Fifty years ago, few people cared about pollution, deforestation or whaling. Then a remarkable book came along. In the first in a series charting the environment movement, Michael McCarthy looks back to its inspiration – Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring
The book that changed the world is a cliché often used but rarely true, yet 50 years ago this week a book appeared which profoundly altered the way we view the Earth and our place on it: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
This impassioned and angry account of how America’s wildlife was being devastated by a new generation of chemical pesticides began the modern environment movement: it awoke the general consciousness that we, as humans, are part of the natural world, not separate from it, yet we can destroy it by our actions.
A middle-aged marine biologist, Carson was not the first to perceive this, to see how intimately we are bound up with the fate of our planet; but her beautifully-written book, and the violent controversy it generated, brought this perception for the first time to millions, in the US, in Britain and around the world.
Down the centuries many people had expressed their love for nature, but Silent Spring and the furore it created gave birth to something more: the widespread, specific awareness that the planet was threatened and needed defending; and the past half-century of environmentalism, the age of Green, the age of Save The Whale and Stop Global Warming, has followed as a natural consequence.
When it began serialisation in The New Yorker on 16 June 1962 (it was published in full the following September) Silent Spring revealed to a horrified America – or at least, to those who did not know already – that its wildlife was being wiped out on a staggering scale by use of the new generation of synthetic pesticides, compounds made in the laboratory rather than from naturally occurring substances, which had followed on from the forerunner of them all, the chlorinated hydrocarbon DDT.
In particular, the songbirds of America’s countryside and small towns were everywhere falling silent. They had been killed by colossal pesticide spraying programmes, usually from the air, sanctioned in the 1950s by the US Department of Agriculture, individual states and local authorities, and aimed at insect pest threats which turned out to be largely illusory.
There was no need for them; their real driver was the American chemical industry which had managed to convince US agriculture that its bright new range of deadly super-poisons, organochlorines such as aldrin and dieldrin, organophosphates such as parathion and malathion, were just the wonder drugs that farming needed – in huge doses.
Even now, it is hard to read Rachel Carson’s account of these mass sprayings without incredulity, like the 131,000 acres in Sheldon, Illinois, sprayed with dieldrin to get rid of the Japanese beetle. “It was a rare farm in the Sheldon area that was blessed by the presence of a cat after the war on beetles was begun,” she wrote.
Tens of millions of acres were covered in poison in campaigns against the spruce budworm, the gypsy moth and the fire ant, none of which succeeded in eradicating their targets, but all of which exterminated countless other wild creatures – the American robins on suburban lawns, the trout in forest streams – to the bewildered dismay of the local people watching it happen around them.
Carson’s achievement was to bring the situation to national notice in a remarkable synthesis of dramatic reportage and deep scientific knowledge, explaining exactly what the new pesticides were, how their catastrophic side effects were occurring, and how senseless were the mass spraying campaigns (although she recognised that agricultural pesticides were necessary and did not advocate banning them all). To a reader today, her account is compelling and entirely convincing.
Yet it produced an explosion. The US chemical industry, and parts of the US scientific establishment, lashed out in frenzy against this presumptuous upstart holding them to account, with a long and bitter campaign of criticism and personal denigration; and it seemed as if what aroused their ire more than anything was the fact that their opponent was a woman – “An hysterical woman”.
A professional biologist from Pennsylvania who had worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, she was 55 when Silent Spring appeared. Unmarried and childless after a life spent looking after her mother and her young nephew, she had found emotional solace in a deep friendship with a neighbour at her Maine holiday home, Dorothy Freeman, about which there has inevitably been speculation; certainly, they were very close. Yet Carson was more than a scientist, she was also an acclaimed author, having written a trilogy of highly-praised books on the marine environment, one of which,The Sea Around Us of 1951, had been a best-seller.
Thus when Silent Spring appeared, she already had a substantial audience, and the furore stirred up by the US chemical industry only served to boost it a thousandfold; by the end of 1962, three months after full publication, the book had sold half a million copies, and public opinion was solidly behind her. (It did nothing to hinder her cause that President John F Kennedy took her side and referred Silent Spring to his Science Advisory Committee, which the following year vindicated her stance.)
