made a difference.” The book had a seemingly innocent beginning with the asking of a single question. Carson was told the story of a woman who had noted a “strange stillness. The birds, for example — where had they gone?” It was a question she resolved to investigate, and resulted in her determination that all was not well with the world.
Although a scientist, her book transcended academia by tying together chemical abuses and environmental impact into a highly readable format. It was a gripping tale of misadventure and diasterous consequences. However, Carson didn’t then realize the effect her book would have on people. “It would be unrealistic to believe that one book could bring about complete change,” she wrote to a friend prior to the release of Silent Spring. Yet, her book did bring about environmental awareness and did lead to sweeping changes.
Carson accused the chemical industry of spreading misinformation about the pesticides they produced and said that government was complicit by being uncritical about the industry’s products. Not unexpectedly, the chemical industry attacked Carson and her findings. The chemical industry’s giants began to refer to her as that “hysterical woman.” To some editorial writers, who accepted the industry’s message, Carson was an “alarmist” for spreading the belief that the “world was being poisoned.” She was accused of “exaggeration and sensationalism.” What the chemical industry didn’t mention was that Carson was not asking for a complete ban on pesticides, but for their use in moderation and in a way less harmful to the environment.
In the wake of the uproar created by the publication of the book, U.S. President John F. Kennedy directed the Science Advisory Committee to investigate the accusations made by Carson. The investigation vindicated Carson and lead to new regulations on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. In Great Britain, the House of Lords evoked Carson’s name whenever it discussed controls for the use of manmade pesticides.
Because of what she wrote, DDT was banned in both Canada and the U.S. as an “agricultural pesticide,” as well as by other countries across the world, although it took years of debate. Of all the chemicals cited in the book, DDT was made out to be among the greatest villains — a toxin she blamed for birth defects, mutations, and even the deaths of creatures of the land, sea and sky.
“One of the most sinister features of DDT and related chemicals is the way they are passed on from one organism to another through all the links of the food chain,” Carson wrote.
DDT turned up in milk from cows as a result of the animals eating hay cut from crops sprayed with the chemical, she explained, and the milk is drunk by humans where it concentrates in fat reserves. Mothers pass on DDT to their babies while nursing. Even Innuit in northern Canada, who had no direct contact with DDT, had been found to have the chemical in their bodies.
Early symptoms of DDT poisoning in humans include headache, nausea, vomiting, confusion and tremors.
In her book, Carson cited the findings of Charles Broley, a retired banker from Winnipeg, who in 1939 began banding eagles in Florida and Ontario (for more on him, read the book, Charles Broley: An Extraordinary Naturalist, by Jon Gerrard). At first he found that the eagles were thriving, but over the years fewer hatchlings were emerging from nests and he began to wonder what was happening. It was later determined that DDT concentrated in birds of prey, as they were at the top of the food chain, and then interfered with the bird’s calcium metabolism, making the bird either sterile or unable to lay healthy eggs. Female eagles laid eggs that were often too brittle to withstand the weight of a brooding adult, making it virtually impossible to hatch the eggs.
Later critics of Carson said she was to blame for the spread of malaria, since DDT used to kill the mosquitoes that carried the parasite. Some accused her of “millions” of deaths. But what they didn’t mention was that malaria-carrying mosquitoes had over time developed a resistance to DDT resulting from its indiscriminate use which was something that she warned would happen in her book. Besides, DDT wasn’t banned for malaria prevention, but came into disuse because it lost its ability to kill mosquitoes. Carson cautioned that triumphs against insect pests are “short-lived, “and “that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting (them) ...”
Carson said in man’s goal to conquer nature, “has written a depressing record of destruction, directed not only against the earth he inhabits but against the life that shares it with him ... we are adding a new chapter and a new kind of havoc — the direct killing of birds, mammals, fishes, and indeed practically every form of wildlife by chemical insecticides indiscriminately sprayed on the land.”
She argued that humanity had an obligation to use wisdom in using chemicals, since mankind was a part of the environment, sharing it with all creatures, great and small. If nothing was done to prevent the misuse of chemicals, she warned that no birds would sing.
While environmentalists are now taken seriously, there are still some willing to dismiss as alarmist such concerns as climate change, which is reminiscent to the reaction by government and the chemical industry to Silent Spring. But Carson would never have advocated the banning of fossil fuels, which is entirely unrealistic. Instead, she would merely ask that the extraction and use of fossil fuels be done in a way that leaves the smallest possible footprint on the environment.