Who hasn’t had good intentions about reading a book that is just sitting on their shelf? I have many such books. But the time came to finally pick up one of them in particular. In beginning to read it, I realized that a significant anniversary had recently past. Fifty years ago and a little bit, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. This is the book I’ve let gather dust.
Why suddenly read it now? I am now writing my own book and to be included is a short ‘history’ section about our stories. They are “our” stories if you, too, have a concern, as I do, for the well-being of this place we call home, for its well-being affects “our” well-being.
I knew Rachel Carson was a key figure in the early days of the environmental movement but I did not realize until now just how important she was. She may not have called herself an environmental leader but I do. In 1962, she bravely opened up a can of worms (not to be intentionally disrespectful to worms) and stood bravely to face the music. And what a chorus it was that resulted. She endured a well-funded and intense backlash for revealing, in fairly plain language, the incredible dangers of the chemicals that were being used far and wide as pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and rodenticides. But perhaps more importantly, she started a dialogue that lead to the birth of the enviromental movement.
As revealed in the added Introduction (1994) by thenVice President Al Gore, her book was read and talked about by many diverse people including President Kennedy. It was discussed on the news and no doubt in kitchens and backrooms—and not just those of the backlash. I can’t imagine that many of the harms weren’t known by a lot of people, besides the ones who produced and sold the products. But I wonder if one of the effects of her book was to connect the dots: she revealed the extent of the situation that was otherwise only visible in fragments: one incident here, a different one there. For instance, when a worker died only a day after he replaced a fallen spigot with his bare hands; or the wife of a farmer who died from contaminated water after the fields were sprayed with arsenic; or the cattle or the birds that were observed suddenly sick or dead; or that even physicians who attended victims of accidental poisoning by certain chemicals were in danger themselves if they did not take precautions before attending them.
The “Big” Picture
She presented the “big” picture and did I mention that I’m only a third of the way through her book? People and animals were being harmed and the chance of great harm was ever present. Did people really know the loaded guns they were handling? Do people today?
The story she tells in her book of the chemicals, their uses and unanticipated results is shocking. Within pages of starting to read it I had two nearly simultaneous thoughts: ‘this sounds like now’ and ‘this was written 50 years ago’ (about the widespread use of chemicals through the previous couple of decades–after World War II). It had already been going on for a while!
Fifty years ago, she wrote at the beginning of chapter 3: “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.” Fifty years ago she wrote that?! My thought is ‘it’s a wonder we’re still alive now’…and here we are. But is it any wonder that there is so much sickness and disease as we see?
Chemical use now: more or less?
So, has the use of pesticides, etc. been reduced because of that dialogue that was begun so long ago? No. We did then and have continued to coat our continent with a concoction of chemicals, for more than 50 years. Today, thousands upon thousands of chemicals are on the market to be used by the trained and the untrained. A vast number of them remain to be tested for safety. Not only do we apply them to our fields, forests and streams, we apply them to our lips, face, hair and other body parts. And, we continue to wonder why we get sick?
‘Why my husband or child or sister or me?’ ‘Why don’t I feel well?’
Pesticides and the other killing chemicals were only ever designed to harm. The ones for our so-called beauty, I’ll leave for a future conversation about safety, or the lack of it.
We know but we do not act
Carson’s book revealed to me that 50 years ago people were realizing there were unintended, terrible harms happening and yet more chemicals—not fewer—are daily brought onto the market.
Have you read Silent Spring?
What do you think?