So the madness of the mass poison sprayings came to an end, and the robins and their song returned to America’s spring; DDT was banned for agriculture in 1972 (although it remained in use for malaria prevention), and bans on dieldrin, aldrin and other substances followed.
Rachel Carson did not live to see it: she died of cancer in 1964. But her achievement was much more than to end a crazy and murderous assault upon nature, enormous though it was.
What she introduced to a mass audience for the first time, in explaining how the catastrophe was happening, was the idea of ecology, of the interconnectedness of all living things, of the connectedness between species and their habitats.
The pesticide falls on the leaf, and the leaf falls to the ground where it is consumed by worms, who also consume the pesticide; and robins consume the worms and consume the pesticide too, and so they die.
In showing how everything in the natural world was linked, she showed how humans were part of it too, and how human interference could wreck it, could wreck the balance of nature built up over billions of years.
That is a commonplace insight now, but in 1962 it was a new one. It was truly radical, because it implied – for the first time ever – that scientific advance and economic growth, closely linked as they were in America, might not be endlessly a good thing. There was the Earth itself to consider. And that perception has been at the heart of the movement that Silent Spring inspired, which is 50 years old on Saturday.
Spreading death: the new pesticides
Insecticides made from natural products, such as pyrethrum from chrysanthemum flowers and naturally occurring arsenic, had been known and used for centuries, before the more powerful effects of synthetic lab-produced pesticides became apparent during the Second World War.
The first was dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – DDT – synthesised in the 19th century but whose insect-killing properties were only discovered in 1939. DDT was used with success in disease prevention during the war and was followed during the 1940s and 1950s by a family of similar organic chemicals.
However, the new organochlorines and organophosphates were not just more deadly, they built up in body fat and the accumulated dose could be passed on. “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 chains,” Rachel Carson wrote.
The deadliest of these chemicals have now largely been banned, but controversy over pesticide use and its effect on wildlife has not gone away. It now focuses on the neonicotinoids, one of which, thiamethoxam, was banned by the French government last week after research showed it affected the homing ability of bees.
- Quiet Spring: Fifty Years Since Rachel Carson (ecology.com)
- Rachel Carson: The green revolutionary (independent.co.uk)
- The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: Rachel Carson-50 years on and the DDT debates continue (selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com)
- Rachel Carson and the legacy of Silent Spring (guardian.co.uk)
- 50 years on and the DDT debates continue (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: In recognition of Rachel Carson-the green revolutionary (selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com)
- Silent Spring ~ Rachel Carson (evolutionarymystic.wordpress.com)
- Original Green Goddess 50 Years on (socyberty.com)
- We humans dislike facing up to unpleasant truths (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- Rachel Carson’s redwood dreams, and 50 years of “Silent Spring” (hcn.org)
- Happy Birthday Rachel Carson (ecology.com)
New survey shows devastation to farmland birds caused by policies – and experts can see no sign of improvement. The Guardian reports
They have entranced generations with the beauty of their songs and glimpses of their plumage. But today the sound of the linnet and the vision of a turtle dove are becoming increasingly rare experiences for visitors to the European countryside.
Indeed, according to a new survey, the chances of encountering any one of the 36 species of farmland birds in Europe – species that also include the lapwing, the skylark and the meadow pipit – are now stunningly low. Devastating declines in their numbers have seen overall populations drop from 600 million to 300 million between 1980 and 2009, the study has discovered.
This dramatic decline represents a 50% reduction and is blamed on major changes in farming policies enforced by the EU over the last 30 years.
In order to boost food production across Europe, the wholesale ripping up of hedgerows, draining of wetlands and ploughing over of meadows has robbed farmland birds of their homes and food. Numbers of linnets, turtle doves and lapwings have crashed as a result.
The survey, carried out by the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme, also found that Britain has been one of the nations worst affected by losses to its farmland bird populations. For example, in Europe the population of grey partridges has dropped from 13.4 million to 2.4 million, a loss of 82%. In the UK, that loss was 91%.
