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Silent Spring – Rachel Carson has much to teach us, even 60 years on

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is a master-class in persuasive writing and a startling prediction of disaster.

First published in 1962. Silent Spring brought environmental issues to the forefront of public consciousness, sparking a global environmental movement.

Having dipped in and out of this book in the past, I decided, recently, to read it in one sitting, looking for clues as to what we modern environmentalists might learn from Rachel Carson’s 60-year-old teachings. There is much to learn, alongside the horror of realising that her predictions have come to pass, with the decline of wildlife by 69% since 1970*. We are now experiencing almost silent springs, in countryside and towns.

Carson wrote primarily about destruction wrought on environment and humans from chemicals and this remains relevant today.  Many of the chemicals mentioned have now been banned (not in small part thanks to Carson), but we are today facing many more in number and in untested combinations, a threat that Carson speaks of.  And of course there are many chemicals known to be toxic to wildlife (such as neonicotinoids) and to humans (such as PFAS’s) that are still in use today.  More on that below.

The book also has great relevance for the climate and wider ecological crises, although neither is mentioned specifically.  On reading Silent Spring it is clear that Carson could predict grave consequences for the whole planet.

I have written a more traditional book review below for those not familiar with this work, but I wanted to start this blog with what we can learn from this 1960s classic for today’s world.

  1. Rachel Carson’s insight into the inter-connectedness of all beings was well ahead of its time.

She was a scientist who could break things down to examine them (her explanation of mitochondrial activity is incredibly clear) but also could see the big picture and also see that life is too complex to be able to predict the outcomes.

“The balance of nature is not the same today as in Pleistocene times, but it is still there: a complex, precise, and highly integrated system of relationships between living things which cannot safely be ignored any more than the law of gravity can be defied with impunity by a man perched on the edge of a cliff.  The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is a fluid, ever shifting, in a constant state of adjustment.  Man too, is part of this balance.  Sometimes the balance is in his favour; sometimes – and all too often through his own activities – it is shifted to his disadvantage.”

    This was 10 years before James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia hypothesis was published, and yet we feel the ‘wholeness’ of the biosphere shine through in her writing.  We feel the heartbeat and interconnection of the interplay of species throughout.

    Her observations lead to criticism from opponents, such as biochemist Robert White-Stevens, who labeled her “…a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature,”

    I believe, even in 2023, we are still in the early stages on the journey of understanding this inter-connectedness and, in my view, this is the key to transforming our relationship with the earth (and to the success of all human endeavours too).

    2. Carson saw the importance of learning from living beings, and advocated for this.

    “Nature herself has met many of the problems that now beset us, and she has usually solved them in her own successful way.”

    She dedicates a whole chapter to biological solutions to pests, as an alternative to chemicals.  I am reminded of the permaculture principle ‘use biological solutions’ when reading this.  Permaculture was founded in the 1970s, and was, no doubt, influenced by Carson among others.  Today, of course, nature-based, nature-inspired, regenerative and biomimetic solutions are becoming more and more commonplace.

    3. She saw environmental (and human) destruction as a moral, not a purely scientific question and wasn’t afraid to say so:

    “Incidents like the eastern Illinois spraying raise a question that is not only scientific but moral. The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.”

    In many ways, in the intervening years the scientific perspective won out, with scientist afraid to call out moral questions for fear of being labelled unscientific (as Carson was). However, many scientists have now turned to the moral ground in order to get their views across – Sir David King and James Hansen being two among many. Of course, challenging scientists as unscientific was one of the weapons in the war on ecological-thinking employed by corporate entities from big oil to chemical manufacturers.

    4. She wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. Her style of asking open questions, leaving the reader to decide, is particularly powerful:

    “In each of these situations, one turns away to ponder the question: Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond? Who has placed on pan of the scales the leaves that might have been eaten by the beetles and in the other the pitiful heaps of many-hued feathers, the lifeless remains of the birds that fell before the unselective bludgeon of insecticidal poisons?

    Who has decided – who has the right to decide – for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of an authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.”

    5. Carson knew there were two very different roads to take – and from the perspective of today’s climate and ecological crises, it’s so obvious which one we should have taken.  If we had taken her road in 1962 then the world would be very different now.

    “The Other Road. 

    We stand now where two roads diverge.  But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair.  The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth super-highway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.  The other fork of the road – the one ‘less travelled by’ – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.

    The choice, after all, is ours to make…”

    5. Carson clearly saw the ecological and human crises as interconnected, and whilst she blames  ‘man’ for the destruction, she clearly had huge sympathy for the farmers and others who had sprayed and become ill or died. She highlights the small-print, mislabelling, mixing of chemicals, inappropriate storage containers, political and other factors that meant that people took unnecessary risks with their own health and the health of their ecosystems.  We can clearly see chemical usage as a systemic issue, such as being an outcome of war and political and economic pressures, rather than an appropriate response to a particular situation.

