The Canon: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

August 5, 2010

Rachel Carson was not the first to suggest that the chemical fog produced by modern industry was carcinogenic. But her prodigious feat of synthesising a jumble of scientific and medical information into a readable and coherent argument about health and environment was transformative. Silent Spring, published in 1962, is credited with launching the modern environmental movement, provoking the near-global ban on DDT, inspiring feminist health movements and shifting paradigms in public health. Carson didn't live to see most of these after-effects; she died in 1964 of breast cancer.

The change in public health paradigms that Silent Spring enjoined is possibly its most important legacy, pointing to new ways to think about the health effects of the chemical immersion that constitutes modern life. Carson demonstrated the dogged persistence needed to pursue evidence about the health effects of chemical exposures in the face of industry obfuscation and active engagement to hinder such efforts; she foregrounded the importance of understanding the synergistic effects of multiple chemical exposures, despite the allegedly "unknowable" character of such multiplier effects; she advocated precaution in the face of scientific uncertainty about the consequences of chemical exposures; and she insisted that fatal health and environmental damage was likely at even low levels of exposure.

Almost 50 years after Silent Spring was published, its salience and brilliance remain undiminished. Much of its "information" is out of date. It now seems quaint to worry, as Carson did, about the "200 chemicals that have been created for use in killing ... pests"; and what a luxury it would be to worry about a mere "500 new chemicals that annually find their way into use in the US alone." The Environmental Protection Agency has by now approved more than 1,400 pesticides for use in the US, and maintains a list of about 87,000 chemicals in its Toxic Substances Inventory.

Whether it is for the fifth time or the first, this is a good time to read this classic. Every year brings fresh evidence that Carson was, essentially, presciently, tragically right. Earlier this year, the President's Cancer Panel released its first report focusing on the links between environment and cancer. The report asserts that environmental cancers are "grossly underestimated" and "needlessly devastate American lives"; that the regulatory approach is reactive not precautionary; that harmful effects occur at low doses of exposure to synthetic chemicals; and that a lack of regulatory will, combined with "undue industry influence", renders ineffective regulation of environmental contaminants.

What the panel has not addressed is the carnage to animals, birds and ecosystems that makes Silent Spring so heartbreaking to read. Carson pleads against the "habit of killing ... any creature that may annoy or inconvenience us". There are few better modern oracles than Carson, who warns that our urgent task is to find "new, imaginative and creative approaches to the problem of sharing our earth with other creatures". The "current vogue for poisons", she warns, is rooted in a primitive and arrogant urge to control nature that is our "alarming misfortune".

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