Monday, October 20, 2008

Silent Spring - 50 Greatest Books

Silent Spring Review
By Tim Flannery
Globe and Mail
October 18, 2008

The 1950s were deeply disturbing times. Our fathers, traumatized yet intoxicated by their victorious wartime power, had turned upon our Earth, unleashing the same chemical and nuclear weapons they had deployed a few short years earlier on their fellow human beings.

So unhinged were the times that serious proposals were advanced by Russian scientists to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Arctic ice cap and so ameliorate the climate of the world.

Canada entertained its own mad schemes. On Feb. 10, 1959, Time magazine reported that the Richfield Oil Corp. planned to explode a series of two-kiloton nuclear weapons below the Alberta tar sands, creating cavities that would fill with liquefied tar.

They claimed that 300 billion barrels of crude oil would be created, and the experts assured everyone that there would be no hazard from radioactivity. As horrifying as this potential misuse of atomic power was, it was the chemical weapons then being aerially sprayed across North America that held the greater danger.

Rachel Carson was a marine biologist who was only reluctantly drawn into researching their impact, and at the time she penned her epic work, she was already suffering from the cancer that would, just two years later, take her life.

She begins Silent Spring with these words: "There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings."

It was the ruthless destruction of that idyll of rural America that formed the basis of a work that has been rightly hailed as giving birth to the modern environmental movement. Carson's ability to make science understandable was formidable.

I have never read as simple or elegant an explanation of chemical composition as she provides for the organochlorides, the group to which the 200-odd chemicals that were then destroying her country belonged. It was not just nature that was suffering.

Carson carefully details many instances of fatal human poisonings. A farmer's wife was poisoned after her husband sprayed. A baby and a small dog died after returning to a house where endrin had been used to kill cockroaches.

In some programs, half the men who sprayed DDT for the World Health Organization suffered convulsions and death. Given that the chemicals are close relatives of the nerve gases developed by the Germans in the Second World War, none of this should have been surprising. The scale of the spraying was enormous: The amount of parathion used annually in California alone was enough, according to one expert, to kill the human population of the world five to 10 times over.

As she researched, Carson received letters from all over the country informing her of the mass death of birds following spraying. She learned that the toxins were accumulating in the reproductive organs of survivors, making them infertile. At times, the destruction was deliberate: In 1959, in southern Indiana, farmers purposely sprayed the roosting site of red-winged blackbirds, killing 65,000, along with uncounted raccoons, rabbits and other life. The destruction did not end on land. In the late 1950s, spraying of forests along the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, to control spruce budworm, devastated the region's salmon run.

Streams all across the continent were being emptied of fish and other life, yet, despite the devastation, neither government nor the corporations manufacturing the toxins showed the least concern. They kept issuing mollifying statements, dismissing concerns as the complaints of nature lovers who were against progress, until Silent Spring exposed them for the merchants of death that they were.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy was that the spraying was ineffective. Yes, it killed pest insects, but it also killed the creatures that held their populations in check. These predators breed more slowly than the pests, so that the year after a spraying, the numbers of pests often increased, and another, more intensive spraying was required.

Long before the development of organochlorides, entomologists knew what the solution to pest infestations was: Increasing ecosystem health by pursuing organic forms of agriculture, and the manipulation of predator insects, provided safe and effective means of controlling pests.

The trouble was that corporations couldn't make fortunes that way. With the illusion of a quick fix, the pesticide companies had set us on a cataclysmic course. We might think that the madness of the 1950s is over, but its effects are still with us, for the poisons remain in our bodies, often passed to us in our mother's milk. Many are immoveable until the moment of our death.

Some of these chemicals are carcinogens, and the elevated rates of some cancers seen in some rural areas today may be caused by them. Others affect fertility, and striking instances of decreases in male fertility, such as documented in Denmark over the past half century, may also result from the spraying of yesteryear.

If Rachel Carson's book has a central message today, it is that every action has its consequences, for in poisoning the world, we poisoned ourselves. For those in the business of unsustainable greed, whether it be in the mortgage business or the tar sands, it's a lesson worth pondering.

Tim Flannery is chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council and author of "The Weather Makers." In 2007, he was named Australian of the Year

This is one book I have not yet read - BUT I must try and do so.

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