Silent spring or reweaving the web?

2014-07-21 00:00

“THERE was a town … where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings … Then a strange blight crept over the area … There was a strange stillness … The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of scores of bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

Marine biologist Rachel Carson’s prophetic words in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. Carson’s research into the U.S. “pest” and “predator” — control programmes using chemical pesticides such as DDT, dieldrin, malathion, spreading poisons without concern for the welfare of wildlife, particularly bird life, alerted her to the fact “that everything that meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened …”

A 1957 mosquito-control campaign caused dreadful wildlife mortality, and in the southern states attempts to eradicate the fire ant brought extensive harm to other creatures. Elsewhere spraying of cranberry plants led to all cranberries being withdrawn from the market.

Carson’s book highlighted the dangers of widespread, uncontrolled pesticide use, also threatening humans; and accused the chemical industry of disseminating disinformation. Many hailed the book for raising public awareness about environmental pollution and it won many awards, recently named one of the greatest science books of all time. President John Kennedy called his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson’s claims, vindicating her work, and leading to tighter pesticide regulations.

However, Monsanto and other DDT and pesticide manufacturers mounted a vicious counter-attack, threatening lawsuits, vilifying Carson as a “hysterical woman”, unqualified to produce such a book. She was accused of calling for a total, immediate ban on DDT, irresponsibly ignoring the most effective known control of malaria. But, in fact, what Carson advocated was as little spraying as possible, maintaining that mosquitoes would soon become resistant to present programmes, which is what happened.

Carson’s warnings also resulted in the rehabilitation of the Brown Pelican population of Florida and Louisiana, which from 1969, through the seventies, was becoming extinct because high levels of DDT and dieldrin caused the thinning of their eggshells.

With these pesticides banned in Florida — then the rest of the U.S. — the pelican populations recovered, as did the Bald Eagle. However, chemicals still kill approximately 67 million birds a year. The impact of Silent Spring — the inspirational voice of one woman — marked a watershed for the new environmental movement built on its foundations.

But lessons learnt in one part of the world are ignored in others. In 1990, vegetables were damaged in the Tala Valley south of Pietermaritzburg, traceable to Dow Chemical’s hormonal herbicide 2,4-D — linked to the infamous “Agent Orange” defoliant — documented recently in a Carte Blanche programme.

Legal action led to a total ban of this in the Camperdown district. Though banned in Scandinavian countries, it is making a comeback in South Africa as a lawn weed killer. Furthermore, in May 2012, SA authorities approved Dow Chemical’s controversial GM maize variety, genetically modified for the use of 2,4-D. All this, despite alarmingly plentiful evidence of its carcinogenic, neurotoxic and other life-threatening properties. At the very least, this should indicate the advisability of extreme caution in its use, although both Dow and Monsanto still persist in claiming this and “Roundup” herbicide are harmless to animals and humans.

Should we trust the assurances of those who stand most to benefit financially from such products? And ignoring clear evidence of the widespread harmful effects of DDT, there are still vociferous claims that this is the only effective way of dealing with the spread of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa; and that any side-effects on wildlife should be dismissed as inevitable collateral damage.

This ignores the fact that Carson correctly predicted that mosquitoes were becoming resistant to this insecticide, as well as other malaria-control initiatives such as the widespread use of mosquito nets, and the recent research at Imperial College, London, on inhibiting the reproduction of female anopheles mosquitoes, the main transmitters of the disease (The Witness, June 19).

These examples illustrate the urgency to halt this ravaging of nature, who, as maintained by Ecofeminists, appears to have her own way of taking revenge on those continuing to ignore the warnings.

This was very evident in the frighteningly extreme winter weather which recently pummelled the U.S. and western Britain — clear confirmation of climate change due to the melting of the Arctic ice cap, much of it caused by continued burning of fossil fuels.

The time is overdue for a fundamental rethinking of attitudes and our profligate consumerist worldview, as well as protesting against the use of toxic herbicides, and other environmentally destructive processes.

Radical change in lifestyles can be challenging and painful, but the alternative of environmental meltdown should make the choice we have abundantly clear.

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