Silent Spring: Revisiting this 1960s classic during Covid-19

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Silent Spring: Revisiting this 1960s classic during Covid-19

Paromita Patranobish reviews Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring.

Leah Gerber in a recent article “A Global Strategy for Preventing the Next Pandemic” argues for the need to establish an international vigilante body with regulatory powers to monitor and arbitrate on the relationship between the planetary environment and the global economy [1]. This fictitious organisation, which she calls, “The Zoonotic Disease Commission,” working with the combined resources of scientific knowledge, citizen activism, and direct political influence, is one of the possible measures that she envisions to counter the emergence of future pandemics like Covid-19. Gerber’s article identifies a crucial link between current environmental concerns: habitat destruction, climate change, forced migration and mass extinction of species, on the one hand, and the spread of novel infections like the Coronavirus (but also Ebola, Marburg Virus, and Zika) on the other, a link that was persuasively underscored by Rachel Carson as well, in her 1962 book, Silent Spring.

Firmly rooted in the Ecocritical canon as a pioneering classic, Silent Spring became the subject of heated controversy when it was first released. Because it targeted and undertook a thorough, scathing, scientifically-backed investigation of the disastrous, potentially catastrophic effects of the seemingly harmless pesticide industry, Carson was attacked, her credibility severely undermined on the grounds of her gender and lack of formal academic expertise. Many of Carson’s findings in the book have now passed into official, even commonplace knowledge, with Silent Spring catalysing the formulation of two influential environmental protection acts in the United States, and the levying of major sanctions under the supervision of the Kennedy administration, on the manufacture and use of industrial chemical pesticides. Today the book is considered a centrepiece of ecological advocacy, having been one of the first texts to bring the concept of ecosystems: systems of correlational, interconnected, and mutually entwined lifeforms, into popular consciousness.

Less explored however is another important strand of ecological thinking that Carson foregrounded in the book: the relationship between ecocide and disease. This is precisely what environmentalists like Gerber and Vandana Shiva have turned to in their interventions into the discourses around the pandemic [2]. Covid-19 as we now know had its immediate origins in the wet markets of China dealing in the trade of exotic wildlife sold for food or medicines. However underlying this symptomatic catalyst is a deep seated history of environmental degradation in which humans propelled by the forces of industrial capitalism have through a series of aggressive interventions significantly altered the fundamental structure of planetary ecosystems, including the natural boundaries between species, the distribution of food and natural resources, the workings of climatic conditions, and the physical geography of terrestrial land-forms. Rampant and indiscriminate deforestation to create pastoral or agricultural land, biodiversity loss through hunting and consumption, destruction of habitats through pollution and industrial toxicity, have led to unprecedented degrees of proximity between humans and animals, natural and built environments, leading to increased vulnerability among all parties involved.

Zoonotic diseases like SARS-Covid-19 and Zika, originate in nonhuman species and are transmitted to human bodies through ecological shifts caused by anthropogenic activities. As microorganisms like viruses jump from native bodies to new host bodies they mutate and acquire in strength while the (human) host populations are rendered doubly vulnerable with their immune systems nor adequately equipped to front the attack. While this incompatibility at the heart of the zoonotic transfer is what makes novel forms of contagion so dangerous and difficult to curb, the capacity of virological processes to explode into a global pandemic must ultimately be seen as the collateral effect of humanly engineered environmental degradation.

Silent Spring, published in the heyday of the Cold War, demanded a similar application of nuanced and expansive analysis of the layered political, economic, and ideological factors that inform illnesses like cancer and congenital disabilities which were traditionally imputed to genetic defects, just as the environmentalists who are now studying the connections between epidemiology and the environment are soliciting in connection with the coronavirus. The book begins by envisioning an environmental dystopia in which different species begin to disappear from an imagined landscape that was once abounding in pastoral plenty. This loss of flora and fauna finally culminates with the extinction of songbirds and the descent of an eerie silence, an ominous portent from which the book derives its title. But the silence referred to is also the hidden reality of slow and invisible destruction of life at both the level of large scale geographies, as well as the microscopic level of cellular biology, caused by the incremental, long-term, generationally unfolding effects of chemicals released into the environment through our modern, technologically advanced, industrially augmented agricultural practices.

Tracing its origins to the trenches of the 2nd World War, Carson reminds us of industrial pesticides’ inextricable connection with synthetically produced complex hydrocarbons, radioactive compounds, and the deployment of these noxious substances in the service of military ideology: that the horticultural implements meant to merely control apparently destructive insects and weeds belong to the same molecular category as poisonous weapons designed to kill or maim human beings. However what makes pesticides potentially more dangerous than Mustard Gas and Strontium 90 is their longevity and permeability into diverse strata of existence beyond the narrow ambit of their local application. In its stealthy percolation into water bodies and groundwater, the bodies of birds and small animals that consume plants treated with pesticides or consume insects that have been sprayed on, marine life that thrives in contaminated waters, and finally the bodies of humans either through direct contact or indirect consumption of chemically treated foods with residual toxicity, pesticides and herbicides both demonstrate the network of interconnections and dependencies that constitutes the ecosphere and how the incursion of chemical effluents reconfigures it into a site (largely imperceptible) for transmission and relay of contamination until the entire ecological whole has been affected. Humans who set in motion the chain of reactions that lead to large scale and pervasive processes of environmental toxicity are themselves at exponential risk from it.

