The title comes from a line from Keats poem, “the sedge is wither’d from the lake, / And no birds sing“. The book begins with a fable, a dark tale of a fictional town that has lost its ability to generate new life. Slim, grim and powerful, Silent Spring is one of the 20th century’s most influential books. As one reviewer put it, “A few thousand words from Rachel Carson and the world took new direction”.
In 1962, Carson argued that the central problem of the age was man’s alarming assault upon the environment, “the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials”. She articulated a vision of a modern world that had lost its way, cavalierly disregarding basic, prudent concerns for “the integrity of the natural world that supports all life”. Six decades later, this is still the message of our age.
The “elixirs of death” that Carson targeted were radioactive fallout and DDT, the world’s first modern synthetic insecticide. Her alarm eventually led the US to outlaw DDT a decade later, with the rest of the world gradually coming on board (largely, but not completely) by 2004, when the international Stockholm Convention took effect. The convention limited the production and use of persistent organic pollutants, substances that linger in the environment for decades spread widely and accumulate when released, with the highest exposure levels in those at the top of the food chain: last, but not least, humans and their offspring.
“The current regulatory regime amounts to a game of whack-a-mole: phasing out one compound, replacing it with another assumed to be safe, then later learning that the replacement is also a problem or perhaps even worse.”
Harmful chemicals outrun the regulators. The Stockholm Convention’s initial “dirty dozen” insecticides, industrial chemicals and by-products has since nearly tripled. This year, for the first time, an international research team concluded that societies are producing and releasing chemicals and “novel entities” at a pace that exceeds the safe operating space for humanity, threatening the stability of the earth itself. The world now is so awash in everyday toxins, such as “forever chemicals”, as PFAS are widely known, that these are in the bloodstreams of virtually every human. The total mass of plastics alone is now over twice the mass of all living mammals.
The roughly 350 000 chemicals on the market are expected to double in number and volume over the next decade. As the online book Earth 2020 has noted, mankind are all unwitting participants in “a global chemical experiment” exposed to new chemicals as regulators play a game of whack-a-mole: phasing out one compound, replacing it with another assumed to be safe, then later learning that the replacement is also a problem or perhaps even worse. Such a reactionary approach is dangerous and certainly inconsistent with sustainable development. Policy and industry must do more to prevent harmful exposure.
This is why an international group of scientists is now campaigning for change and the creation of a global science-policy body on chemical pollution at the UN Environment Assembly meeting that begins on 28 February 2022.
The EU’s recent efforts to reducing environmental pollution by defining sustainable economic activities offer a start, but they are likely to fall well short. At present, definitions of “hazardous” entities are years behind the science and there are no measures to prevent the continued accumulation of plastics and their harmful health and environmental effects.
“Really, must one be a chemist to buy a frying pan?”
A contemporary Silent Spring could sound a chemical alarm about cookware, food packaging and baby bottles. It could tell the tales of reproductive toxins in personal care products, the global spread of plastics by the very means intended to limit their release and the ongoing legacy of PCBs banned decades ago, but still abundant in the ocean.
Really, must one be a chemist to buy a frying pan?
Six decades ago, Carson speculated that future generations would be unlikely to condone choices then being made. One now wonders whether we value stainproof carpets and greaseproof containers over healthy environments and people. For that matter, have we become a society so wed to the gasoline-powered car and coal-fired electricity that we are willing to jeopardize the planet’s climate and human existence itself? Will we continue to shrug at ludicrous financial calculations that concluding that change is “too costly“.
Current generations may never have heard of Carson, but they should be inspired by her work. She wrote Silent Spring while ill with the cancer that led to her death at 56, less than two years after its publication. The book became a best seller – despite unwithering attacks on its contents (“a gross distortion of actual facts“, “more poisonous than the chemicals she condemns”) and on the author (an alarmist, mystic and “hysterical woman”).
After that, remarkable things began to happen – among them the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (under a Republican administration) and the birth of an environmental movement.
In 1962, the bald eagle was nearly extinct. DDT had caused eagles to lay eggs with shells too thin to bear the weight of the birds incubating them. Following the DDT ban, eagles slowly began to recover, from fewer than 500 pairs then to more than 71 000 as of 2019.
Silent Spring shows that our choices matter. What will we choose? Growing silence? Or the eagle’s cry?
This perspective was written in consultation with SEI Scientist Charlotte Wagner.