Silent Spring

Sixty Years since Silent Spring (first published in West Sussex County Times)

Silent Spring

Recycle. Repair. Save fuel. Care about Nature. They’re becoming mainstream now. But it wasn’t always thus.

Sixty years ago, things were very different. Big science and technology dominated everything. Problem with insects munching your crops? Destroy them with DDT! Want to get to the shops faster? Try our new ’59 saloon with fuel consumption lower than the Dead Sea! Everything was going to be newer, shinier, faster, bigger-and largely made of plastic.

There had been voices, of course. A small but growing chorus of criticism asking if all this activity would be worthwhile, or sustainable. But it was a bit like the early criticisms of slavery- timid, unheard and drowned out by the brayings of its opponents.

Then in 1962 along came Rachel Carson. Rachel was a passionate biologist and had started to become concerned about the consequences of the widespread use of ‘miracle’ pesticides like DDT. Working with others like the Audubon Society, she carefully compiled deep and extensive studies of the damage done by these poisons and explained the long term futility of their use. Their results were published as the book, ‘Silent Spring,’ on 27th September that year – sixty years ago.  And the sky fell in. She was accused of communism, of wanting to bring back the Dark Ages. There were even slurs about her unmarried status.

But Rachel Carson held her course. Her relentless, impartial demolition of every argument using facts and reason rather than commercially motivated biases and opinions could not be argued away. It was, for some, a lightbulb moment, a bit like the publication Newton’s Principia: one of those key documents that says we absolutely must start looking at things in a new way.

The book documented the environmental harm caused by the indiscriminate use of chemicals. It accused the pesticide industry of spreading deliberate misinformation and public officials of accepting the industry’s marketing claims all too readily.

Although from that moment on, the environmental movement snowballed, we are still facing similar issues.  Nowadays those who want to preserve, protect and clean are starting to make the running, and it’s the big businesses who need to keep up. There are still many challenges and we must continue to make every possible change in our daily lives. But above all we must educate ourselves.

This one woman was hugely instrumental in finally getting DDT banned and now DDT’s only official use, (as specified by the World Health Organization) is for the control of disease, but because of the availability of safer effective alternatives for fighting malaria, WWF is calling for a total global ban on DDT production.

In 2006, Discover magazine named Silent Spring as one of the 25 greatest science books of all time, so what better way to remember the date – 27th September – than by reading Silent Spring- wishing it a very happy 60th birthday!

Keir Hartley

by Keir Hartley