Credit: Giulio Frigieri
These losses were described as shocking by the scheme’s chairman, Richard Gregory. “We had got used to noting a loss of a few per cent in numbers of various species over one or two years. It was only when we added up numbers of all the different farmland bird species for each year since 1980, when we started keeping records, that we found their overall population has dropped from 600 million to 300 million, which is a calamitous loss. We have been sleepwalking into a disaster.”
According to Gregory, who also serves as the head of species monitoring for the UK’s Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds (RSPB), a range of factors are involved. In the case of the grey partridge, he blamed the intensification of farming which had killed off the plentiful numbers of insects that they ate.
With starlings, whose populations have fallen from 84.9 million to 39.9 million, a drop of 53%, it has been the destruction of woodlands and the corresponding loss of nesting places that has done the most serious damage, he said.
“By contrast, lapwings – whose numbers have declined from 3.8 million to 1.8 million, a drop of 52% – are more associated with marshes and riverbanks. It has been the draining of these lands that has destroyed their habitats and reduced their numbers so drastically.”
However, the RSPB was emphatic that individual farmers should not take the blame for the devastating drop in farmland bird numbers that has occurred over the past 30 years.
“The decline of farmland birds across Europe has been one of our greatest wildlife tragedies but it is important to remember they have been driven by farming policy rather than farmers themselves,” said Jenna Hegarty, the society’s senior agricultural policy officer. “We work with thousands of farmers across the UK who are striving to put wildlife back on the land, but farmers cannot do this without significantly increased funding for more environmentally friendly measures.”
The fact that the high losses of linnets, turtle doves and other farmland birds had not been expected was blamed by Gregory on a phenomenon known as the shifting baseline syndrome.
“We take for granted things that two generations ago would have seemed inconceivable – in this case the reduction by 300 million of Europe’s farmland bird population,” he said. “Apart from the removal of creatures that are beautiful to behold and beautiful to listen to, we should take note of what this means. These losses are telling us that something is seriously amiss in the world around us and the way that we are interacting with nature.”
However, it is unlikely that the problem will get better in the near future, he added. In Bulgaria, Poland and the EU’s other, newer member nations in eastern Europe, the farming policies that have been responsible for wiping out vast numbers of farmland birds in older member countries are only being introduced today. Once they take effect, overall numbers of farmland birds will drop even further, it is expected. “We need to introduce measures that consider the environmental impact of theagriculture policies we are implementing,” said Gregory.
The discovery of the dramatic losses suffered by farmland birds since 1980 comes as the green movement prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book, published in summer 1962, outlined the devastating impact that the uncontrolled use of synthetic insecticides was having on populations of birds in the US and played a critical role in kick-starting the green movement on both sides of the Atlantic.
Humanity was beginning to have a dreadful impact on wildlife and in particular on birds, Carson argued. “A grim spectre has crept upon us almost unnoticed,” she wrote. Her words had a major influence.
Silent Spring, which outlined dozens of examples of the widespread slaughter of birds, led directly to the banning of the manufacture of DDT and other pesticides. However, the bird losses she outlined 50 years ago have been dwarfed by the losses that have occurred in the last 30 years and which are revealed in the RSPB survey. As the environmental campaigner Jonathon Porritt put it: “I think Carson would be horrified about the state of the planet today.”
Farmland species under threat
Numbers across Europe have fallen by 82%, from 13.4 million to 2.4 million, but the decline is markedly higher in Britain at 91%.
A summer visitor whose breeding grounds are in upland parts of northern and western Britain. Its population has fallen by67%.
Breeds in a variety of habitats in the UK, including arable farmland, wet pastures and upland hay meadows. Numbers down by 53%.
Also known as the peewit in imitation of its display calls, its proper name describes its wavering flight. Numbers are down by 52%.
- Bird populations dropping in EU tied to farming policies (americablog.com)
- Rachel Carson and the legacy of Silent Spring (guardian.co.uk)
- RSPB launches urgent turtle dove rescue mission (guardian.co.uk)
- RSPB fury at anti-buzzard plan to save pheasant shoots (theweek.co.uk)
- Words fail me yet again!!! (nwhsa.wordpress.com)
- ‘Extinct’ bumblebee returns to UK (bbc.co.uk)
- How EU farming policies led to a collapse in Europe’s bird population (bfreenews.com)