Friday, March 13, 2009

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

"Rarely does a single book alter the course of history, but Rachel Carson's Silent Spring did exactly that. The outcry that followed its publication in 1962 forced the government to ban DDT and spurred revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our air, land, and water. Carson's book was instrumental in launching the environmental movement. It is without question one of the landmark books of the twentieth century."

Carson does not argue for a total ban on chemical insecticides, instead, she contends that "we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge" and that "we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife and man himself".

For a book published in 1962, Silent Spring is still entirely relevant today. The more I read, the more I couldn't help wondering - what about today? What is happening out there today - in the fields, in the waters, in the food that we consume?
"As crude a weapon as the cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life - a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructibe, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways. These extraordinary capacities of life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no 'high-minded orientation', no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper."
She writes in a narrative way, such that someone like me, who never did too well in the sciences in secondary school, can understand (although the eyes glazed over at some too-chemical details) and her argument is peppered with examples, some quite horrifying, making this book slightly easier reading than I was expecting.

The afterword, written by Edward O Wilson, helps set the scene for those, like me, who were not around in the 1960s, and who cannot fathom the seeming ignorance and negligence. It was a time when conservation biology didn't exist, and the environment was sidebar to economic growth: "ecology was near the bottom of the scientific disciplines in prestige and support; few Americans even knew what the world meant".

More here:

Al Gore introduces Silent Spring

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