Silent spring

Pied flycatcher singing

Fifty years ago today (September 27th) saw the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the seminal work widely credited with kick-starting the modern environmental movement. In it, Carson, a former US government scientist, documented the damage done to the natural world by unrestrained use of pesticides, and was highly critical of the chemical industry, public officials and government. The title is a warning, conjuring an almost apocalyptic image of a world without birdsong.

It was a brave stand against the accepted paradigm of scientific “progress”, a warning that seemingly limitless human invention could take us down a number of paths, and if we chose the wrong one, disaster could ensue. “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.”

Carson railed against the arrogant assumption that science could give man dominion over nature, that every issue has a technological fix. She believed that “man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself”.  Her protest was not against science itself, but that scientific progress must respect and work with nature, not against it. She also made no bones about the tensions that arise when that war is underpinned by powerful business interests.

She died only a year and a half after the book was published, by which time a million copies had been sold. Despite its following, can we truly say that it marked a turning point? In practice, the planet is in a worse state than 50 years ago, there are still those looking to technological fixes, and big business is more powerful than ever.

I wonder what she would have thought about the climate change debate, the devastation of rainforests, increasingly unsustainable consumption of resources?  I wonder if she would be sounding the alarm at our slavery to economic growth, and the mantra that planning and other protective regulations need relaxing to allow development that will fuel this growth, to pull us out of recession.

We should take heart that the legacy of her work endures in one sense. There is now a global conservation movement; there is more widespread understanding of environmental issues; and the environment is on the political agenda, at least to a degree. But we face a multitude of challenges today, and as Carson herself said: “Like the resource it seeks to protect, wildlife conservation must be dynamic, changing as conditions change, seeking always to become more effective.”

Sian Atkinson, Conservation Communications & Evidence Adviser


About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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5 Responses to Silent spring

  1. Jacquie Cox says:

    Hi Rod, thank you for sharing your perspective. Since you are an agricultural scientist, I would love to hear your opinion on GM. When you say ‘your blogger’, were you referring to the original poster, to my comment, or to the website that Paul linked? I am having difficulty pinning down your position on the issues you have raised, from the tone of your comment.

    I agree that elevating science to a ‘religion’ is scary, but it is also anathema to real science. As a scientist you will know that ‘real scientists’ as you call them, never take their conclusions as the final word, and are constantly reassessing, questioning outcomes, adjusting their thinking, and restating their hypotheses. If science were held as gospel, we would never have made the leaps in understanding of climate science that we have, for one. It is difficult for most people to know where the truth is, when it appears that ‘science’ is apparently driven by vested interest, BigPharma, BigCorp. and so on.

    Rachel Carson was an inspiration to many, but I can’t help feeling that people who are drawn to the environmental cause can be divided into three camps – those that have a heartfelt passion for our planet, those who see it as fashionable to belong to some cause or other, and those are in it for money. Monsanto fall into the latter for me. They peddle their toxic wares disguised as the good Samaritan wanting to feed the world, knowing that the average Joe (or Jane) feels badly about speaking out against them when so many children are starving. It is sinister in the extreme. Now some might say that Monsanto are leaders in BioTech and are making huge advancements in science, but my motto is always … ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!’ Which leaves my first group, plodding along, chipping away, shouting against thunder, because they don’t know how else to be.

    Stepping down off the soap-box!

  2. Rod Leslie says:

    As I understand it geo-engineering goes a lot further than cloud seeding. It is at the heart of the crucial debate over the future of the planet: do we start going with the flow, trying to align more with nature whilst achieveing human goals or do we just up the ante of the last 50 years by trying to suppress nature with even more technological force. Your blogger is practising an increasingly popular art which I call ‘non science’ – where you decide the conclusion you want then selectively trawl the serious scientific literature to pick out the bits that suit your position. Its not hard to do because real scientists are very careful to point out possible flaws in their conclusions – which always make great quotes out of context.

