Crop Comments: Silent Spring… déjà vu all over again

The book Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson, is credited with launching the environmental movement. Her book is the literary cornerstone of our planet’s ecological conscience.

I became aware of Silent Spring, as it was about to be published in 1962. I didn’t actually read the whole book until about 20 years ago. Not only did I read Silent Spring, I wrote a book review titled “Remembering Rachel”, which became one of my columns in this newspaper. A “déjà vu” moment occurred a few days ago, when my son Peter forwarded me an online article titled: “Massive insect decline could have ‘catastrophic’ environmental impact, study says.” The lead-in sentence read: “Insect populations are declining precipitously worldwide due to pesticide use and other factors, with a potentially ‘catastrophic’ effect on the planet, a study has warned.”

Silent Spring began with a “fable for tomorrow” — a true story using a composite of examples based on many real communities where the insecticide DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) caused damage to wildlife, birds, bees, agricultural animals, domestic pets, and even humans. Carson’s writing introduced a scientifically complicated and already controversial subject. This “fable” made an indelible impression on readers — but was used by critics, mostly from chemical industries — to charge that Carson was a fiction writer, not a scientist.

Serialized in three parts in The New Yorker — where President John F. Kennedy read it in summer 1962, Silent Spring was published that August, and became an instant best-seller and the most talked about book in decades. Utilizing scientist contacts at federal level and in private research, Carson spent over six years documenting her analysis that humans were misusing powerful, persistent, chemical pesticides, oblivious of the full extent of their potential harm to the whole spectrum of life. Carson’s passionate concern in Silent Spring was with the future of the planet and all life on earth. She calls for humans to act responsibly, carefully, and as stewards of the living earth.

In her book, she stressed the need to change democracies and liberal societies so that individuals and groups could question what their governments let others put into the environment. Far from calling for sweeping changes in government policy, Carson believed the federal government was part of the problem. She admonished her readers to ask “Who Speaks, And Why?”. This approach would then plant the seeds of social revolution. She identified human arrogance and financial self-interest as the crux of the problem, asking if we “could master ourselves and our appetites to live as though we humans are an equal part of the earth’s systems and not the master of them.”

Carson expected criticism… but not to be vilified by the chemical industry and its allies in government. On that count, she was very unpleasantly surprised. She spent her last years courageously defending the truth of her conclusions, until her untimely death from cancer in 1964, at age 57. With Silent Spring, Carson aimed at igniting activist movements that would both question the direction of science and technology — as well as demand answers and accountability. Many believe that heeding Carson’s prophetic voice is even more critical today, if our planet is to survive into the 22nd century.

The article that Peter sent me was written by Euan McKirdy and can be read in its entirety at: https://tinyurl.com/yy5vj9bl

McKirdy’s article centered on a report published in the Journal of Biological Conservation. The report’s lead author, Francisco Sanchez-Bayo, of the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney, called the study the first truly global examination of the issue. The study was titled “Worldwide Decline of the Entomofauna: A Review of its Drivers”. The report’s lead-in statement read: “More than 40 percent of insect species could become extinct in the next few decades. Insect biomass is declining by a staggering 2.5 percent a year, a rate that indicates widespread extinctions within a century.”

In addition to the 40 percent attrition, a third of all insect species are endangered — a reality that could collapse the planet’s ecosystems with a devastating impact on life — even human life. The Sydney report examined dozens of research findings dealing with insect decline — as well as the reasons behind the falling numbers that cause this alarming global picture. Sanchez-Bayo stated that while the focus in the past has been on the decline in vertebrate animal biodiversity, his study stressed the importance of insect life’s interconnection with the food chain.

Bugs make up around 70 percent of all animal species. Quoting Sanchez-Bayo, “Insects have been at “the structural and functional base of many of the world’s ecosystems since their rise — almost 400 million years ago.” This professor and his colleagues believe that the key causes of the decline are habitat loss and conversion to intensive agriculture and urbanization. Add to that pollution, particularly from pesticides and fertilizers, as well as biological factors, such as pathogens and introduced species — and climate change. They say that a small group of adaptable insects are seeing their numbers rise — but nowhere near enough to counter the decline.

One of Sanchez-Bayo’s colleagues, Don Sands, an entomologist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, agreed entirely that the “bottom-up” effects of insect loss were serious. In Sands words, “If we don’t have insects as moderators of other pest populations, we have insect populations that flare up and ruin crops and make them difficult to grow,” he said. “The ecosystem at this level has to be in balance. That’s the bottom layer and unless we address it all, our lives could be impacted immeasurably. Insects are the small creatures that run the world.” In his native Australia, Sands has observed, “Birds that are running out of insect food are turning on each other — this is likely a global phenomenon.”

As dismal as some of these predictions appear, there’s still room for hope — as expressed in some Yogi Berra wisdom: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

2019-02-22T11:42:10-05:00February 22, 2019|Eastern Edition, Western Edition|0 Comments

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