    In the 2020s and beyond, seeing our multiple crises as one huge, inter-connected polycrisis, will be one of the keys to the future of human civilisation.

    6. It is clear that chemical usage emerged from the broken relationship between humans and nature, not out of the blue:

    “As man proceeds towards his announced goal of the conquest of nature, he has written a depressing record of destruction, directed not only against the earth he inhabits but against the life that shares it with him.  The history of the recent centuries has its black passages – the slaughter of the buffalo on the western plains, the massacre of the shore-birds by the market gunners, the near-extermination of the egrets for their plumage.  Now, to these and others, like them, we are adding a new chapter and a new kind of havoc – the direct killing of birds, mammals, fishes, and indeed practically every form of wildlife by chemical insecticides indiscriminately sprayed on the land.”

    This broken relationship is referred to by many advocates of a regenerative approach and is sometimes called ‘the story of separation’ or ‘the divide’.  Jeremy Lent in his book The Web of Meaning, discusses how this divide came about, and in my opinion, recognising this story of separation is a vital first step on any regenerative journey.

    Carson talks of a ‘new chapter’, that of chemicals, but humans have added many new chapters since –  on the threats posed by paving over the countryside, roadbuilding, urbanisation, overfishing, plastic pollution, nuclear testing, fossil fuel overuse, deforestation and many more.

    7. Carson died too young – at 56, of breast cancer just two years after Silent Spring was published.  Just think what she could have brought to the world had she lived longer.  I have no doubt that the political, economic and corporate powers would still have won out, but just imagine if her potential future had come to pass…

    8. The book starts and ends with hope. Being able to envision a positive future is vital.  Those that have adopted a similar approach to help address the ecological crisis are Rob Hopkins in his book From What is to what If, and Joanna Macy in her Work that Reconnects.

    There is no doubt that if we can’t remember a positive ecological time (and most people alive today can’t) then we will have to imagine one – and bring it into being.

    Book review:

    Silent Spring opens with A Fable for Tomorrow.  Carson’s beautiful prose describes first a place ‘where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings’ and then ‘a strange blight’ and ‘evil spell’ that arrives, bringing death and illness to people, animals, farmed and wild, and plants. This is a composite of many of the problems she had researched and witnessed from human use of insecticides and herbicides.

    The middle chapters describe in great details the dangers of chemicals and is scientific yet easy to understand.  Silent Spring is a riveting read, with horrifying descriptions of the consequences for land and marine animals, plants and humans. Despite the fact that many of the specific pesticides Carson talks of (such as DDT) have now been banned in the US (and the UK) their traces remain, and of course, tens of thousands more chemicals have replaced them without proper regulation of their use in combination, something that Carson warned us about.

    Chemsec, an NGO that researches chemicals stated in 2022 that 62% of the normal volume of chemicals used in the EU are hazardous to human health and the environment https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220512-the-chemicals-that-linger-for-decades-in-your-blood and the EU proposed in 2022 to ban 12,000 toxic chemicals, although seems to be failing badly in this endeavour https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/apr/25/eu-plan-to-ban-up-to-7000-dangerous-chemicals-failing-badly-says-study .

    Carson’s meticulous research and scientific knowledge shed light on the far-reaching consequences of chemical pesticides, exposing the ecological disruption and the harmful impact on human health. Through compelling examples and meticulous documentation, she weaves a narrative that highlights the interconnectedness of all living beings and the fragile balance of nature.

    Carson’s evocative writing style captivates readers as she describes the gradual demise of once-thriving ecosystems, the silent disappearance of bird songs, and the toxic contamination of land, air, and water. She warns of the long-term consequences of these human-made chemicals, which seep into every facet of the environment, including our food and bodies.  Despite being banned in 1972 in the US it is still present as either DDT or its metabolite DDE, in blood tests.  It has also been found in the ocean https://phys.org/news/2023-03-scientists-uncover-startling-pure-ddt.html

    Silent Spring is not merely a critique of the widespread use of pesticides but also a call to action. Carson challenges the prevailing mindset of progress at any cost, urging society to reconsider its reckless disregard for the natural world. She argues for the adoption of more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, advocating for a deeper understanding of the delicate balance of ecosystems.

    The publication of Silent Spring had a profound impact, sparking intense debates and prompting widespread legislative reforms. It led to the banning of DDT and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States. Carson’s work awakened environmental consciousness in millions of people around the world, inspiring subsequent generations of activists and policymakers to protect the planet and its biodiversity.

    Silent Spring remains a timeless classic, reminding us of the importance of environmental stewardship and the consequences of unchecked human intervention. Rachel Carson’s powerful words continue to resonate, urging us to be vigilant and responsible custodians of the Earth’s fragile ecosystems, ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come.

    *https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/10/nature-loss-biodiversity-wwf/

    Review by Sarah Spencer – regenerative mentor, trainer, speaker, helping individuals, businesses and organisations to adopt regenerative ways of living and working, inspired by living-systems success. Author of Think like a Tree: the natural principles guide to life.

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