It looks partly as if it were made of poisonous smoke; very possibly it may be: there are at least two hundred furnace chimneys in a square of two miles on every side of me.
These words of John Ruskin were among the voices that spoke out in different ways about the dangers implicit in a civilization that was being slowly molded by the mind and mortar of the Industrial Revolution. Before smokestacks and exhaust pipes began to sound their alarm bells, pesticides had been saving crops from creatures that were feeding on the fruits of our farming, while subtly having other unpleasant effects.
In 1939 The Swiss chemist Paul Muller showed that the chlorinated compound with the tongue-twisting name of p-p-dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane annihilates in a jiffy bugs and beetles, moths and mosquitoes and other low life that are a downright nuisance to human happiness. We now had a pesticide that could eliminate mosquitoes and malaria in one stroke. What a boon from the chemical world! Thanks to DDT, in just a few years malaria which was killing millions was eradicated in some regions of the world.
In the 1950s, the grand successes of science and technology were most impressive: aside from automobiles and an endless array of gadgets that were adding year after year to humankind’s creature comforts, nuclear energy had been tapped for peaceful purpose, agriculture was booming with the liberal use of fertilizers. Insects eating away crops in the fields were dealt with, no longer by the use of chemicals containing sulfur and arsenic, but by DDT.
The hope and dream was that in due course all this would be multiplied a hundred-fold so that all our material needs would be amply met. Before the end of the century we were expected to have only rich and healthy, well-fed and happy people in the nations of the world. The utopia of literary dreamers seemed just a few decades away.
But some things happened to wreck all this hope. Worse, cheerful fantasies morphed into frightening reality. In 1957, when an airplane dusted Olga Huckins’ wooded land in Massachusetts with DDT to rid the area of pests, many songbirds in the land dropped dead. The shocked Olga wrote to her friend Rachel Carson if she knew anyone in Washington DC to arrange to stop the insecticide-spraying service on her land. Carson was a marine biologist who was working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This request prompted her to inquiries and further research into the impact of pesticides. She discovered case after case their dismal effects in many parts of the country. It was important to present all this information so that the public might know what was happening.
This was a dramatic instance of the eudys principle: Anything positive introduced into human society will result in some negative side-effects sooner or later.
So the Silent Spring came to be published in 1962. It began with an explanation of the book’s title through an imaginary town where the folks nonchalantly sprayed pesticides in abundance, imagining it was like swatting flies in the kitchen or stepping over an intruding bug in the foyer. Most of the pests were decimated, but stronger strains began to develop which were resistant to the poison. More seriously, the DDT that was sprayed lingered in the soil and water for much longer periods. It slowly got into the food chain of birds and bees, of algae and fish, until, little by little, all the birds died. Then, when the cold of the winter gave way to the sunshine of spring, there was an eerie silence in the air: no crow or cuckoo, no swan or sparrow. It was a somber silent spring indeed.
Rachel Carson’s book went on to report specific cases: the Clear Lake in California where DDT had entered plankton and fish; attempts in New England to eradicate the gypsy moth which killed birds in the region, etc. The book was a shocker. The public got angry. The pesticide industry was infuriated: she had called their product biocide. The industry reacted predictably: It financed a heavy negative propaganda, calling Carson extremist and hysterical. But Carson’s critics had a disadvantage: They were in an open society. It was difficult to arrest the mounting calls for facts, and holding reckless industries responsible for polluting air, water, and land.
A major paradigm shift in the public’s view of science and technology was instigated by this powerful book
So began the environmental movement, spurred by a book that was alarmingly informative and powerful in its impact. Congressional hearings began, and soon the National Environmental Policy Act and the Environmental Protection Agency came to be. Rachel Carson died of cancer before the end of the decade.
Many of her warnings materialized little by little. More seems to be in store. The paradigm shift from regarding science and technology as the panacea for all problems to looking upon them with the gravest concern and fear has already occurred. It remains to be seen how, in the context of so much knowledge, but also under considerable economic pressures, humanity handles this most serious threat to its very survival that has arisen from a needs-satisfying and wealth-generating technology that fuels modern civilization.
May 27, 2016