Karen Cannard's column: A harsh reminder, 60 years on
I’m in one of my reflective moods again. It often happens at this time of year- and it’s not just my amazement over the huge orange pumpkin that we’ve somehow successfully grown on our allotment or whether it will make it to October 31 for its ceremonial carving.
My recent musings have taken me back to the 1980s, prompted by the arrival of a review copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a newly illustrated edition published by the Folio Society to mark the book’s 60th anniversary next year.
It instantly transported me back to my studies in Nottingham, where Silent Spring was one of the mandatory texts for my degree in Modern European Studies. I can’t specifically remember the context for why I had to read it, the development of intensive European agriculture, I expect. However, I’ve never forgotten my shock at what emerged from the pages.
Silent Spring is regarded in many quarters as one of the most influential books of modern times and is seen as the first warning to the world of the dangers of society’s meddling with nature. Published in 1962, Carson’swell-researched work was a response to the agrichemical revolution in pesticides, providing a hard-hitting warning about the impact of chemicals on flora, fauna and human life. Her pain-staking research, evidencing health implications for humans and nature, led to important changes in law, including the significant banning of DDT due to public pressure.
Those three letters stuck in my mind after reading that book as a student. DDT, a chemical first synthesised in 1884 and whose powerful insecticidal properties were discovered in 1939. It was first used in the fight against the insect-born diseases malaria and typhus during the second world war. By the end of 1945, it had become publicly available for domestic and agricultural use in the United States. I found Carson’s research on how this and other pesticides were wiping out beneficial insects and the impact on the food chain and disappearing species a shocking read.
Revisiting this book all these years later, and rereading the chapter Elixirs of Death, I realise now that Silent Spring is most probably the greatest influence on my decision to avoid using pesticides or herbicides in my garden. Even slug pellets have been on my banned list for
This new edition of Silent Spring includes an introduction by author and environmentalist Margaret Attwood, an essay written in 2012 to mark Silent Spring’s 50th anniversary. She ponders what Carson would have warned us against next had she lived alongside later generations. Attwood lists the poisonous effects of toxic herbicide Agent Orange on her list of horror stories as well as the spraying of dispersants on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. To that I would also add the warnings from international Zero Waste campaigners over the leachate and air pollution from mismanaged waste disposal. I also note a recent discussionwith a recent Suffolk Organic Gardeners member highlighting the devastating toxic effects of neonicotinoids on bees and other wildlife. This would be
on Carson’s list, too. Probably top of the list, but how can you compare one nature disaster to the
Attwood sums up that Carson would see many signs of hope thanks to society now being aware of some of our problems. However, keeping track of them all is an issue, highlighting how our high-tech world is leaking into us and how the more technologically advanced we become as a society, the longer the list of potential chemical side-effects.
On the positive side, Attwood adds, even though collective will for change might not be strong, we now have even more knowledge about impacts on life on Earth than during Carson’s time and that the push for change must come from grass-roots networks.
It has been worth revisiting Silent Spring, especially as a harsh reminder that in our current environmental turmoil our awareness and resolve should not wane, whether that’s protecting biodiversity, our Earth’s resources or fighting against and reducing the impact of climate change.
Info for readers interested in the illustrated edition: Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. Introduced by Margaret Attwood. Afterword by Richard O. Wilson. Illustrated by Teagan White. The Folio Society. www.foliosociety.com. Price