Sunday, 27 February 2011

Silent springboard

After a bit of a hiatus, I have finished reading "Silent Spring". After her early description of the pesticides and herbicides, Carson goes on to describe their effects on ground water, soil and insect life, plants, birds, other wildlife and domestic animals, rivers and inshore waters, human organs and cell-level processes; the brutality of various spraying programmes in the US and their horrendous results; the common availability of chemicals and the build-up of small-scale exposures; the negative effect on the ecological balance and the build-up of resistance in the pests; and finally, alternative pest control methods. All is beautifully written and meticulously references the latest scientific findings.

Predictably, the chemical industry and scientific establishment (funded by the chemical industry) responded 'robustly', as described in an afterword to my edition of the book. Carson was attacked for being a hysterical woman, unqualified to write such a book, and for writing for the public, "a calling the scientific establishment consistently denigrated."

But the attacks only increased the PR for Carson's book, and it changed the world. While reading, I caught myself thinking more than once: "I hope someone does something about this". Which of course they did. President Kennedy directed his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson's claims, which led to an immediate strengthening of the regulation of chemical pesticides, arguably a more significant action than the launch of the Apollo programme. And the book is widely credited with helping to get the environmental movement going.

Now in the 21st century, "Silent Spring" is again being criticised by writers who claim that "environmental regulation unnecessarily restricts economic freedom". Others say that this is "a cynical 'better living through chemistry' campaign, intended to discredit the environmental health movement". And I would ask how much economic freedom do we have, living as we do on one planet and bound by a web of relationships?

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