Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

REVIEW: Silent Spring

In R.Richardson, Reviews on October 21, 2010 at 2:10 pm


RUTH RICHARDSON re-visits Rachel Carson’s classic work, “Silent Spring”, first published in 1962, and re-printed many times since.

Seldom do we review a book that is almost fifty years old. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, may well be familiar to some Clarion readers. It still has immense relevance for us in the 21st Century and remains the mainspring for the whole ecological movement.

It’s hard for us in these environmentally-conscious times to comprehend that in the first half of the 20th Century, those who raised doubts about our exploitation of the planet were, in the main, considered cranks.

POISONING THE EARTH: Rachel Carson’s chief concern is the over-use of pesticides, the consequent effect on wild life and, through the food chain, on humans. In fact, the risks of spraying chemicals, especially DDT, were already known. But it took Silent Spring, written with passion and in a style accessible to us all, to alert the public to what was happening on a vast scale.

The title, “Silent Spring”, is taken from “A Fable for Tomorrow”, Carson’s opening chapter in which she sketches a community “where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings”. Then “a strange blight crept over the area”. Crops and cattle sickened and died, and noticeably, “it was a Spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus… only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.” This is a fictional community but it might, writes Carson, have its counterparts anywhere in America or indeed the rest of the world.

Pesticides and herbicides, she writes, have both immediate and long term effects. Run-off from agricultural land brings these poisons into the rivers and ultimately the sea. Some chemicals are evident in soil as long as twelve years after their application.

A DEVASTATED LANDSCAPE: Carson quotes the story of widespread spraying of sage lands, as told in “My Wilderness: East to Katahdin”, by William O. Douglas. Cattlemen had wanted more grass land for grazing. The sage was eliminated, but so too were the willows that grew along the meandering streams in the area. Moose lived in the willow thickets, beavers built dams in the streams and waterfowl flourished. A year after the spraying it had all gone, leaving a devastated landscape.

Rachel Carson quotes many more examples of spraying which have led to widespread destruction. Separate chapters deal with the effects on insects, birds, birds, fish and plant life. She also explains how these poisons move up the food chain to reach the human population. In her chapter, “The Human Price”, there is a quite technical, though interesting, section on how the human body deals with these toxins. The cumulative effect of long-term exposure is not yet known.

Carson urges the use of biological methods of control, where the natural enemies of “pests” are introduced into a problem area. She cites several instances of the successful use of such methods – for example, in Florida, Vermont and Newfoundland. In Newfoundland it was the introduction of the masked shrew to reduce the population of saw flies that threatened the growth of evergreen trees. Reports suggest that this strategy has been successful.

When Silent Spring was published, the agro-chemical industry spent a quarter of a million dollars in an attempt to denigrate Carson’s science. Their efforts only brought the book and its message more publicity. Silent Spring achieved enormous popularity and broad public support. And it was largely instrumental in the banning of DDT and similar insecticides.

CHALLENGING TIMES: More fundamentally Silent Spring encouraged people not to accept at face value what they were told by governments or so-called experts, to challenge policies and to ask questions.

Sadly Rachel Carson died in 1964, only two years after Silent Spring was published, at the age of 56.

But her message lives on.

Jeffrey Leach writes: “Carson’s call for active involvement in our environment is still an absolute necessity today as the industrial system continues its rapid march across the landscape.”

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