Friday, 1 February 2013


Silent spring which was written by marine biologist Rachel Carson and first published in 1962 is the first book to explain in detail the harmful effects of DDT and other chemicals on environment including human beings. The book is widely credited as helping to launch the environment movement. It facilitated the ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972 in the United States. It was named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of Discover Magazine. It has been featured in many lists of the best nonfiction books of the twentieth century. In the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Nonfiction it was at #5 and it was at No.78 in the conservative National Review.
Rachel Carson started her career as a marine biologist in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and became a full-time nature writer in the 1950s by writing best-selling books like The Sea around Us on ocean life. In 1958 she received a letter from Olga Owens Huckin turned her attention towards harmful effects of chemicals which subsequently paved the way for ‘silent spring’. It not only created global awareness about harmful effects of DDT and other chemicals, it created a global environmental movement. Both her concern for nature and her courage to take on giant chemical companies and other similar groups is highly remarkable.
As contrary to popular misconception silent spring is not only about DDT. RC Wrote about damages from all kind of chemicals. She also alternative methods to replace chemicals but more importantly she severely criticised the human belief(arrogance?) that he can control the nature by showing that many times he fails to understand the consequences of his reactions. Her style of writing is very lively also she explained the facts such that every layman can understand. She managed to strike a perfect balance between citing relevant facts and maintaining curiosity of reader.
She starts with a story of an imaginary village that was destroyed due to use of DDT, which is sure to shock the reader and will make him realise the great danger in using pesticides. Then her analysis the effect of pesticides on humans, water, soil and on the entire ecosystem in a detailed way. Her main objections to use of chemicals are 1)gradually due to mutations insects will become resistant to existing chemicals so the chemicals will become useless and one need to develop more toxic chemiclas.They will also create mutations in the human genes. 2) They may end up in destroying essential insects/plants creating ecological imbalances.3)due to their non-bio degradable nature and solvency in fat, they will enter the food chain & using them in seemingly small quantities will result in large amount of accumulation in the bodies of humans and other living beings. She also questions the wasting huge amount of money on them while there are other cheaper opportunities available. I think this point is particularly relevant in India where use of chemicals in agriculture has highly increased the cost of production of farmers.
She traces the increase of harmful insects to destruction of biodiversity by human activities starting from large scale commercial agriculture to growing predominantly forests with single species. She says that most of the species that came with explorers to the new lands became pests in the new environment. In explaining the increased use of chemicals in agriculture she notes that most of the chemicals used as pesticides were created during the World War II for the purpose of chemical warfare. She argues after the world war ended chemical companies rebranded them and started to sell them as ‘pesticides’. But she doesn’t totally reject them. She calls for a sensible use of chemicals.
Her analysis of the structure of DDT and other chemicals like organic phosphates etc reveals that these chemicals are harmful not only to human beings but to the entire ecosystem. She severely criticises the use of systemic insecticides. She then does a detailed examination of their effect on water, soil, birds, human health in separate chapters. She cites lot of evidences not only events occurred but also scientific research. Her style is so lucid and easy to follow that any laymen can easily understand. Surprisingly she doesn’t tell anything new, all the things were known before but by bringing them together and through her way of writing she created awareness among masses about the hazardous of pesticides. In this way her book virtually created the modern environment movement against using chemicals in agriculture.
In explaining the effect of chemicals on water she argues ‘In the entire water-pollution problem, there is probably nothing more disturbing than the threat of widespread contamination of groundwater’. It is due to the fact that chemicals pass through water cycles contaminating wells and other water sources. But as she explains the most dangerous consequence of mixing chemicals in water is that it leads to the creation of new chemicals due to chemical reactions. These chemicals can be very harmful even if the initial chemicals were not dangerous. The story of farmers in Colorado shockingly displays these dangerous of underground contamination by chemicals. In explaining the effect on species in water sources she cites several cases like Tule Lake and Lower Klamath where birds, fishes and other species were died due to accumulation of chemicals like DDT. There were used as weed killers but because of their non-bio-degradability they passed to other species through food chain. The most dangerous thing is that even though the initial amount used was not harmful due to accumulation the amount found in fishes & birds were very high.It also affected the migratory pattern of birds due to contamination of water sources. In explaining the hazardous effects she basically criticises the human arrogance of trying to change nature as he wishes.