Silent Spring chronicles the many-sided destruction caused by the unregulated and widespread application of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane), a practice augmented by the growth of mono-culture/single crop farming, overproduction, introduction of new species to foreign habitats through importation and exotic trade, aerial spraying to exterminate disease-causing or parasitic insects, and discharge of industrial wastes from chemical industries into the soil and water bodies. Each chapter of the book documents using meticulous scientific evidence and research, but also recorded testimony of civilians, farmers, activists, householders directly affected by the long term effects of these toxic compounds, the ways in which diverse strata of the ecosystem are depleted and irrevocably poisoned and rendered inhospitable to the sustenance of life. DDT and its common-usage variants: Chlordane, Dieldrin, Aldrin, Endrin don’t just destroy specific insect and parasitical plant species; their most damaging characteristic comes from the ability these chemical compounds have to persist in residual forms in the sites of application, and to travel using the very channels of exchange and dependency: primarily the food chain, that constitute the fabric of ecological coexistence, to remote bodies and terrains. Insecticides that are aerially sprayed on crops thus permeate the soil and are carried by rainwater to rivers and seas, where these are picked up by plankton. Various aquatic animals that thrive on marine microorganisms, ingest and become inadvertent indirect carriers of polluted matter, which then finally reaches the sea via fishes like salmon that breed in fresh water and feed on smaller fishes thriving in these polluted waters. Carson calls this movement of contaminants though the earth’s ecosystems “an endless cyclic transfer of materials from life to life.” (56) A striking example of the cascading nature of contamination is the case of pollinating bees. The spraying of herbicides to remove so called weeds like hedgerows and crabgrass inhibits by destroying or poisoning the food supply of many insects that depend on these plants, as well as deprives bees of a major source of pollination. This artificial disruption of the pollination process ends up destabilising the natural balance of flora, with certain species of plants dying out: “Without insect pollination, most of the soil-holding and soil-enriching plants of uncultivated areas would die out, with far-reaching consequences to the ecology of the whole region…clean cultivation and the chemical destruction of hedgerows and weeds are eliminating the last sanctuaries of these pollinating insects and breaking the thread that bind life to life.” (77)

The insidious havoc wreaked by pesticides and herbicides does not end here. Ultimately it is humans who bear the cost of the pervasive permeation of the environment by toxic chemicals, whether it is by way of direct contact with pesticides while handling or consumption of chemically treated crops, or meat fed with sprayed plants. Most pesticides are mutagens, that is these not only remain in the body long after they have been ingested, they also alter the structure and chemical composition of human cells, derailing a cell’s enzyme production and forcing it to devise alternative energy intensive modes of functioning. In a series of detailed and lucid chapters, Carson demonstrates how this aberrant rearrangement of cellular biochemistry puts severe pressure on the body’s structure, causing mutations and abnormalities that might culminate in leukaemia and malignant tumours. The link between environmental toxicity and cancer, between the carcinogenic effects of environmental pollutants and long term, heriditarily transmitted genetic deformities, between epidemiological and ecological fields, while well established in contemporary times, was one of Silent Spring’s strongest contributions to both scientific knowledge and political legislation.

Carson most prophetic and powerful contribution was her demonstration that human life is inextricably entwined with the patterned network of lives on the planet, and that any action with environmental implications, no matter how seemingly local, can have potentially global and ecological consequences and return to haunt human society itself. Silent Spring was Carson’s last book. She passed away of cancer two years following its publication. In her lifetime she was reluctant to reveal her sickness because of a fear that the claims of her research would be dismissed as stemming from subjective bias. Yet her personal struggle with cancer informs the passion with which she undertakes the analysis and investigation that peel away and demystify the real catastrophic price of capitalist extraction and exploitation of natural resources: our undeniable connection with the ecosystem makes us at once dangerous and vulnerable to the very dangers we create. In the chapter titled “The Obligation to Endure”, Carson highlights the importance of civic participation and engagement in policy decisions that have the potential to harm our lives and bodies “without their consent and often without their knowledge.” (29) The obligation to endure not only gives us the right to know; it obligates us in turn to demand transparency and fact-based evidence when it concerns the future of planetary ecology, and the future of our own species.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962. 400 pages. ISBN-10: 0618249060 (40th Anniversary Edition, New York: Penguin Books, 2002)

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References:

1. Gerber, Leah R. “A Global Strategy for Preventing the Next Pandemic.” Issues in Science and Technology (April 10, 2020).

2. See Shiva, Vandana “Ecological Reflections on The Coronavirus” in https://www.navdanya.org/bija-refelections/2020/03/18/ecological-reflections-on-the-corona-virus/

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Paromita Patranobish is a writer and academic based in New Delhi. She has a PhD in Modernist Literature, and her writing has been published in Scroll, Firstpost, Cafe Dissensus, The Assam Tribune, and Feminism in India.

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