The modern environmental movement was established with the release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. It was an important work of literature that opened the eyes of the World to the dangers of toxic chemical pollutants in the environment. In her book, Rachel Carson cleverly integrated the concerns of urban and industrial reformers with the greater ecological issues of the day.
Silent Spring shocked the world by revealing the devastating impact of uncontrolled and unregulated pesticide use. But Rachel Carson also delved into the historical background of pesticides giving us an insight into the reasons why pesticides like DDT became so popular, so quickly. She realised that the synthetic chemical industry was a ‘child of the Second World War’. Concerns during the War about ways of sustaining agricultural food production as well as the continuous threat of insect vectors pushed DDT to widespread use in 1945 even before it was properly tested for toxicity. At the time Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, more than 188 million pounds of DDT had been produced.
But highly visible pollution events were occurring all over America during the same period. Devastating events that no-one could easily ignore. Rachel Carson was unique in that she compiled the most graphic of these events and eloquently described them in her book. Silent Spring opened with a ‘fable for tomorrow’ where she described a fictional natural community left destroyed by a mysterious unknown killer of nature. It was a community where fruit trees were barren, birds silenced and ‘everywhere was a shadow of death’. This could have been any town, any locality and people took notice of the message behind the tale.
Things have moved in since Rachel Carson wrote her book. There are now new ecological ‘mega-hazards’. But the allegory still describes the world of today. Some of the old chemicals still persist in the environment even though they have been banned and there are now some new chemicals that have been added to the list. The nature of the effects of chemical pollutants has also changed. Now we are realizing that toxic synthetic chemicals in the form of endocrine disruptors can have long term effects on living systems.
Silent Spring has made us aware, but change for the better has been slow. Unlike famines, epidemics and natural disasters that were the scourge of pre-industrial society, the dangers of chemical pollutants are of our own making. The frustratingly slow progress towards creating a synthetic toxic chemical free environment stems from our inability to determine the extent of the threat. There are now so many chemicals out there in the environment that researchers can no longer establish scientific certainty of causation of many health related problems. For instance, environmental epidemiologists find it extremely difficult to identify exposure to a specific chemical at particular time as the cause of a specific disease. While the arguments continue, the negative effects of synthetic toxic chemicals continue to damage us as well as the environment.
In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson did not want a total ban of all synthetic chemicals. What she desired was a more informed and measured approach to the use of chemicals. The fact is that not all chemicals are dangerous. But we need to develop better ways to measure the true impact of the many new synthetic chemicals that we are releasing into the environment.