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The legacy of Silent Spring

News Section Icon Published 16/04/2013


In 1964, scientist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring – a damning reflection on the impact of industrial agriculture on the natural world. The book is widely credited with helping to launch the modern environmental movement in America. On the 50th anniversary of her death, Compassion in World Farming CEO, Philip Lymbery, visits her birthplace to find out more.

The making of an environmentalist

I look from the bedroom window of the late Rachel Carson (title image), imagining what the childhood eyes of one of the world’s great environmentalists may have seen. Gazing across the Allegheny Valley toward the tree-covered hillside beyond, I see two great chimney stacks reaching up from the coal-fired plants along the river basin. Was it this meeting point between countryside and industrialisation that caused the first awakenings in a young mind (ideas that can be seen in the video below) that would eventually go on to write a seminal work on the perils of taking an industrial approach to agriculture?

Winning hearts and minds

Rachel’s seminal book, Silent Spring, was the first major wake-up call about the perils of toxic pesticides – used in intensive farming to keep down insects, weeds and other pests. It was perhaps the start of the battle for the countryside; one of the earliest commentaries on industrialisation in food and farming that would lead to animals being incarcerated on factory farms and their feed grown in chemical-soaked fields elsewhere.

Bearing the brunt of agricultural pollution

Later that day, I’m standing on the shore of the magnificent Chesapeake Bay, the estuary dwarfing the vast intricate steelwork of the Annapolis bridge that crosses it. As previously reported, Chesapeake Bay bears the brunt of the pollution from industrial agriculture. With ten rivers emptying into it, Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the US. A mass of industrial agriculture around these rivers brings high concentrations of nutrients into the Bay and out into the Atlantic. The resulting algal blooms lead to vast oxygen-depleted "dead zones" in which few animals and plants can survive. It is reported that Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone stretched over a record-breaking 130 km (80 miles) last year.

An ongoing problem

That evening, I meet the executive director of the Maryland Pesticide Network, Ruth Berlin. I want to find out what Rachel Carson means to her and how Chesapeake is fairing today.

Ruth tells me she sees Rachel as the "mother" of the modern environmental movement; her legacy put the issue of pesticide use in agriculture firmly on the map. But has the problem been solved, I ask? "It’s probably a bigger problem now than 50 years ago".

I hear how pesticides are still found widely in Chesapeake Bay, but that the problem is not unique to this area. A cocktail of chemical pesticides are contaminating drinking water, affecting wildlife and implicated in serious public-health issues.

Not just a problem for America

And it’s a global problem. Controversial pesticides used throughout North America and Europe are already connected to catastrophic honeybee declines and are now potentially harming other creatures too.

So Silent Spring brought the issue of industrial agriculture to the world’s attention. Half a century later, it’s still the subject of furious public debate. My next stop is John Hopkins University (attended by Rachel Carson) to find out more about the problem. I’ll keep you posted…


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