Happy Birthday “Silent Spring”

June 6, 2012




The book that changed us




The book that changed us


Did anybody notice? I have to admit, I too forgot about “Silent Spring”, the book that shook the the consciousness of the nation 50 years ago and gave birth to the environmental movement. I was reminded of it by an article in Nature by Rob Dunn, an evolutionary biologist and writer at North Carolina State University, about this seminal book and its significance for our society.

Many of our readers were still toddlers or maybe just a glint in their parents’ eyes when the book was published, so it’s hard to fault them for not remembering. I have no such defense. In 1962 I was a graduate student working on a project attempting to uncover the mechanism of the new phenomenon of insect resistance to DDT. When Rachel Carson documented the havoc this insecticide wreaked on the environment, my professors greeted it with disdain. Who was I, a lowly student, to contradict the pillars of science of the day? The feeling was that if there is a problem, science and technology will provide a solution. Rachel Carson was just ‘an ill-informed amateur’. I still remember the dismissive remark of my major professor, “she should stick to her fish, preferably in the kitchen”.

Rachel Carson: an American patriot and her weapon

What did Carson say?

As Dunn says in his review of the book “Carson (1907–64), a marine biologist, started her career as only the second professional woman to be hired by the US Bureau of Fisheries. She had long been interested in the insecticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), and was spurred to write Silent Spring partly by a friend’s reports of the aerial spraying of pesticides on Long Island, New York. But she was also compelled by her own observations and reading of the scientific literature — and, given the silence of other writers on the subject, by an inner sense that something needed to be said or done”.

When an alarming decline in many bird species was noted by biologists, it was quickly discovered that their eggs were extremely fragile. Turned out, DDT interfered with the deposition of calcium in the eggshell. . In its campaign against the fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) alone, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had, by 1958, aerially sprayed hundreds of thousands of hectares of the country with pesticides.  So what if in its attempt to essentially remake the living world the USDA exterminated hundreds of beneficial insect species as collateral damage? Even the rapid diapperance of the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) did not cause a stir. But people do react when something hits them in gut. The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), , the quintessential American emblem of unbound independence and soaring aspirations was on the verge of extinction. The symbolism was painfully clear, and people reacted. Despite the avalanche of money the agrochemical industry poured into a campaign to discredit the book, it resonated; whithin 3 months of its publication it sold 10,000 copies and was on the bestseller list for many months thereafter. A determined popular campaign to ban DDT forced congress to react. And in 1970 President Nixon (yes, him) created the Environmental Protection agency, today’s Republicans enemy number 1.

To use an overused clichè (which I am going to use anyway), the rest is history. Little did this unassuming fish scientist realize that her cri de coer on behalf of thousands of animal and plant species on the verge of extermination would launch a revolution of society’s attitude about its stewardship of the planet. Environmentalism is now international. Today’s news item out of China would not have been grotesque in 1962, as it is today. The government there habitually publishes fake data about the air quality in the cities. But the people cannot be fooled for too long; they follow the genuine data published daily on the Internet by the American embassy in Beijing; and they are demanding action. Today the government responded to the popular outcry; they demanded that the embassy stop publishing air quality reports. Silent Spring could not be silenced, and I hope our embassy will not be as well.

For the past couple of years I have been waking up every spring and summer morning to the American Robin singing his heart out. Thank you, Rachel Carson, for this precious gift.