    There is a huge issue behind all this, and that is how we treat science. I’m scared by the people trying to elevate science to the status of a religion – the people who attack if you question anything to do with science. I was educated in two sectors where there have been and still are huge problems – agriculture and forestry. Both joined the ‘white heat of technology’ in the 50s and 60s and subscribed to the belief that if you can do it technically, then that is justification enough. It led to the mindless ploughing of the hills by foresters, the increasing intensification of agriculture to the point where we’ve reduced some once common farmland birds by over 90%. Forestry U turned after the shock of the Flow country in the late 1980s – turning the other way, towards management with the grain of nature, to the extent that it caused another shock U turn last year when the public rose to protect their national forests and forced the Government to back down. Agriculture, to a large extent, hasn’t: despite a string of disasters the ‘if you can do it you should’ still prevails. If you are against GM, for example, you are vilified – but as an agricultural scientist I personally just don’t think the big issues around GM have been thought through, and I’m doubly suspicious over protestations backed by big money & big potential profits. It won’t do much good claiming ‘my duty was to my shareholders’ when some unforseen mistake crashed the US Maize crop.

  3. Shona Morton says:

    I found Silent Spring in my school library back in the 80’s and it certainly struck a chord with me – it’s a rare thing to come across a book that’s scientifically rigourous but written with heart too. Powerful stuff!

  4. Jacquie Cox says:

    Hi Paul.

    I was wondering if you could expand on your comment about ‘geoengineering’, also known as cloud seeding. What specifically are you very worried about? Cloud seeding has been going on since the 1950s using all manner of ‘seeds’. Most commonly used these days is Silver Iodide, while some use frozen carbon dioxide, hygroscopic agents such as salt because it is able to attract and hold water molecules, and tarpenes which are naturally released by trees. Apparently in Australia they are testing and monitoring cloud seeding using Silver Iodide and a tracing agent called Indium Trioxide or Indium III, I believe.

    I looked at the link you provided and one article immediately caught my eye, entitled “Why did climate cool in the mid-20th century?” Having studied climate change and Earth science as part of my science degree, this was one area I knew something about so I read it. I was immediately alarmed to see that many of the claims made by the author of this article did not stack up with the science, and that they were selectively quoting someone else’s blog. There are no references to actual scientific research other than referring to this blog, which in turn had garnered some information from other websites. In the article the author claimed that the period of cooling that occurred between 1940 and 1975 (actually 1945 and 1975 with 8 years of warming in between) is the result of cloud seeding, and has nothing to do with the anthropogenic increase in sulphate aerosols. The author claims and I quote, “The science is very clear in regard to the effect of atmospheric aerosols (tiny particles) in their role in ozone destruction; they cause it.”

    As far as I am aware ozone destruction or more accurately, depletion, is due to the presence of gases in the stratosphere that contain chlorine and bromine atoms. Cloud seeding takes place in the troposphere, while the ozone layer exists in the top part of the stratosphere. Because the bottom of the Stratosphere is warmer than the top of the Troposphere, gases do not easily convect between the two – the assumption being that some kind Iodine gas escapes from the Silver Iodide. The most efficient point of convection is over the tropics. I digress. The point is that aerosols – also known as Particulate Matter or PM – cause cooling, NOT ozone depletion. Ozone depletion causes warming. As I said, the authors claims don’t appear to take the actual science into consideration at all. I am not suggesting that manipulating our weather isn’t an issue. Let’s face it, if it rains here due to seeding, then it is not raining elsewhere – there is a limited and consistent amount of water in the hydrological cycle. It’s not like they are making more water! Which is why I asked what specifically bothered you about cloud seeding.

    Not wishing to speak for the Woodland Trust, but I am not sure what you think they can do on this issue? Especially with limited resources, and more immediate threats to woodland that they can do something about.

  5. Paul Booth says:

    Thank you, Kay Haw, for the interesting and thought-provoking post on “Silent Spring”. I have recently become aware of something VERY worrying called “Geoengineering”, which would appear to be an attempt to “control/change” the weather!! Is this something that the Woodland Trust is looking into, with a view to publicising and campaigning against it? There is an interesting website at

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