She explains the intricate relations existing between species and shows how insecticides are destroying it. Along with pests good & important species like earthworm etc are also killed. Birds which eat these insects are died due to poisoning. More dangerously as case Florida shows pesticides like DDT, BHC destroys nitrogenity of soil. Due to their non-biodegradability these chemicals get collected in large quantities even when applied in small quantities. On above all that these crops grown in those fields wii contain these chemicals, and get accumulated in body of people who consumes it.
The almost universal presence of these pesticides shocks anyone. They have spread from places of Eskimos in arctic to Antarctica, from our dining tables to deserts. Her concern for environment shows reflects in her writing. She clearly demonstrates that human beings in their egoist attempt to control nature as their wishes are actually acting with total ignorance of complex interconnections of nature. She warns that ultimately it will lead to his own demise. It amazes me how prophetic her words were! For example she gives examples of birds dyeing due to accumulation of DDT, but recently we have seen cases like Endosulphan where people died due to exposure of pesticides.
As the incidence she cites clearly demonstrates that the effect of chemicals on human beings is more disastrous. Since these chemicals are non-biodegradable there cumulative affects over long periods of time are hazardous. As they are fat soluble they are stored in human body, but there effects are not seen until they reach a critical stage. But then it will be too late to take any action. As human beings are top of the food chain, significant amount of chemicals get stored in their body even if only small amount was sprayed. They adversely affect internal organs and in some cases physically challenged children are born due to the affects of chemicals that get passed to them in mother womb through placenta. Furthermore they disturb the activities of individual cells by affecting oxygen cycle and other important functions. Some chemicals are identified as carcinogenic i.e. cancer causing even when taken in small quantities. But the most fearful of all the things she cites is that some chemicals are even capable of causing mutations in genes and damaging chromosomes resulting in alternation of hereditary material itself. It makes mockery of all things human beings do since man’s attempt to control nature resulting in destruction of his own hereditary materials.
She just didn’t explain the harmful effects of chemicals Carlson but expressed universal outlook challenges the human belief in his understanding the nature. She clearly demonstrates his very limited understanding of complex ecological system. She severely criticises his arrogance for trying to control nature by make him to realise that he is the one who need to adjust. I really appreciate her courage for writing.As the book published many chemical companies launched smear campagains against her. She bravely fought them & as her book had high standards in terms of facts and references her critics lost their ground. Lately she has been criticised for ‘causing deaths due to malaria due to her call for DDT ban’. Nothing can be more farther from the truth. DDT was not used for malaria because after few years mosquitoes became resistant to them. This was exactly the thing she suspected while explaining that insects gain resistance to chemicals due to mutations in their genes.
Furthermore she didn’t call for total ban of insecticides .She called for their limited and intelligent use. She argued for understanding their implications on ecological system before using them. She called for other alternative methods like using natural enemies of insects, sterilization techniques, ultrasound, and transgenic methods. Contrary to her critics, her views on transgenic crops etc were so advanced that research on them just started in 1990’s. But some of these methods like transgenic crops caused adverse side effects (like BT cotton). But other methods like organic farming, using insecticides made from plants as neem have proved to be quite useful.
Carlson’s book surprises by its relevance to today’s problems. It is shocking that in India and other developing countries many chemicals represented in her book are still used despite their harmful effects are well known. In India Endosulphon case is a best example. Surprisingly she didn’t cite any new research on the topic but she chronicled all the facts and presented in such a way that anyone can understand. It created awareness in people and they started fight against these chemicals. It demonstrates the importance of popular science.
Overall I think this book must be read by anyone who is concerned about environment. I am sure that after reading the book there perspective about human activities will itself will change. They will appreciate the complexity of environment surrounding us.

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