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February, 2008

Silent Spring

Having finished reading Silent Spring, I packed the book and my notes in a backpack and began a hike up the White Mountains in New Hampshire. The trail took me to a rustic hut that I would share with my two companions and a chocolate loving mouse. Being in nature enriched my spirit while climbing challenged my body. The long rocky trek culminated in an incredible view of Lonesome Lake, a small lake nestled in a pine and birch forest, named so only because of it's isolation. There's nothing negative about this kind of lonesome, just the best kind of solitude and peacefulness to be found. The perfect place to begin gathering my thoughts, trying to distill the words and capture a bit of the spirit Rachel Carson left us in her book written over 40 years ago.

I am humbled by Rachel's courage. It's hard to imagine the political and social climate that greeted her as she wrote about and spoke the negative truths of the times. Fortunately, many of her concerns did result in action and certainly helped set people and policy in motion. Still, much of the content of her book is relevant today as we have exacerbated some of the problems and ignored others.

Although the book is full of examples of the horrible degradation of our natural environment and an obvious contamination of our own bodies, the tone of Silent Spring is one of hope and restraint. Rachel clearly presented viable options and obviously supported a balanced approach to living with the natural world. It's an easy read from a technical point of view because Rachel makes it accessible. Chemicals are explained so that laymen can understand their impacts and compositions. She writes of the variety of chemicals added each year to the barrage let loose on our world. Effects to water, soil, plants and animals are described. She writes that pesticides should be called biocides and treated as the dangerous chemicals that they are. An emphasis is placed on the fact that everything is interconnected. And, as a reader, drawing my own conclusion that much of our behavior is crazy, seems obvious.

One of the craziest things to me is the chemical damage done in the name of controlling bugs. And that the chemical solutions do not only fail to solve the bug problems but they usually cause other problems. Fortunately, plenty of alternatives to the chemical control of insects are noted. Rachel makes the craziness clearest with this quote: "How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?"

Along with exposing specific types of contamination and allowing the reader to see the craziness of it, Rachel also asks deeper more fundamental questions that need to be addressed if we are to understand our behavior. One observation made is this: "We are accustomed to look for the gross and immediate effect and to ignore all else. Unless this appears promptly and in such obvious form that it cannot be ignored, we deny the existence of hazard." Following from that observation are examples of the long term and interrelated consequences of chemical exposures; consequences that are sometimes subtle, often times complex, cumulative, or distanced from the chemical exposure by long spans of time. We're left to come to our own conclusion and take up the challenge of changing the way we respond so that it is appropriate to the types of threats that we face.

As I continued to read Silent Spring, I often felt the urge to research the abundant examples and see where we are now. I know the bald eagle was recently taken off the endangered species list, a list that exists at least in part because of Rachel Carson. DDT was banned from production and use in the US. And, as I carried this book with me to doctor's appointments and outings, I often heard from people the anecdotal evidence of its lasting impact, "Oh that book by Rachel Carson, the one that got DDT banned". Even many people who, like me, had never read it, knew of it and its power.

The forward written by Linda Lear shares a personal side of Rachel Carson. As she finished writing Silent Spring, Rachel was diagnosed with cancer. She would succumb to the cancer soon after her work was published. Her cry of concern for the environment and the interrelated concern for the negative effects chemicals can have on human health makes her book and her life the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Even in 1960, Rachel was questioning the rationale that excused the release of small amounts of carcinogens and other toxins into our environment. How could we know the long term effects of small exposures over time? And what of the known and unknown effects of combinations of chemicals created when they mix after release? She provided examples that warrant concern and offered caution and scientific study as guides to our behavior. Her advice rings true today and can be followed as designers each time we eliminate carcinogenic and toxic materials in our design projects no matter how small the quantity.

Reading Silent Spring provides a foundation from which to understand the environmental movement and the roots of the current wave of sustainability. Environmental concerns now are beyond the point source types of contamination that Rachel exposed. And although she explained how we were effecting the whole ecosystem with our contamination, the scale of our effects on the planet have ballooned to new proportions. The next book I review here, Red Sky at Morning, by James Gustave Speth, speaks to the global environmental crisis we now face.

Red Sky at Morning

By James Gustave Speth
(review available to subscribers)

I share a few quotes:

Silent Spring

By Rachel Carson by: Sue Norman