(See http://colinsbeautypages.co.uk/book-review-silent-spring-part-1/ for the first part of this review)
Silent Spring is sometimes described as the book that started the environmental movement. This is an extravagant claim but it really is remarkable the extent to which so many things that trouble us today are already there in its pages.
Like a great many other people I read Silent Spring in the Seventies. Back then it was already considered a classic. I wondered how it would read now it is nearly 50 years old. The first thing I noticed was how much work she put into getting over the idea that chemicals can be dangerous. Nowadays it seems a strange thing to stress. But go back 50 years and chemistry was still synonymous with progress and a better life. The other thing I noticed was just how familiar it all seemed even after so long.
Almost all the risks to individual health we still talk about today are already there in Silent Spring. She talks about pesticide residues in food and the general environment being detected in humans. Cancer causing chemicals, including oestrogen disruptors get a mention.
How have her predictions stood up to the test of time? Well, obviously there has not been a spring without birdsong. The reckless use of pesticides has not continued. Most of the chemicals described by name in the book are now banned. Governments now take protection of the environment seriously, as do scientists like myself working in industry. The message of the book invisibly pervades labs.
It also has to be said that with hindsight we can see that in many areas she was simply too pessimistic. For instance, she warns of the risks of new chemical entities being created in the environment by the unpredictable reactions between different new synthetic compounds. That sounds like a serious problem and one that should be considered, but I cannot think of a single instance when this has actually happened.
She also talks about an ever growing epidemic of cancer. That too has failed to materialise. In fact cancer rates are falling nearly everywhere. No one cause can be identified for this improvement. It is probably simply the result of thousands of small and on their own not that significant initiatives by particular individuals, all of which added together starts to make an impact on the problem.
But it is easy to forgive Rachel Carson’s overestimation of the risks of cancer. When she was writing it was a serious and growing problem. In fact she herself was one of the victims of it. She died of leukaemia in 1964 not long after Silent Spring came out. She lived long enough to know that it had an enormous impact, though not long enough to realise just how long lasting and widespread that impact would be. The public were impressed and the growing awareness of the risks of pesticides led to changes in legislation and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US and to similar bodies in other countries all around the world.
Even that understates her true significance. Countless times I have mentally referred back to Silent Spring to understand a news story. A good example recently is the dramatic reduction in bee numbers. A number of theories have been put forward to explain this. One suspect that has been fingered are the neonicotinoids, a new category of pesticide. I haven’t looked into it closely enough yet but I wonder if this will turn out to be another case where the data on file looks quite sound and would suggest that there is no problem. But will it turn out that there is some unexpected foible of bee anatomy, biochemistry or behaviour that makes them surprisingly susceptible, much like the grebes in the lake? Time will tell.
Another example is the parabens, the controversial cosmetic preservatives. In this case I have looked into the data as deeply as my brain will take me. The data proving their safety is pretty solid, but in the back of my mind is the thought that they, like DDT, are chemicals with a low level of toxicity, are soluble in fats and are very stable. There isn’t any strong evidence that parabens have any harmful effects at all, but I can’t help but remember that at one point scientists believed and with good reason that DDT was safe. In any case, even if the parabens don’t harm humans directly, there must be a total use level that they will harm the environment.
I am sure that I am not the only scientist who has been deeply influenced by Silent Spring. Its influence can also be seen in many environmental activists who consciously or unconsciously follow her template. The combination of solid facts, clear writing and passion is an unbeatable one, and can achieve a great deal if you can pull it off. If you think that is easy, give it a try.
And so I recommend that you read this book, but not particularly to learn about the risks of pesticides most of which have been long since banned, but for many other reasons. You should read it if you aspire to explaining science to non-scientists. The book deals with some very tricky areas of chemistry and biology. But at no stage are the complexities dismissed with hand waving. It is a humbling experience for those of us who sometimes try to do the same thing to realise just how difficult it is and just how well Rachel Carson does it.
If you want to campaign to make the world a safer and cleaner place (and what could be more worthy?), you should certainly read it. It shows just how it can be done. If you believe that all chemicals are toxic and that big corporations are malevolently out to do as much damage as they can get away with, you really really need to read this book. Particularly if you think that looking up a chemical name on an online database and reading some random facts about constitutes ‘doing your own research’. You’ll see that there is a bit more to it than that.
As I finished my rereading of the book my main feeling was optimism. Here was a book that had changed the world for the better. Many of the problems that Rachel Carson set out have now been solved, some of them directly as a result of her clear and persuasive writing about them. That is a great thing and we are all in her debt.
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