Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 30 December 2012
“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 modem and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects, it has also turned them against the earth.”
With those cautionary words ended Silent Spring, a popular science book that first came out 50 years ago, and is now widely regarded as a book that changed our thinking about the environment.
Its author was a marine biologist turned science writer, Rachel Louise Carson, who tried to warn the American public about the long term effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides.
In measured terms, she presented the evidence for what chemicals were doing to the natural environment. She argued that uncontrolled and unexamined pesticide use was already harming and killing animals, and could do the same to humans.
In elegant prose, she outlined the implications of excessive chemicals use in cities, towns and countryside. She challenged the dominant view of agricultural scientists and the US government, and called for a change in their policy and practice.
It was her swan song. Within 18 months of the book coming out in the summer of 1962, Carson died from breast cancer, aged 56. But in that time, she had triggered a massive policy debate — and a new consciousness of the need to balance human interests with Nature.
Silent Spring came out at a time when science and technology were widely seen as having all the solutions to world problems. Splitting the atom had helped end World War II, and new technologies were driving economies, generating growth faster than ever before.
DDT epitomised that tech triumphalism. Originally synthesized in 1873, its potential for insect control, especially in combating mosquito-borne diseases, was discovered in 1939. Beginning in the mid 1940s, mass scale DDT spraying became commonplace across the US and then around the world.
In the mid 1950s, sensitive scientists like Carson became aware of unintended ecological consequences of such wide use. But it took real courage to question, let alone challenge, the status quo.
In Silent Spring, she wrote: “The sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests and homes — non-selective 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.”
She asked: “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’.”
The book irked the chemical industry, which was quick to strike back. They questioned her credentials, motives and even patriotism. Their spokesmen accused her of being anti-progress and scare-mongering. Smear campaigns targeted her as a single woman, and suggested that she was “probably a Communist”.
The New York Times summed it up in a headline: “‘Silent Spring’ is Now Noisy Summer: Pesticides Industry Up In Arms Over a New Book”.
It said: “The $300,000,000 pesticides industry has been highly irritated by a quiet woman author whose previous works on science have been praised for the beauty and precision of the writing.”
Perhaps the industry protested too much, and the resulting controversy prompted the Kennedy administration to order a high level inquiry on the possible long term effects of pesticides. In doing so, President Kennedy specifically cited Silent Spring.
Carson was an early practitioner of evidence based policy advocacy. She spent nearly five years gathering the information, organizing her material and then writing the book in a non-technical, readable style. She drew on an informal network of scientists around the country.
Carson’s biographers note how she remained calm and focused amidst much adversity. Deeply concerned though she was about her subject, she spoke in a voice of reason – devoid of the shrill and self-righteousness of many environmental activists.
Her critics misinterpreted her message, invoking the spectre of insects taking over the planet, and the humanity returning to the dark ages.
“We must have insect control,” she clarified. “I do not favour turning nature over to insects. I favour the sparing, selective and intelligent use of chemicals. It is the indiscriminate, blanket spraying that I oppose.”
As a science communicator, she knew the media’s power to influence public opinion. She worked with selected journalists and broadcasters to tell her story. Her collaboration with CBS News, in particular, took the message to the living rooms across America. People were moved.
Testifying before the US Congress in 1963, she called for new policies to protect human health and the environment. After lengthy and contentious hearings, the inquiry broadly agreed with her conclusions.
She didn’t live to see the results of her policy advocacy. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was set up in 1970, and DDT has been phased out in much of the world since the 1970s.
Although the chemical lobby’s initial resistance lost momentum after a while, the legacy of Carson is still being debated in some quarters. Some have held her responsible for setbacks in malaria control – and for millions of preventable deaths in the developing world.
Lessons for Today
Half a century later, Silent Spring is now on the Library of Congress list of books that shaped America. TIME Magazine listed Rachel Carson as one of the most influential persons of the 20th Century.
What lessons can today’s activists draw from the book and its author?
A recent study of her research material and drafts has found that, rather than downplay scientific uncertainty and gaps in understanding, she had progressively amplified what was unclear about the impacts of DDT and other insecticides on wildlife and humans.
The paper, co-authored by US academics Kenny Walker and Lynda Walsh, noted how her approach can be helpful in dealing with “scientific uncertainty in debates surrounding global warming, nuclear power, cancer studies, and Gulf oil drilling.”
Walker reflected in the New York Times Dot Earth blog: “If you can be accurate yet still use uncertainty to frame the impact, you’re not only trustworthy, you’re interesting, and you effectively shape the terms of debate. We’ve all got to stop ignoring uncertainty, and instead learn to manage it. Fifty years later, I think that’s one of the primary lessons of Silent Spring.”
Harvard biologist and author Edward O Wilson offers another perspective: “Silent Spring continues to be worthy of our attention because it marks an important moment in history, just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and John Muir’s Our National Parks do. The examples and arguments it contains are timeless lessons of the kind we need to re-examine. They are also timely, because the battle Rachel Carson helped to lead on behalf of the environment is far from won.”
She reminds us that a passionate and determined woman can make a difference even amidst much adversity and cynicism.
Her advice to fellow scientists and activists is just as valid today: “Write only what you sincerely feel and believe. Immerse yourself so completely in your subject that you, the writer, become the medium through which the truth is expressed.”
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – first few minutes from The American Experience programme made in 1993
Biocides: Rachel Carson video by Maryland Humanities Council: