Silent Spring – the book that forever changed the way the world looks at chemicals – turns 50 this year, and when you’re a writer researching the herbicide glyphosate for a story like the one on page 46, you see and feel Rachel Carson’s presence everywhere. Google search “glyphosate” and you’ll see any number of anti-chemical groups using her name as a rallying cry in their crusade against the herbicide, and you’ll pick up a whiff of resentment towards the book in the counterarguments made by some glyphosate users. As is the case with most debates that unfold on the web, the arguments are broad, philosophical in nature, and entrenched in their ideology: Carson and her book have become symbols of the good extreme and the bad extreme of environmental advocacy. All of this is fair and good in a society that values free thought and spirited debate, even while it’s a touch distasteful to assume alliance with or attribute blame to a woman who died 10 years before this particular chemical was even invented.
But what about Carson’s legacy from a chemicals-in-the forest perspective? Is there some metric by which we can look back, 50 years later, and see if things are better or worse? Has Silent Spring had a lasting impact or, conversely, was it just a speed bump on the way to more chemicals, to more intense environmental degradation?
If you just scan the headlines on an anti-chemical webpage you might be tempted to think that things are as bad as ever out there. But in researching this story I didn’t find this to be true at all – in fact, I was running into Carson’s shadow everywhere I looked.
The most obvious Carson legacy is found in the regulatory framework that the book helped create. Before Silent Spring, chemical testing in this country was overseen by the Department of Agriculture – a conflict of interest, according to Carson. Today, testing is overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency (created by the Nixon administration in 1970). The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (1972) requires that every chemical be registered and evaluated in accordance with a series of “internationally harmonized and scientifically peer-reviewed study protocols” – these words from an EPA spokesman. And there’s a clear avenue in this process for public input and participation. In 1962, it took a book to bring Carson’s fears to light; today, there are hundreds of Carson heirs across the world weighing in on pesticides, speaking directly to regulators.
The less obvious but perhaps more important legacy, though, is the shift in our collective consciousness that the book helped engender. Today, Silent Spring is often remembered simply as an assault on chemicals, DDT in particular, but Carson’s larger point was that we need to see nature as a system. This wasn’t necessarily the case in the 1950s, when men just back from the war sought to dominate nature in a peremptory, albeit well-intentioned, way.
Today, most of us, like Carson, see nature as a system, and it’s been that way for a long while. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) systems, promulgated into national policy in 1972 (yes, that old greenie Richard Nixon again), promote the use of chemicals in a way that is least disruptive to biological control regimes – something I suspect Carson would have found very heartening. (She never advocated for no chemicals in Silent Spring; rather, her views were in line with other eco-thinkers at the time who advocated that you should spray as little as you can, rather than spray to the limit of your capacity.) And while “promote” sounds abstract and empty, it really does trickle down to the masses. In 2006, in the midst of a prolific forest tent caterpillar infestation in our sugarbush, we contracted with an aerial sprayer and doused our woods with Bacillus thuringiensis(BT), a bacterium that Carson mentions in Silent Spring as something that might someday be an eco-friendly DDT alternative. We didn’t necessarily use BT because we were models of ecological integrity (though we were relieved when we found out it was natural and not synthetic); we used it because the county forester, state entomologists, and ag-extension agents arranged for it through the IPM framework that Carson’s advocacy helped spawn.
The opinions of the people I spoke to about glyphosate for this story ranged from “never touch it” to “use it begrudgingly” to “can’t live without it,” but in each case, there was eco-consciousness behind their logic. Some small woodlot owners are effectively managing their back 40 without chemicals – you can imagine Carson smiling. But you also see Rachel’s influence in how a present-day paper company is managing a 100,000-acre matrix of clearcuts in northern Canada – in the fact that glyphosate is a better, more eco-friendly herbicide than the dioxin-laced phenoxy herbicides they were using in Carson’s day; and in the fact that researchers are looking at the herbicide’s effects on ants and pollywogs and songbirds in these clearcuts and fine-tuning application protocols. Silviculture is constantly evolving, and foresters are innovating and arguing and trying to figure out how they can maximize productivity and minimize ecological ramifications on large tracts of forest. The image of a helicopter sprayer dousing a clearcut with white mist may seem regressive, but talk to the people doing the work and you’ll learn that this isn’t necessarily the case.
Over the coming year, I suspect that the media will be full of homages to Silent Spring, and since the book’s anniversary falls on a presidential election year, I’m sure her name will be evoked in our national conversations about environmental policy. But before we get polarized and begin to dwell on EPA inefficiency or Monsanto or whatever else, let’s raise our glass to Carson and Silent Spring – an important piece of environmental literature. And as we discuss Carson’s legacy in the context of the environmental problems du jour, let’s take a moment to appreciate just how far we’ve come.