In fact, Carson’s warnings are still highly relevant, both in terms of the specific threat posed by DDT and its sister chemicals and to the general ecological dangers facing humanity. “The seas are now witnessing the land horrors she described in “Silent Spring”,” says oceanographer Callum Roberts, of York University. “The seas are the ultimate sinks. Chemicals get washed out of the soil and into streams and rivers. They should settle on the sea bed and stay there. However, fishing has become so intense, with boats dredging up scallops and bottom-dwelling fish all the time that we are constantly ploughing up these toxins, including DDT, and stirring them back into the water.”
Nor have matters improved on land. Neonicotinoids, insecticides used in seed dressing, have been linked to colony collapse disorder in honeybees, a condition that saw 800,000 hives wiped out in the US in 2007 alone, while vultures in Asia have been wiped out by the chemical diclofenac used on farms. As Carson wrote: “Chemical war is never won and all life is caught in its violent crossfire.“
It is a lesson that seems to have been lost over the decades, however. “Carson believed we had to have a balance between ourselves and nature but the urge to have a macho-domination of the planet seems just as strong as it was in 1962,” says Porritt. “We have made much less progress than we hoped for then.”
Jameson agrees. “Was she right? Emphatically so. Was she heeded? Well, over DDT, she was. But her broad message that we need to act in moderation and achieve a balance with nature, has still not been fully grasped.”
Martin Harper of the RSPB is also cautious. “It took 10 years to get DDT banned after its effects had been demonstrated. And similarly today, when warned about a chemical’s danger, governments wait until research results are unequivocal. Then they suggest industry takes voluntary action. Only when that fails does it issue a ban, years too late.”
Rachel Carson’s legacy is therefore difficult to assess. More than any other individual, she helped raise awareness about humanity’s potential to wreak havoc on nature and we should be grateful. But it is equally clear that the planet is in a far worse state today than it was in 1962. The population has risen from 3.1 billion to 6.9 billion; seas are being drained of fish, wild places destroyed and wildlife devastated.
“I think she would have been horrified about the state of the planet today,” Porritt admits. “Silent Spring” outlined a clear and important message: that everything in nature is related to everything else. Yet we have not taken that idea on board or fully appreciated its significance. In that sense, we have let her down.”
Ref: The Guardian. Robin McKie Sun 27 May 2012 09.05 AEST
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