Tag Archives: chemicals in the environment

Silent Spring Revisited

Silent Spring

“Every once in a while in the history of mankind, a book has appeared which has substantially altered the course of history”. (Senator Ernest Gruening, Democrat, Alaska).

Despite lots of scientific colleagues knowing the problems with increasing pesticide use in the environment, it fell to a 56 year old Zoologist to crack open the collective heads of the world with a book that hit the mind of humanity like a thunderbolt. Like many who step out of the crowd, she was somewhat of a loner. Her most inspiring attributes were her empathy for all life, courage and tenacity.

“Silent Spring” was a deeply disturbing book about how humans were prepared to compromise all of life, including our own, by selling products whose long term effects were not fully disclosed, or even known. It is hard to gauge the level of courage she had, to go to print with a story so explosive. She was dying of complications from breast cancer a year after the book was published, yet such was her resolve that she testified before a Senate sub-committee on pesticides.

Rachel Carson, a slight, single, fifty six year old woman had a Masters Degree in Zoology. She worked as a science editor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and developed the belief that people would only protect what they loved. In those days there were few women working in the scientific field. Science  was a male-dominated culture.

She wrote three highly acclaimed books about the sea. Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), The Edge of the Sea (1955), and also Silent Spring (1962). I have all those books and I treasure them.

Under the Sea Wind, Carson’s first book, when submitted to the publisher, did not need any editing or alteration, the only manuscript they had ever received that was so perfect. This gives some idea of the standards Rachel Carson set for herself.

Silent Spring represents a step-change in writing fearlessly about the environment and had a big influence over environmental policy and in  a very real way, launched the embryonic environmental movement.

This woman felt an ethical call she could not ignore, driven by the love and care she felt for all life forms, of which she felt she was a fellow traveller. She felt a deep urge to write about the effects of DDT on ecosystems where there had been spraying, sometimes with large aircraft over lakes, so people would not have to be bothered by insects. DDT quickly entered the world of the fast developing industrial model of agriculture where humans dominated the natural world and everything without an economic value was expendable. In the post World War II world, the dominant paradigm was steeped in the belief of man’s domination of Nature. There were large fortunes riding on the wide scale adoption of this paradigm. It was a time when humans were proud of the technology they were able to produce and used it against threats to agricultural production, without question. At this time, post World War II pest control using ecological management was dwarfed overwhelmingly by the growing behemoths of the chemistry businesses, churning out products to control any species, plants or insects that had a depressing effect on yield. Of the total number of economic entomologists working in the United States, 98% of them were employed by the big chemical companies. only 2% were looking at organic pest control. It was all about the flow of money. Huge profits were being made by the big agricultural chemical companies: they, in turn poured money into the universities. Money became available for graduate programs, faculties and scholarships were funded and jobs were available after graduation. It seems as though the educational institutions behaved just like an organism exploiting a food source, and that scientists as a group were grasping the opportunity to work in an emerging field that would also put food on their families table. In this, they proved they were human, whilst their research probably made many of them feel they were gods.

In Germany during WWI, Haber and Bosch had already shown that nitrogen fertilisers could be synthesised using atmospheric nitrogen, the methane from natural gas, in conjunction with a nickel catalyst, under high pressure. The Germans put a lot of effort into cracking the secret of industrial ammonia production because the British had control of the sodium nitrate mines in Chile, so important for munitions. World War I was the crucible that led to a process that would have far-reaching effects, firstly for munitions and ultimately, in a much bigger way, for the negative effects of anhydrous ammonia and urea on soil life. The inventors of the Haber Bosch process won the Nobel Prize in 1918 and 1933 respectively.

Carson collected data that was already known, documented cases of squirrels dying, evidence of Ospreys and Peregrine falcons unable to raise their young due to the effect of DDT making their eggs brittle from the concentration of DDT at the top of the food chain. This process was called bio-accumulation. DDT had been first synthesised in1874, it was found to kill insects in 1939. Its inventor Paul Hermann Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948.

Crop dusting planes flying over the landscape
Applying toxic products with little consideration of long term effects.


