My Turn: Rachel Carson and the biodiversity crisis

  • Nancy Hazard

Published: 3/13/2019 9:39:31 AM

She was derided by the pesticide industry as a “nun of nature,” a “spinster” who had no place writing about the likely genetic harm of pesticides on humans and animals, a “fanatic,” a “poet” who purported to write as a scientist.  Nonetheless, the biologist Rachel Carson prevailed against the slander and threats of chemical pesticide giants, including Monsanto, Velsicol and American Cyanamid.

Carson’s history-changing book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962 and has been hailed as the most influential environmental book of the 20th century. In it, Carson meticulously built the case against corporate industrial agriculture for waging a toxic war on plants, insects, the entire food chain, and, ultimately, humans by widespread pesticide spraying of farms, wetlands and forests.

Consider the consequences of her book. By 1970, after much congressional debate, the US Environmental Protection Agency was created and the first Earth Day was celebrated.

Legislation to protect air, water soil, wilderness and endangered species was subsequently passed. Silent Spring was translated into all languages of the industrial world and catalyzed the passage of environmental legislation in dozens of countries. Carson’ critique of pesticides laid the groundwork for organic and IPM agriculture and the organic food movement.

More than ever we need the core ethical message that powered Silent Spring and the fledgling environmental movement, namely, that we humans are part of nature, not its master and that we exploit and control it — through deforestation, use of fossil fuels, and toxic contamination — at our peril. Recent studies find that pollinating insects are rapidly disappearing; coral reefs, the nursery for one-fourth of marine fish across the world, are dying from the effects of climate change; mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have declined by 60 percent since 1970 due to destruction of their habitat and pollution.

Just as with climate change, we cannot leave it to national governments and international treaties to restore and preserve the biodiversity of insects and plants. We can be part of the solution, beginning here at home in our local communities.

Last month, at Pat Hynes suggestion, I read Silent Spring for the first time – and I was blown away by the stories that Rachel Carson told throughout the book of people, fish, and animals dying after being exposed to pesticides, or becoming sick with hard to diagnose symptoms. I also learned that most pesticides used when she was writing Silent Spring persisted in the soil long-term; that some pesticides developed after DDT are more toxic than DDT; that pesticides often react with each other in the soil and create chemicals that are more toxic then either of the original pesticides.

Each story reveals another scientific fact. Carson explains exactly how some of these chemicals affect cells in our bodies in ways that can lead to cancer or mutations passed onto future generations, similar to the damage caused by nuclear radiation.

I then read in The Recorder that butterflies are like canaries in a coal mine alerting us to toxicity around us, and that pollinators, and other insects, play a critical role in the web-of-life – the Earth’s biodiversity. Pollinators feed on flowers grown in soils laced with herbicides and insecticides. Their young feed on trees and shrubs grown in toxic soils. Pollinators, and other insects, are food for birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that in turn are food for us – with the toxins becoming more potent in the process -often 10 to 50 times more concentrated than in the soil.

While Carson did not call for an outright ban on pesticides and herbicides, every story in her book would lead one to that conclusion. Her book was published 55 years ago – but while pesticides and herbicides are now regulated, they are not banned.

But there is much we can do! We can decide not to use these chemicals in our backyards and our community. Ans we can support butterflies, pollinators, and all insects by giving them the things they need to thrive by planting flowers, bushes and trees they need for food for themselves and their young – and at the same time beautify our communities!

On March 14, Greening Greenfield is kicking off a new campaign called Planting for Pollinators!Building Biodiversity and Beauty in Greenfield. Pat Hynes will talk about Rachel Carson and her legacy. Peggy MacLeod will talk about resources offered by the Western Massachusetts Pollinators Network. Linda Smith will talk about Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners’ upcoming events. And Greening Greenfield will talk about their campaign and specific things we can all do when buying plants for our gardens.

Planting for Pollinators! will include opportunities to learn more, meet inspirational people in our community, receive pollinator wildflower seeds and get our hands dirty. Together we can make our community more beautiful and welcoming to pollinators. Please join us!

Nancy Hazard is a member of Greening Greenfield and the Sustainable Greenfield Implementation Committee. She can be reached at nhazard@worldsustain.net


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