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| 4 minutes read

60 Years On: The Echoes of “Silent Spring”

Last month saw the 60th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal work “Silent Spring”. In the age of hyperbole, affording such a description can seem hollow, however, the book’s success in securing Carson’s place as one of the key progenitors of the modern environmental movement means that this praise is well-deserved.  

On a preliminary reading, Silent Spring may seem to be nothing more than a cautionary tale concerned with the unabated and haphazard use of chemical pesticides. Under the surface, it is much more than that. The book serves to illustrate the inherent balance between interdependent organisms within ecosystems and how this, in turn, underpins the continued functioning of all life on Earth.  

Carson’s main assertion was that humanity, in its indiscriminate use of pesticides, had by “arm[ing] itself with the most modern and terrible weapons” declared war on nature.

In the wake of the destruction wrought on Europe by the Second World War, combatants on both sides found themselves united in a struggle against a common foe – hunger. In its struggle, humanity looked to modern science to boost agricultural output.  Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane or “DDT” was landed upon as the solution. DDT was hailed as a miracle chemical and widely-lauded as a pesticide which would revolutionise agriculture.

DDT proved incredibly effective - too effective. DDT was found to break down far slower than other insecticides and was detected in significant quantities in tissues of animals further up the food chain causing mortality and impairing reproduction. In permitting the widespread use of DDT, mankind had upset the balance in the ecosystem. In effect, the human race positioned itself against friend and foe alike in the natural world. This win/lose paradigm was argued by some to be indicative of humanity’s need to dominate nature and make it subservient to its will. Ironically, in an act of great hubris, humanity wilfully blinded itself to the fact that its own success and wellbeing was intrinsically linked to the preservation and promotion of the natural world.

The continued appeal of Silent Spring is testament to Carson’s ability to translate scientific facts into everyday language and her skilful command of the anecdote. Carson understood and made use of society’s deep-rooted affection for the natural world. Then as now, mankind is possessed with an ineffable affection for and affinity with nature. Silent Spring lays bare this close attachment and laments how successive generations had taken for granted that which needs to be preserved. Carson’s careful deployment of ‘real world’ examples serve to both contextualise and to render comprehensible otherwise conceptual issues. In short, readers cared because it was relatable and it resonated because it was understandable. 

A marker of the book’s success was the reaction of the American chemical industry and lobby groups. Even prior to its publication, word of Silent Spring had come to the attention of major players in the agrichemicals sector. Silent Spring and her Carson herself came in for significant criticism. Ill-judged attempts to discredit the underlying scientific analysis and to smear Carson were not successful.

Carson did however enjoy success in influencing the then US president, John F. Kennedy, and many others in turn. President Kennedy would go on to charge his Scientific Advisory Committee (“PSAC”) with the responsibility for developing policy on the use of pesticides generally and with a specific focus on DDT. In preparing its report, PSAC endorsed the methodological research sitting behind Silent Spring. As part of its endorsement, the PSAC set out a new framework for the regulation of pesticides and environmental regulation more broadly.

PSAC’s template approach made clear that, in its view, manufacturers needed to not only undertake analysis of the efficacy of a chemical product and its effect on human health but that they must also give due consideration to the potential wider environmental impacts. Drawing on existing legal precedents and reflecting the precautionary principle[1], the PSAC’s report was unequivocal - it was for proponents of pesticides (i.e. chemical manufacturers) to demonstrate both efficacy and to ensure safety for humans and the natural world alike. This approach would go on to influence the drafting of subsequent international conventions on environmental law and guide the approach of legislatures across globe in developing environmental regulation.  

The heightened public awareness as a result of the immediate popularity of Silent Spring combined with a series of high-profile environmental disasters led to growing calls in the US to establish a regulatory body to oversee the protection of the environment. Environmental Protection Agency came into being in 1970 and would go on to ban the use of DDT within a decade of Silent Spring’s publication.

Over the past 60 years, the reverberations from Silent Spring have shaped how we law to protect the environment and has led to a paradigm shift in our relationship with nature. Following a steep learning curve, humanity has come to see nature as a (somewhat unequal) partner. In acknowledging the debt owed to the natural world, we have come to realise that the progress of the human race need not be at nature’s expense. The challenge incumbent upon us now is to agree a methodology to determine how we can ‘value’ nature without losing sight of its immeasurable ‘worth’.

Silent Spring imbued the natural world with a voice. Let us hope that delegates attending the upcoming UN Biodiversity Conference (“COP15”) have heard its message and heed the warnings.

[1] Cf. Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill which would remove retained EU law and the protection for the environment developed applying the precautionary principle.