This tendency to reward those who invent new products and processes that seem of inestimable value to humans in terms of their economic effect is symptomatic of our worrying tendency to value humans over other life forms. Rachel Carson had the courage to show us the consequences of some pesticides in the environment; it took ten years after Silent Spring for the US Government to ban DDT. A deal was done whereby in return for the US ban, the company would be licensed to export DDT to the third world. One deficiency we have as a species is this seemingly unshakable belief in our superiority over other life forms. The tendency we have, to evaluate new products and ideas, in terms of economics, blinds us to the consequences that often are devastating on the environment. Profit overrides common sense, natural caution and ethical considerations. As well as the dubious ethics of big businesses pushing at any cost for profit, governments who licence these harmful products are complicit in the outcomes that affect all life.

We are one of the most recent species on earth. Many see our species as superior to others. To think otherwise for most of us is anathema. Because we can reason, we believe we can do anything, we have been so clever with all the technology we have invented, we forge on.   We are so proud of ourselves, humility is scarce. However our ability to think confers on us an obligation to allow all other life to live. We know deep in our souls that this is right.

Other forms or life sometimes proliferate and their population gets out of control. In the natural world, driven by the contemporary energy of the sun, nothing dominates for long. There is always a change that allows other species to enter the fray. This is the way life has always proceeded. Always to an evolutionary state tending more towards elaboration and diversity. This state has been driven by cooperation between life forms, as much as by competition.

Self-propelled spraying rigs on the back of a truck
Bigger self-propelled spraying rigs heading west to apply more product to cropping ecosystems with dubious benefits to the long-term health of diversity, soils and people.


We will do almost anything to avoid illness, fear, hunger, the threat of death, or pain. The big difference between ourselves and other species is that we have learnt to play outside the rules of the natural world. This has been possible because we have found more and more ways to harvest a greater share of the product of photosynthesis, leading to larger and larger population. As the human population has risen, so diversity has diminished. We are taking more than our share of the Earth’s resources, leading to the sixth big extinction event, that is happening now.

Consistent with our desire not to suffer, we have systematically found ways to control almost all the infectious diseases, a great leap forward in our desire to avoid suffering.

However, unlike First Nation peoples, since the dawn of agriculture and the trend to food surpluses we have not learned to live in a way that does not threaten the ecosystems of the Earth. Until a little over two hundred years ago the energy source that drove human civilisation was contemporary solar energy. But then things changed.

The nations of Europe, running out of resources, were suffering wars for more territory, a classic symptom of dwindling resources. The big forests of Europe had largely been cut down to build fleets of ships to indulge in battles of conquest, and the struggle for trading rights. Wood was also the major fuel for cooking and heating. Europe was running out of room, running out of wood, societal breakdown was leading to very high rates of crime and punishment. Britain, Spain, France, Portugal and Belgium sent out discovery ships, some with scientific purposes, as well as looking for land and others to open up trade routes.

Europe had found the New World, rich in resources of timber, land and minerals. The invention of the steam engine in 1712 by Newcomen was a major breakthrough and was used to pump water from mines, as coal began to replace wood as a heating and cooking fuel.  James Watt followed with engines capable of continuous rotary power from 1781. This ushered in the steam age, factories, and a society using more energy to power its civilisation than could be delivered by the sun. The energy concentrated in coal and later petroleum oil was prodigious and could accomplish so much work when burnt in steam engines and the soon-to-be-developed internal combustion engine.

However, the sources of energy they turned to also had their origin in biology. The fossil fuels to which we have become so addicted, coal, oil and gas are plant derived. They are the product of past photosynthesis. In human time frames they are not renewable, having taken about sixty million years to be laid down in the swamps of the Carboniferous Era. That happened between 354 and 298 million years ago.

