Silent Spring

by Terence Jeyaretnam

“There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example-where had they gone?  Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed.  The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted.  The few birds seen anywhere, were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly.  It was spring without voices.”

- Silent Spring, Rachel Carson

Silent Spring is now heralded as one of the, and if not the, book that put the environmental impacts of man-made pollutants on the agenda in the 1960s.  It was a time not dissimilar to today for the environmental movement in many ways.  Rachel Carson’s subject, chlorinated pesticides (mainly DDT) was held in high esteem for all of its benefits.  The corporations that produced these ‘wonderful’ agrochemicals were portraying themselves as providing a social service. Today’s parallel are fossil fuel companies ‘energizing the world’.  As an example, while Carson hypothesized that it would take a century for the full effects of pesticides to be seen, pesticide makers warned of potential crop losses that could occur as soon as the next planting season.  Similarly, when the Kyoto Protocol was being proposed in 1997, fossil fuel and automobile industries sponsored similar advertisements showing people having to drive small dangerous cars, or having to live without fuel at all!

Indeed, agricultural company Monsanto used satire in a pamphlet titled ‘Desolate Spring’, where every part of the United States was infested with pests and weeds.  You can witness similar scare campaigns by fossil fuel companies and their agents in Australia warning people of the cost implications of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

Another parallel was that the pollutants of the day impacted the poor more than the wealthy – the crop growers, and people living in downstream catchments.  Today, climate change is set to impact the poorer nations and societies even though impacts were caused by the wealthier nations.

As Carson was dying of cancer herself, evidence continued to mount on the impacts of pollutants, including the death of five million fish in the lower Mississippi River from pollution by Velsicol, one of Carson’s critics.  Over time, and mostly after Carson’s death, action followed.  When Silent Spring was published, DDT concentration in human tissue peaked in the US at 12.6 ppm, against 0 before the manufacture of DDT.  Today, it is under 1 ppm.  The environmental movement is still well and truly alive today, just as it was cast in Carson’s day – often dealing with the same silent springs that threaten us.

Source: Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken

Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (,
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Terence is based in Melbourne.