Rachel Carson and Silent Spring: 19 November

On 19 November 2013, Dr Rebecca Tillett and Dr Nick Selby of UEA will speak at the library on Rachel Carson’s controversial book Silent Spring. Published in 1962, the book was an attack on chemical pesticides so forceful and persuasive that it virtually launched the modern environmental movement.

Silent SpringSilent Spring has been listed as one of the ‘25 Greatest Science Books of All Time‘ by Discover Magazine. And it just missed being listed as one of the ‘Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries‘ (alongside Mein Kampf). That second list and its runners-up also include a couple books by Karl Marx and a couple more by Charles Darwin — rascals — not to mention The Kinsey Report (which horrifyingly claimed that babies and children have sexual impulses, and studied them… so not surprising to see Freud as well). Anyway. Fifty years after it was first serialized in The New Yorker, Silent Spring is still controversial — and not just in the way that Darwin and Marx are still very controversial.

PVS_Contamination_SignThe contemporary response to Silent Spring would not surprise us. Vested interests balked, deflected, harassed, and generally whined. Pincus Rothberg, president of the Montrose Chemical Corporation of California, claimed that Carson wrote not “as a scientist but rather as a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.” Montrose Chemical was then the largest producer of DDT in the country. I could not discover what happened to Pincus Rothberg. But in 1989, the former Montrose Chemical plant was designated a hazardous “Superfund” site by the U.S. Government. The Palos Verdes Shelf off the coast of Los Angeles, where Montrose dumped thousands of tonnes of DDT between the 1950s and the 1980s, is still heavily polluted — fish that feed on the ocean floor contain dangerous levels of DDT and PCB. Bald eagles that eat the fish were unable to reproduce until 2007, due to the effects the chemical had on their eggs. In a mysterious twist, it has recently been reported that much of the DDT has vanished from the ocean floor. What explains this phenomenon?

man covering woman in DDT powder

DDT was used to kill insects that carry disease, e.g., malaria, before it was banned. But is this safe, after all? What do we make of claims that insects developed resistance long before Carson’s book appeared?

Perhaps it’s a generational thing, or perhaps we’ve adjusted our attitude towards science or towards what were previously thought of as facts, but DDT is on the rise again. Sceptics, who seem to have been silent (ha!) have crawled out of the woodwork. Scientists have discovered elevated levels of DDT in some parts of North America (where its use is still banned). What is the source of it? Why are we revisiting our relationship with DDT?

Learn more about Rachel Carson’s classic, Silent Spring, at our Autumn Lecture Series talk on 19 November at 6.30pm. Meanwhile, check out these links:

Dying to be Heard (film). Dying to be Heard tells the story of Michigan State University professor Dr. George J. Wallace, who discovered a link between DDT and dying birds on the MSU campus. His work was highlighted in Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” which helped launch the modern environmental movement. The Emmy award winning film is based on MSU professor Jim Detjen’s editorial “Breaking the ‘Silence'” that first appeared in the fall 2005 issue of student produced EJ Magazine. It was broadcast by all six PBS stations in Michigan and continues to be aired.

The Story of Silent Spring (NRDC). The story as told by the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Although their role will probably always be less celebrated than wars, marches, riots or stormy political campaigns, it is books that have at times most powerfully influenced social change in American life. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense galvanized radical sentiment in the early days of the American revolution; Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe roused Northern antipathy to slavery in the decade leading up to the Civil War; and Rachel Carson’sSilent Spring, which in 1962 exposed the hazards of the pesticide DDT, eloquently questioned humanity’s faith in technological progress and helped set the stage for the environmental movement.”

“Silent Spring Revisited” from PBS Frontline. Short article, part of the “Fooling with Nature” series.

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