On the 50th Anniversary of Silent Spring: History, Poetry and Science
Barnett A. Rattner, United States Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
A well-attended special symposium commemorating the publication of Silent Spring was held at our 33rd annual meeting of SETAC in North America. Rachel Carson is heralded by many as the mother of the environmental movement. Her life and times were reviewed, including her childhood, education, employment in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and her accomplishments as renown author of numerous books with widespread public appeal. Carson received many posthumous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Honor and was ranked by Time Magazine as one of the most influence scientists and thinkers of the 20th century.
The provocative titles and content of the 17 chapters of Silent Spring evoke a suite of emotions. Symposium co-organizer Nancy Golden set Carson’s themes to verse:
Harmony exists, then starts to fray
Chemicals seem easy, but won’t go away
Pooling in tissues, causing havoc to cells
They seep into waterways, mix together in wells
Tainted are soils, and food webs they nourish
Plants sprayed recklessly, affecting those who need them to flourish
Can civilization wage war, without killing its own?
The silent spring that arrived, made the threats more well-known
We didn’t predict it, nature caught in the crossfire
Even as benefits decrease and costs grow ever higher
Man’s not exempt
Exposed to constant small doses
Leading to cellular mutation, fatigue, apoptosis
After years of exposure, we may deem one “carcinogen”
But then nature adapts, and we start all over again
Must long-term imbalance be the price of short-term success?
Not if we accommodate nature and learn to safely control pests
Presentation topics included persistent organic pollutants (Keith Solomon), organophosphorus and carbamate pesticides (Anne Fairbrother), and phenyl pyrazole insecticides (Dan Schlenk). Solomon, Fairbrother and Schlenk demonstrated the great strides that have been made in environmental chemistry and the shift away from persistent compounds that biomagnify in food webs. Michelle Boone described how Carson pointed us not to ban pesticides but to more thoughtfully consider their use and to weigh whether or not the benefits of such use justify the ecological costs.
A central point was reviewed: pesticides are not applied in isolation of ecologically relevant stressors (like predators, competitors), or often in chemical isolation. Many non-target organisms are exposed to chemical mixtures, which are generally less predictable and harder to regulate. Occasionally, some pesticides may have longer-term consequences than what is measured, with effects appearing much later in life cycles or in subsequent generations.
Reed Johnson observed how rarely Carson mentions honey bees in Silent Spring. One reason is that DDT is not very toxic to honey bees, but today we are just beginning to recognize that a few contemporary pesticides may be highly toxic to these pollinators. Currently, it is not clear what role pesticide exposure plays in honey bee health declines in the United States and around the world.
Spencer Mortensen outlined how agriculture was revolutionized in the decades preceding the publication of Silent Spring through the application of chemistry in concert with use of fertilizer and seed breeding. Dire predictions of wide-spread famine were averted by an unprecedented growth in agricultural productive capacity.
Much of what Rachel Carson campaigned for has become common practice. Today, consideration of the risk to the environment is a primary consideration of crop protection product development, with vetting through rigorous regulatory review processes. As described by both Spencer and Leighanne Hahn, crop protection products are targeted and used at reduced rates in integrated pest management programs. Efforts have been launched that facilitate effective communication between specialty crop growers, pesticide applicators and stewards of the surrounding habitat at risk to minimize effects of aerial spray drift.
Rachel Carson would indeed be impressed with how her vision has taken root and with the accomplishments made since her book was released. It continues to be a reminder of how we need to strive to consistently improve environmental quality and sustainability.
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