Trading and moving goods around the world has increased the energy requirements of society. Aldo Leopold described an ecosystem thus…. ‘a slowly augmented, revolving fund of life’. I find that so elegant! As land was developed and ecosystems simplified,  the  communities of life no longer had sufficient energy to provide the maintenance energy costs that the previous complex community provided, leading to further simplification. Food chains became shorter with diminishing species, the resilience of ecosystems to disturbance was less. The recycling mechanisms, so important for the constant churn of decaying bodies and plants began to stall. The work done by burning coal, and later, oil, was needed to fill the gap of the energy diverted from ecosystem maintenance to human society. Thus began a dizzying spiral of insatiable lust for more concentrated energy sources, leading from stationary engines to locomotives powered by coal, and from around 1900, oil-driven modes of transport via the internal combustion engine.

As people became more mobile, they carried with them the seeds, bacteria, viruses and a myriad of other life-forms that had evolved elsewhere. This was part of a world-wide pooling of species. In Australia some species, like the European rabbit, cane toads, the prickly pear, cats, foxes and plants such as vulpia, one of the fescues that has covered millions of hectares of country in temperate regions, have pushed out many native species. Species such as Vulpia have taken over enormous areas as a response to set stocking, the common practice when grazing land with livestock.

In human terms, this spreading of the pathogens of Europe, (to which the Europeans were largely resistant from long exposure), had a devastating effect on the indigenous populations of the countries they colonised. When Thomas Mitchell’s exploring party travelled out the Macquarie river to its junction with the Darling, following the earlier attempts by Sturt to solve the riddle of the inward flowing rivers, the aboriginals were covered with pock-marks from smallpox and there were grave mounds all along the Darling. Their population had been decimated because they had no immunity, having lived in isolation from other humans for 50,000 years.

So, fifty years since Silent Spring swarmed onto our bookshelves, what have we changed? Has changing our information base led to transformational change in the way we live? Are we using less biocides now than in 1962? Have we put serious effort into different ways of farming, have we evaluated our models of grazing and cropping and found lower energy, lower impact ways of managing our harvest of the forms of life that lead to conditions friendly to life. Have we learned to create societies that live within the natural limits of the environments they occupy?

Sadly, the answer to all those questions is an indication, both of our cleverness and our lack of wisdom.

Despite the warnings issued by Rachel Carson in 1962 our performance has been worse than when Silent Spring was published. World pesticide use has increased fifty-fold, yet crop losses remain about the same as in 1950, approximately 37%

We seem to be victims of our own success, creators of our own undoing. The very pinnacle of our diverse cultures, civilisation itself, and our cleverness, has led to a population overshoot, consuming so much of the Earth’s annual production that other species are being squeezed out. This is a result that is the direct opposite to the trend of evolution; 3.7 billion years, since the beginning of life. Life has always trended towards increasing diversity and elaboration of life forms. To reverse this gloomy scenario will require sacrifice and a change of direction. The developed nations are devoted to the pursuit of materialism, people are chronically unwell due to a diet lacking nutrients and leading to increasing obesity, soaring diabetes and increasing cardio-vascular problems. There is an ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poverty stricken.

These scenarios add up to an emergency for the future of all life. Life will continue, though our part in it could change. Because these looming or imminent clashes involve big processes, humans do not see them as requiring urgent change in the way we live. Mostly humans react to emergencies or extreme stresses when lives are threatened or many are dying. Until that happens on a large scale we are happy with the status quo.

A few years ago during the 2002 to 2010 drought in South West NSW, there was an International Conference in Canberra of middle management agricultural officers, district agronomists from all over the world. They did a field trip to a leading farmer’s property. The farmer was saying how tough things had been for so long, loss of ground cover, failed crops, financial hardship. When they were getting back on the bus a tall man from Africa came up to the farmer and said, “So, things have been bad eh?” ‘Yes, never seen it this bad’.  “So, how many people have died.” That was a sobering question for Australian agriculturalists to ponder.

The emergency we are in has hardly registered in Australian minds, or the minds of humanity, generally.

Like Rachel Carson, I have to realise that some pesticide products are perhaps necessary, but the registration and approval processes, often evaluated by the companies that produce them, leave much to be desired.

Human beings so often embrace technologies that are convenient and which confer a perceived benefit, especially if it is a financial benefit. We will need to be much more careful that our desire for profit does not override common sense. This is a question of ethics.