Fifty years on, 'Silent Spring' still matters


SHE ONLY DISCOVERED the malignant growth in her breast when she was halfway through writing Silent Spring. The thought must have raged in her mind that her cancer was in some way caused by the environmental poisoning her book was designed to reveal. It must have made her all the more determined as she set out a wearing litany of how nature was dying at the hands of arrogant “control men”, spreading new insecticides and herbicides without due regard for the complex web of life we live within.

She was the first to make popular an understanding of ecology and how our living systems are interconnected. She was one of the first to challenge the authority of the military, industrial and scientific communities of the United States after the second World War. Having split and exploded the atom, they must have felt there were no bounds to their creative power.

Such energy riches were available to them that they thought nothing of drenching vast areas of land with an oil spray laced with chemical bomblets that killed more than just the bugs they were after.

She was already a skilled and recognised nature writer from her time as a marine biologist with the US Bureau of Fisheries. Her last and most famous work was made up of unadorned prose citing one example after another of the way the department of agriculture and the chemical companies were getting it wrong. It was not balanced but nor was it biased. It simply set out the facts as she saw them. When the book was published, 50 years ago next month, she was prepared for the fight she knew would ensue.

She was a “nature priestess”, a “bird lover”, a “communist”. A former secretary of agriculture wondered publicly “why a spinster with no children was so interested in genetics”. Her dignified response in the few meetings or interviews she was able to conduct, as her health worsened, strengthened her case. An advisory report commissioned by President John F Kennedy backed up her scientific arguments, and her book became an unlikely bestseller.

She died in April 1964, but she remains a controversial figure. Her great legacy was the formation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970, and the subsequent withdrawal of the insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, from use in agriculture. Her enemies claim she was responsible for the death of millions of people from malaria, who they argue might otherwise have survived had DDT been used to wipe out the mosquito populations that carried the disease. That narrative omits the fact that DDT can still be used for the control of malaria but is no longer effective in that role, the mosquito having developed an immunity because of the earlier misuse of the chemical, just as Carson had predicted.

Today it is still hard to tell the exact role that environmental factors have in our increasing levels of breast and other cancers. Carson was proven right about our ability to harm ourselves through our mistreatment of nature, but her worst fears have yet to be realised. The past 50 years have brought immense improvements in the wellbeing of people on this planet. In 1960 the population of three billion people could expect to live to 52. Today seven billion will live to an average age of almost 70.

We are meeting the millennium development goals we set ourselves to reduce extreme poverty, to provide proper water supplies and to give a decent primary education to all our children. Countries in Africa that were home to the poorest of the poor are now starting to rise. They will have access to new communications and clean energy technologies that could dramatically improve the quality of their lives.

It is ironic that the darkest projections in this otherwise benign scenario are those coming from the scientific communities that Carson first challenged. Today our scientists are united in saying we are in breach of the natural boundaries in our use of the planet’s resources. Loss of biodiversity, water scarcity and runaway climate change are now the greatest threats to our future health and prosperity.

It was not because our population increased fourfold in the last century that we have a problem; our difficulty is that in the same time our use of freshwater increased ninefold, our climate emissions rose seventeenfold and our overfishing of the seas grew by a multiple of 35.

We can live well as 10 billion people on this earth, but not if we do so while using the resources of 30 billion or 40 billion.

Environmentalists such as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger wrote about the “death of environmentalism” in 2004 and argued that Carson set us on the wrong course to tackle these fundamental challenges. By establishing what they see as a tragic narrative that conjures nostalgia for Nature while prophesying ever worse disasters to come unless human societies repent for their sins against Nature, they argue that Carson had the opposite to her intended effect, provoking fatalism, conservatism and survivalism among readers and the lay public, not the rational embrace of environmental policies. Their gripe is not with the science she presented but with the politics she portrayed.

I agree with them that we need to set out a path showing how mankind can successfully intervene within the natural systems. We will have to take on that role if we are to tackle climate change. I believe we have the technological ability to do so, if we use the doubling of computing power that is occurring every two years and new distributed energy systems – that is to say electricity generated from many small energy sources, such as domestic wind turbines, rather than fossil-fuel-consuming power stations – to clean up our act. I also agree with them that we need to change green politics. We need to explain that it belongs to everyone, urban and rural, rich and poor. We need to embrace the development of technology while being sensitive to the protection of natural systems. We need to encourage change from the bottom up and not just rely on complicated laws and international regulations that are imposed from the top.

But new economics and new technoglogies will not on their own free us to make the evolutionary leap we need to make. Four years before she started to write Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote a short article for Woman’s Home Companion magazine on the need to engender a sense of wonder within children about the natural world. She recalled how she had wrapped her nephew and held him close as she brought him down to the Maine shoreline. “Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy – he a baby meeting for the first time the wild tumult of Oceanus, I with the salt of half a lifetime of sea love in me.”

If she was to have one influence over the good fairy that is supposed to preside over the christening of all children she sought this: “I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

Rachel Carson also said that those who contemplate the beauty of Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

The strength of the woman is reflected in the fact that her book and ideas gave birth to an environmental movement that is still alive and growing today.

Eamon Ryan is leader of the Green Party and was minister for communications, energy and natural resources from June 2007 until January last year

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