Bookbuster Book Review
The Coming Silent Seasons?
Part One: a brief ecological review, post-Carson
Review feature by Tim Barton
Over the next couple of issues, I intend to take a look at the deeper history of some currently trendy environment stories that have been reasonably high-profile in the media. My intent is to show the degree to which the popular press is re-inventing the wheel, usually ahistorically, and thus how much we are being asked to fight battles over again in wars long lost. My aim is not, though, to defang the reader’s anger, but to refocus and amplify it (and if the recent stories about plastics, and about pesticides and herbicides in the environment haven’t angered you, perhaps I will light that spark) with the belief that anger can feed into action.
This issue, I am looking at the work of Rachel Carson and other lesser known work from the same time. Not only are the issues she raised as relevant as ever, with many nations still controlling malaria with DDT: it is 55 years since the UK Penguin paperback of her 1962 American title Silent Spring was published, and this year saw a Library of America publication, collecting together most of her writings on the environment (a snip at £29.99, so I’ll be waiting on a second-hand one myself!). Carson was already known as a children’s nature writer and journalist before she produced this wonderfully written, if scarifying, work of very in-depth investigative journalism. Although controversial at the time, only three years on, Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee set as a goal the ‘elimination of the use of pesticides’. In 1970, years after her death from cancer, a sequel of sorts was published, Since Silent Spring by Frank Graham. Her book had a life long after her death and, with hindsight, is a foundational text in environmental literature.
In the same year, 1962, ‘Lewis Herber’ (a pseudonym of Murray Bookchin) published Our Synthetic Environment – it was out a few months before Carson’s bestseller, and also addressed the poisonous effects of pesticide use. A more politically contextualised work, it is well worth tracking down.
Both Carson and ‘Herber’ had noted a severe decline in the ecological diversity of the USA, especially in urban and agricultural areas. Species loss is a very newsworthy issue today, but our awareness (outside corporate internal reports) dates from the early ‘60s. The title, Silent Spring, was inspired by a realisation that the birdsong that filled her ears in her childhood memories of springtime had diminished, and in some places, and for some species, all but disappeared. Carson looked ahead to the dawning of a deafening silence in springtime.
The context in which she placed the nefarious effects of DDT and allied, chlorine-based, ‘synthetic’ chemicals was prescient in its scope. This was not a small localised side-effect, but the beginnings of a global ecological apocalypse. “One of the most sinister features of DDT and related chemicals is the way they are passed on from one organism to another through all the links in the food chains”, she says. Even in the ‘50s and ‘60s, farmers found “it difficult to obtain uncontaminated fodder for their milk cows, though the Food and Drug Administration forbids the presence of insecticide residue in milk shipped in inter-state commerce”.
This raises the inevitable spectre of “the problem of chemicals in foods” (as ‘Herber’ put it). Adding to a burgeoning literature, another popular paperback appeared in 1965, from Elspeth Huxley. A cousin to Aldous, she purloined his most famous title, and produced Brave New Victuals. Its subtitle gives a crystal clear snapshot of where this book was coming from – ‘Are we all being slowly poisoned? A terrifying enquiry into the techniques of modern food production’. Although Carson’s work is a touchstone here, her extensive bibliography is chock full of government reports, veterinary association papers and industry documents. Although the thirteenth chapter, ‘Fouling Our Nest’, talks of the same threats to wildlife Carson does, with an emphasis on Britain, she also covers issues such as overuse of antibiotics. You see what I mean about wheel-reinvention?
We are constantly on the back foot against industry lobbyists and reports they commission and pay for, indeed it often feels as if we take three steps back for every one forwards. One of the current stories in the unfolding ‘sixth extinction’ is that of ‘glyphosates’, which are being reported as ‘possibly harmful to man’, like it’s a new story. Except we’ve known it to be highly toxic to all mammals for decades, and have been fighting companies such as Monsanto for as long. It is ironic that even as Monsanto’s new owners, Bayer, are being sued for producing Round-Up, it is still on sale cheaply at Lidl, and the mainstream press still dare not call a spade a spade – glyphosates are, among many other well-understood commonly used synthetic chemicals, essentially inimical to all life on the planet, from plants to fish, birds and ourselves. Similarly, so are DDT and all the organochlorines – which I discuss in Part Two of this review feature in HIP 135, read it here.
If Rachel was alive today, she would be shocked at the backsliding and green-washing and outright lying from corporations to governments around the issue of organochlorines, organophosphates, and other highly toxic by-products of our modern technologies (especially those in plastics – an issue I will look at in a future HIP issue).
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