The great green book

Republished this month, Rachel Carson's <em>Silent Spring </em>jump-started the environmental moveme

Did Rachel Carson win her battle with the pesticide companies, which threatened effectively to eliminate North America's wildlife, and after that, the world's? Or have her victories been illusory? She dented the confidence of the big commercial battalions; she caused governments to quell their zeal, at least up to a point, which they do not do lightly; she alerted people at large to the rising threat, which is the sine qua non; and she showed, vitally, that individuals can make a difference. But the birds she sought to protect are dying anyway - not from toxins, but just as surely through starvation; and the agricultural strategy that produced the pesticide excesses of the 1950s and 1960s continues to dominate world agriculture, with protest reduced to noises off and regarded as an irritant (not least by Tony Blair's government). All in all, Carson started the modern environment movement, for which she deserves the gratitude of all humanity. But her campaign cannot be won in a single battle. If we are truly to reconcile productive agriculture with wildlife then we have to dig very deep indeed, to the roots of our economy and morality, and then, in effect, start again.

Carson belongs to that long and honourable tradition of great naturalists-cum-writers that runs from John Ray and Gilbert White, through Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Thomas Huxley, to John Maynard Smith, Ed Wilson and Bill Hamilton. She was born on 27 May 1907 on her parents' estate by the beautiful Allegheny River in Philadelphia. She communed with the wild creatures, attended the Presbyterian church and published her first article at the age of ten in the St Nicholas Magazine, the Blue Peter of its day. As she commented in 1954, "I can remember no time . . . when I didn't assume I was going to be a writer"; and biology is, inter alia, a literary pursuit.

All was not as it might seem, however. Her family was horribly strapped for cash (her father was a not very successful salesman), the nearby town of Springdale stood between power stations and stank of glue, while her feckless siblings married badly but frequently and hung round her like desperate ghosts throughout her life. Yet - largely through enormous parental sacrifice - she was thoroughly educated as a biologist, first at the genteel Pennsylvania College for Women, then at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole and at Johns Hopkins. Finally she entered the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a biologist and editor and so, between 1941 and 1951, completed her careful and lyrical maritime trilogy: Under the Sea Wing, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea. But somewhere along the way she developed cancer and had to endure the rigours of the heroic but crude radiations and chemotherapies of the 1950s and 1960s. Shedied in 1964 - her brother grotesquely arriving at her funeral to organise a grand but vulgar service which overturned her request for a quiet and dignified passing.

Hers would have been a good, hard but unremembered life, straight from Louisa May Alcott - except that in the 1950s, Carson saw that the wild creatures she had known in her childhood and studied professionally were now dying: not covertly growing rarer but slaughtered in all too horribly visible heaps. The general cause was familiar enough from her childhood: pollution. More specifically, however, the birds were killed by pesticides, most of which belonged either to the organochlorine family, which began in the 19th century with DDT (discovered in 1874, though not used as a pesticide until 1939) and later gave rise to dieldrin, aldrin and endrin; or to the organophosphates, which had been developed initially as nerve gases for chemical warfare and now provided malathion and parathion. These were all sprayed by the tonne on serious pests and trivial irritants alike. Although already terminally ill and not by nature combative, Carson set to work on Silent Spring. It was published in 1962 and, says her Penguin editor and erstwhile biographer Linda Lear, it has changed the course of history as surely as Das Kapital or The Origin of Species.

Carson shows in Silent Spring how easy it is to be fooled by pesticides - and how blithely the scientists fell into the many traps. Thus, the residues may remain for months or years in the soil - sometimes changing chemically yet remaining toxic, so that aldrin, for example, degrades into dieldrin. In this way, a scientist who tests for aldrin residues would find none - and then conclude wrongly that the danger was ephemeral. Intake of residues may be small, but they accumulate in fat and build up through the food chain: so a worm picks up a small amount, and the songbird that eats it absorbs what is in the worm and stores it, and the hawk that eats the songbird accumulates lethal quantities (or enough to render it effectively sterile). No one knew in detail the effects of residues, or how different types might enhance the toxicity of others. Scientists did not anticipate the rapid evolution of pesticide resistance. All in all, as Carson pointed out, it is both in practice and in theory impossible to anticipate all the tricks that nature might pull. Yet scientists qua employers and civil servants happily asserted that the dangers were negligible, and farmers and various environmental agencies took their word for it. It beggars belief.

Carson was subjected to the full repertoire of dirty tricks. Excellent professional biologist though she was, she lacked a PhD (she couldn't afford the extra study) and so was dubbed an "amateur". Worse, she was a woman - and as the then famous critic William B Bean waggishly remarked, "trying to win an argument with a woman . . . cannot be done". But John F Kennedy, fresh from the Cuban missile crisis, ordered an inquiry which led at last to legislation. There are still abuses, of course, but at least it was reluctantly accepted in principle even in the land of the free that essential freedoms do not include the right to scatter serious toxins like snow.

This was victory of a kind, but the economic imperatives that prompted the pesticide mania still predominate. Western governments take it to be self-evident that agriculture must be driven primarily by profit, and that whatever is profitable and done with good intentions cannot be bad. Protests in the name of the environment, rural employment, human happiness, animal welfare or aesthetics are shuffled to one side. In Carson's day, the ancient, flowery meadows were sprayed with pesticides and so the birds died. Today - as The Archers' excellent agricultural adviser Graham Harvey is wont to point out - the meadows have been replaced with monocultural rye grass leys where the insects can find nothing to eat, so the birds are dying in any case since they, too, must starve.

More specifically, Carson wrote in Silent Spring: "It is not my contention that chemical pesticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm." Make genetically modified organisms the subject of those sentences, and what's changed?

Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and "The Edge of the Sea"and Linda Lear's biography, "Rachel Carson: witness for nature" are all published by Penguin.
Colin Tudge's latest book, "Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers", is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world