Friday, 6 April 2012

Silent Spring

By Rachel Carson

I first came across this book more than 10 years ago when I read a mention of it in a friend's Open University course materials. It was suggested background reading for a course on the '60s. It went onto my reading wish list but I only got round to getting myself a copy recently. This year celebrates 50 years since it was published, so I suppose it's as good a time as any to read it. Unintentionally it was actually quite appropriate to be reading it in Germany as the Germans got more than a few mentions.

This book was the first of its kind - a real wake-up call to society, pointing out the issues and problems caused by a fast-growing reliance on pesticides. It was highly influential in the fledgling environmental movement and really makes me wonder how 'green' conscious we would all be today if Carson hadn't written this book. It probably helped that the '60s was also the era of the hippie and a book like this would have fitted right in with hippie culture.

Carson, chapter by chapter, talks us through the different pesticides; how and why they were invented, how they may have seemed to work at first, but how the 'pests' they were supposed to kill soon adapted and become resistant. A real example of Darwin's survival of the fittest and evolution in action.

She points out how many unintended species had their populations decimated and in some cases were completely wiped out. As many of these species of insect, bird or fish are either a food source to ourselves or are natural predators to the 'pests' this was disastrous. The pesticides also had a detrimental effect on human life causing health problems and even death to many people who were exposed to them.

Many of the pesticides seem to have been invented by Germans. The irony of how they are now one of the most environmentally conscious nations on the planet was not lost on me. I did wonder why though - is it because they had pesticides before anyone else, did the damage before anyone else, and so got cleaning up before anyone else? Or is it because they feel guilty? Or do I need to be more cynical? They were the forerunners in producing the pesticides and so made lots of money from them. Now they're the forerunners in cleaning up the mess (they sell a lot of solutions apparently), so they're still making lots of money.

Reading the book you wonder how people could have been so stupid. 'This pesticide we tried has killed lots of fish we used to like to eat and harmed a lot of people and the insects are still as abundant as ever. What shall we do? Oh, I know, let's use an even bigger dose of pesticide'. But of course it still goes on. Do we never learn?

As an alternative to pesticides Carson proposes importing natural predators, but with hindsight is this a good idea? Could the imported predators create problems of their own?

The book starts to seem a bit repetitive after a while, but then I'm used to hearing this. At the time of writing it was something completely new. It was revolutionary in its time and changed the way people thought. That we take the environmental movement for granted now and use words like 'eco-friendly' and 'green' as part of our normal vocabulary is a measure of it's impact.

Carson was trained as a scientist and researched many scientific papers for this book. However, it is written in a way easily understandable to a layman, which of course helped it become so popular. After researching and writing about cancer inducing pesticides and chemicals it is another irony that she died from cancer in 1964 a mere two years after publication. How sad that she never got to see the impact her work has had on the world.

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