Forty-three years ago, Rachel Carson became the unlikely founder of the radical ecology movement. Her message is even more powerful today
IN 1962, a powerful group of chemical industry representatives, government officials and salaried 'experts' on the environment set out to prevent the publication of the book of a much-loved naturalist. The naturalist in question was Rachel Carson; the book, Silent Spring. Carson placed herself - her reputation, her failing health - in the path of the juggernaut that, at the time, everyone still blithely referred to as 'progress' - and she slowed it a little.
The narrowest of the book's objectives - a review of the aerial spraying of DDT over American towns, farmlands and forests - was achieved, and government policy on pesticides was significantly altered. Its wider objective - to radicalise our thinking about our relationship with the natural world - was barely recognised. At the same time, the storm of controversy and argument it provoked set the tone for our environmental debates for much of the forty-three years since its publication: debates that rarely address the most fundamental principles of Carson's thinking.
For Carson, what the twentieth century demanded was a new way of thinking about the world. She demanded, not just an end to indiscriminate pesticide use, but a new science, a new philosophy. "The 'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance," she said at the conclusion of Silent Spring, "born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man."
This new way of thinking might now be characterised as 'deep' or 'radical' ecology. Since Silent Spring, a great deal of effort has gone into its suppression. As Jonathan Bate has pointed out, the two other radical movements that emerged in the 1960s, feminism and anti-racism, have been tolerated: gender and postcolonial studies are offered in most universities, for example. Radical ecology, a philosophy that challenges all the accepted social and economic models, lags far behind.
This is because it is a genuine threat, not just to vested interests within the structure, but to the structure itself, for it asks us to dismantle our most basic assumptions: about how we do business, about how we use natural 'resources', about how we live. In 1962 Silent Spring made that threat real in a way that took both government and big business by surprise - and they have been trying to avoid being caught out again ever since.
Carson did not want to write Silent Spring. True, she was painfully aware of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, and had proposed articles on the problem to the magazines that she was writing for, as far back as the late 1940s, but Silent Spring was in many ways not her kind of project. In her great sea trilogy, Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea, a singular voice emerges, at once rigorous and lyrical, a voice she had come to know as her own. It was not, in so many ways, the right voice for a 'crusading' book on DDT.
By 1957, however, the pesticide problem was totally out of hand, and as an attempt to prevent an infestation of gypsy moths in the city of New York clearly demonstrated, "The gypsy moth", Carson wrote, "is a forest insect, certainly not an inhabitant of cities. Nor does it live in meadows, cultivated fields, gardens or marshes. Nevertheless, the planes hired by the United States Department of Agriculture and the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets showered down the prescribed DDT-in-fuel-oil with impartiality. They sprayed gardens and dairy farms, fishponds and salt marshes. They sprayed the quarter-acre lots of suburbia, drenching a housewife making a desperate effort to cover her garden before the roaring plane reached her, and showered insecticide over children at play and commuters at railway stations. At Setauket a fine quarter horse drank from a trough in a field which the planes had sprayed: ten hours later it was dead."
This was probably the single event that most influenced Carson to embark properly on Silent Spring. "There would be no peace for me," she said, "if I kept silent."
Silent Spring was published in September 1962. It would be a mistake to see it simply as a book about pesticides, though that was how it was quickly characterised by its opponents, who wanted to portray Carson as anti-chemicals and hence anti-progress.
In fact, some of Carson's best writing goes into the book, as she carries her readers along with the argument. Most of all, she wanted people to see the background to the problem with DDT. Carson is a careful guide through the complex web of political and fiscal shenanigans, explaining to a public that would have known almost nothing about biological as opposed to chemical pest control, exactly how government and other bodies manipulated the figures to make the biological option always seem "too expensive".
In this alone Silent Spring is a towering achievement: Carson makes the necessary case against DDT, but on the way, she exposes the entire system. As Paul Brookes notes, in his excellent study of her work, The House of Life, "She was questioning not only the indiscriminate use of poisons but the basic irresponsibility of an industrialised, technological society toward the natural world."
The response from that society was not long in coming. Soon the men in grey were creeping out from behind their reports and balance sheets, ready to attack. Every effort was made to suppress or vilify the book, not only by chemical companies such as Monsanto and the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, but also by government departments, the Nutrition Foundation and even baby-food producers.
It made no difference. Carson was well prepared for the attacks; and not only would she not be intimidated, she even refused to go out of her way to defend her position, saying that the book could look after itself.
Meanwhile, the public, and most of the popular press, loved Silent Spring. It became a best seller, a talking point in factories and drawing rooms, the subject of hundreds of newspaper articles, parodies, cartoons and debates. More importantly it reached the office of John F. Kennedy, who asked his scientific advisor to begin a study into the whole DDT question. A pesticides committee was set up, and it quickly produced a report criticising the chemical companies and endorsing Carson's views. Something had been achieved.
But only a little. Testifying to that same committee in June 1963 Carson took the opportunity to remind the world of the wider implications of her work: "We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man's attitude towards nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to destroy nature. But man is part of nature and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself."
It is over forty years since that statement. Spring has become a little more silent with each passing year. The skylarks and warblers that used to be so plentiful in our countryside are vanishing, especially on those big, 'profitable' farms the government seems to favour.
Part of the reason for this lamentable situation is that business and government have succeeded in keeping us all in two minds about ecology as a workable philosophy for daily life. The most calculated criticisms of Carson made in the wake of Silent Spring were that she was mystical or sentimental - and somehow that view of philosophical ecology has stuck.
Yet mystical and sentimental is exactly what ecology is not: those honours belong to the old religions of market values and objectivity. If Carson were alive today, she would be emphasising our need to understand how central the philosophy of ecology is to our lives. What she wanted to show us was that matter is continuous, like a Celtic knot. This continuum, she believed, was the one single narrative that includes all others.
You cannot pollute water locally. All waters come together, as all life does: "Individual elements are lost to view, only to reappear again and again in different incarnations in a kind of material immortality. Kindred forces to those which, in some period inconceivably remote, gave birth to that primal piece of protoplasm tossing on the ancient seas, continue their mighty and incomprehensible work. Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as a drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change."
It is a call to a new way of thinking, a challenge to us all to create, and live by, a radical philosophy of life.
This is an extract from an article in The Guardian, 18th May 2002.
John Burnside teaches Creative Writing, Literature and Ecology at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.