50 Years After “Silent Spring,” What Would Rachel Say?
What would Rachel Carson have to say about the environment if she were alive today?
Tomorrow is the 50th birthday of Carson’s “Silent Spring.” First published in serial form in the New Yorker and then as a Houghton Mifflin best seller in 1962, this densely researched and beautifully written attack on the indiscriminate use of pesticides caused a revolution in public opinion. Eventually it was a major factor in the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
I came to this book late in its life, discovering it on my bedside table when I was attending a writers’ colony in upstate New York some fifteen years ago. But there was something perfect about being in my bucolic cabin in the Catskills and absorbing Carson’s carefully detailed arguments warning the public about the long term effects of misusing pesticides, while reminding us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem.
She did not, in fact, call for the abandonment of all chemical pesticides. She asked instead for a ban on the more insidious, long-lasting chemicals like DDT, against which there was increasing evidence of harmful effects to many living things.
She asked also that the other chemicals be used more judiciously and that the regulations for their manufacture and sale be tightened. Finally, she sent out a plea for alternative methods for fighting pests, so that the flow of deadly poisons into the environment might be restricted.
And she largely succeeded: laws and regulations have been tightened, and most of the chemicals whose use she criticized have been banned.
But what would Carson have to say about our environment today?
What would Carson have to say BPA, or Bisphenol A? BPA is an estrogen-mimicking chemical that can seep into food. Public concern about the chemicals has grown in the wake of studies such as one that found that, in 2,000 people, over 90 percent had BPA in their urine, not to mention a 2010 US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announcement about the “potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children.”
This could be our DDT.
Earlier this year, the FDA banned BPA from baby bottles and children’s sippy cups, but they have refused to ban it elsewhere, stating that the scientific evidence at this time does not suggest that the very low levels of human exposure to BPA through the diet are unsafe.
This is in spite of the fact that BPA has already been banned in children’s products in Canada, the European Union, China, Malaysia, South Africa and Argentina, as well as in 11 US states. Australia and Japan have banned it outright.
DDT may have been banned for use in the U.S.40 years ago, but a new study offers evidence about the dangerous effects of pesticides on honey bees. Care2′s Kristina Chew reports that biologists at the University of California at San Diego have found that a commonly used crop pesticide makes honey bees picky eaters.
The chemical in question is imidacloprid, which is a type of neonicotinoid — which has been linked to bees’ deaths. Imidacloprid has come under increasing scrutiny in the US and is banned for use in some crops in some parts of Europe. James Nieh, a professor of biology at UC San Diego who also authored the study, notes in Science Daily that, in 2006, imidacloprid was the sixth most commonly used pesticide in California. Besides being used in agriculture, it is also used in home gardens.
And while DDT may not be used in the U.S., there are numerous chemical pesticides used to control insects and other pests in livestock facilities. Industrial farms apply these chemicals directly to the skin, fur and feathers of livestock such as cattle, pigs and poultry in order to kill off flies, mites, spiders, cockroaches, ticks and other pests.
And then there’s all the concern about Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide.
Carson would be anxious about BPA and about today’s pesticides, but I believe she would also be thrilled at the size of the movement that she started. For surely, without Carson, we might not even be questioning these environmental disasters.
Millions of us around the world are calling out for the truth, refusing to let the Big Corporations smother us with their lies, and demanding action.
We must honor Carson’s memory and not remain silent.
Photo Credit: USDAgov