BOOK (1962)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 January, 2010, 12:00am

Silent Spring
Rachel Carson
(Houghton Mifflin)

Now, it seems incredible that anyone ever entertained the assumption that pesticides were a thoroughly good thing. But when US environmentalist Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring - the critique of industry that kick-started the green movement - Progress was God.

Nobody was wildly bothered about pollution and environmental desecration executed in the name of science. Carson (below), then already a well-known writer on natural history but no social critic, bucked convention by documenting the vicious effects of pesticides on the environment with forensic yet poetic aplomb. 'These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes - non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the 'good' and the 'bad,' to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil - all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called 'insecticides', but 'biocides'.'

Carson singled out DDT as particularly toxic, noting it had been found to cause thinner egg shells and result in reproductive problems and death. She also accused the chemical industry of spreading lies, and public officials of mindlessly accepting industry claims.

The potent content, which hardly anyone argues with now, spawned a backlash. Carson was slammed for her outrageous views. She was threatened with lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that she was a 'hysterical woman' unqualified to produce a polemic. The chemical industry, including the likes of Monsanto, joined forces, backed by the US Agriculture Department in a bid to discredit her.

Biochemist and former chemical industry spokesman Robert White-Stevens said: 'If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.'

Today, Carson's superbly titled text has canonical status. Among countless accolades, it was named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of Discover magazine. Now, it is her critics who seem like part of the Dark Ages. Species are going extinct at 1,000 times their natural pace due to human activity, recent science has documented, with 35 to 40 species vanishing daily. Carson saw the massacre coming.