Thursday, May 31, 2012

Thursday Thursday: Rachel turns 50!

No, not me! Let's not go adding years to my life. In fact, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. For those of you unfamiliar, this is the book that essentially initiated the environmental movement. Carson begins with a haunting vignette of a silent town, one devoid of chirps and songs, one without birds. The book goes on to tell the sinister tale of pesticides used indiscriminately throughout the environment. DDT, a toxic and ubiquitous chemical used heavily in agriculture, was the villain of the story. This pesticide killed all insects, pests and pollinators alike, but also slowly disrupted the health of birds, amphibians, and mammals. 

With a background in marine biology, and with a collection of sea-inspired novels to her credit, Rachel Carson seems particularly drawn to water and how chemicals from run-off and sprays pollute waterways. These diluted pesticides accumulate along the food chain (invertebrates -->t; fish -->; birds), and ultimately disrupt entire ecosystems. But people just did not know the resounding and long-lived impacts the use of DDT had on the environment and on their own health. My own father even recalled the DDT sprays that were common place as he grew up.

DDT was a sign of progress. It was also a residual of World War II, similar to synthetic fertilizers developed through the same Haber-Bosch process used to fix nitrogen for explosives. For soldiers exposed to typhus and malaria in the South Pacific, DDT presented a possibility of protection from the debilitating and often deadly diseases. It is still used today in many malaria-prone regions of the developing world.

If anything, Rachel Carson's spirited and moving account spurred generations to consider the resounding implications of human actions on the environment. We don't know the full spectrum of consequences from using pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, fossil fuels, or even plastics. And while there has been progress on reducing some harmful chemicals in the environment and growing awareness around sustainability, there is still a long way to go. I say, let's approach our interactions with the natural world with a little more humility and keep Rachel Carson in our minds during this momentous year.

If you need a less sunny, crunchy-granola view on Carson's achievements, you can read an article originating from the Hoover Center at Stanford University (traditionally to the right of center). Interesting perspective; not my style.

Read more about the book and her biography.

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