A deposit scheme for bottles won’t make a scrap of difference. This stuff is in our food, our clothes – and in us
West Wales, last weekend. The old foam mattress lying waterlogged on an otherwise clean beach might have been at sea for months before it was washed up on the tide. A large bit of it had broken off, and the rest was crumbling. It was a clear threat to wildlife, so we heaved what was left of it above the wave line and promised to come back to dispose of it properly when it was dry.
But how do you safely dispose of an old mattress made of billions of tiny plastic particles leaking formaldehyde and other potentially dangerous chemicals? Do you burn it? Bury it? Do you expect the company who made it to come to collect it? Answers to environment secretary Michael Gove, who today pledged to stem the tide of plastic debris by announcing a consultation on a plastic-bottle return scheme for England, which aims to get people to recycle more.
Since we started engineering polymers to make plastic on a mass scale in the 1950s, this byproduct of the petrochemical industry, which uses about 6% of all the oil we extract a year, has spread to myriad manufacturing processes. Plastic is now ubiquitous, insidious and impossible to avoid. It makes up our clothes, containers, bottles, electronics, food trays, cups and paints. Our cars depend on it, so do our computers, roofs and drain pipes. It’s the global packaging material of choice. We sleep on it, wear it, watch it, and are in direct bodily contact with it in one form or other all day and night.
It may have profound societal benefits, but this most successful of all manmade materials sticks around for centuries. When exposed to sunlight, oxygen or the action of waves, it doesn’t biodegrade but simply fragments into smaller and smaller bits, until microscopic or nano-sized particles enter the food chain, the air, the soil and the water we drink.
The BBC’s hugely popular Blue Planet series and a stream of scientific studies have made us aware of how the oceans are being polluted, but we still have little understanding of how human health is impacted by the many synthetic chemicals and additives that are used to give plastic its qualities. In the past few years, minute microplastics and fibres, measuring the width of a human hair or far less, have been found in an extraordinary range of products, such as honey and sugar, shellfish, bottled and tap water, beer, processed foods, table salt and soft drinks.
The more researchers look, the more they find in the human body. The same scientists who raised the alarm on air pollution from the deadly particles emitted by diesel vehicles are now finding plastic microparticles raining down on cities, and blown into the air from cars and construction sites, washing lines and food packaging. Indoor plastic pollution may be even worse than outdoors, with a single wash of sports kit or manmade textiles found to release thousands of microfibres into the air.
At a recent UK workshop convened by the marine group Common Seas, 30 scientists, doctors and others compared notes, and agreed unanimously that plastic is now in what we eat, drink and breathe, and constitutes a significant and growing threat to human health.
If we can breathe in these micro- and nano-sized particles and fibres, the scientists conjecture, they are likely to get into the human bloodstream, lung tissue and breast milk, or become lodged in the gut and respiratory systems. Some microparticles may pass through the body without causing harm, others may lodge there dangerously. Many are suspected to be carcinogenic or to have hormone-disrupting properties.
The consensus is that there are great gaps in what we know about how microplastics affect human health, and that we need more robust science. We don’t know the risk when we drink contaminated bottled or tap water every day. We don’t know how much we are ingesting or breathing, or what effect exposure to hazardous plastic particles may have over years. We don’t know the concentrations that are safe for adults, let alone infants. There is mounting concern that under-studied microplastic particles threaten health by presenting a potentially major source of toxic chemicals to the human body.
Although we have known for years that some of the additives used to make plastics flexible, transparent or durable are chemically dangerous, few have been tested on humans. Some countries have banned some chemicals – but there is no consistency, and the chemical companies have found it easy to avoid regulation, finding substitutes that are potentially just as dangerous.
It is not enough to single out plastic bottles, coffee cups, or the microbeads found in cosmetics. We urgently need the government to form a comprehensive plastic action plan. Banning all plastic bags and single-use packaging would be a good start, but we need to go way beyond that. Plastic production has to be reduced, just as alternatives should be encouraged. Regulators must think about phasing out whole groups of chemicals of concern, rather than slowly restricting individual chemicals one at a time, and consumers must be helped to understand what they are being exposed to, and to navigate the complexity of what can be recycled, composted or burned.
In the 1950s the world made about 2m tonnes of plastic a year. Now that figure is 330m tonnes a year – and it is set to treble again by 2050. It’s not enough to return a few plastic bottles, or even to pick up an old mattress on a beach.
• John Vidal is a former environment editor of the Guardian
Back in the mountains…bittersweet after one heck of a long drive.
Our chalet is being demolished to make way for luxury flats… Our little bit of history, of home, of family… here in the Alps.
It snowed in the evening and it’s the most beautiful morning… Bittersweet… How do you explain to a child that life isn’t fair, that people aren’t always reliable… ? There is not easy way, and they know anyway don’t they.
We had an outdoor swim and I blasted the Bean with snowballs on the side of the pool! I had just been in the sauna and it was a wonderful way to cool down!
This morning before the rain it was so beautiful and reminded me of the magic I first felt here all those years ago… I only have a very old phone on which to take photos, my camera having been defeated by a grain of sand. I really miss it.
Looking across to Nanny’s chalet, “Mousse Neige” which is just to the left out of sight…We will see if we can recover it’s old wooden sign and street number…before it is demolished.
There are older posts on here and you can see the chalet there. A lady came to talk to me as I was stood outside the chalet with the Bean the last time we came. She told me her children had drawn the chalet at every holiday and that they loved it, it was so authentique there amongst the larger, newer buildings…So there we go.
Gosh I’m annoyed… The scientist Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring back in the 1960’s, gently and intelligently explaining the effects of pesticides in the environment, soil, water etc and no one listened..Pesticide use only increased and now we are reading cutesy little articles (see my last few posts) in cosy little papers like The Guardian telling us that internationally the soil is depleted, that the insects are disappearing, that birds are disappearing, that nature as we know it is experiencing a major disturbance because of human activity. That we have succeeded in polluting the earth to such an extent that we are in crisis. And what does everyone do?.. Check out Facebook ( Mark Zuckerburg said Facebook was for “suckers” (check out the Cambridge Analytica reporting, his words not mine), sign into Twitter, check out Instagram…? If everyone took one new step per week to voice their concerns, to address the crisis, we would have change and it would be positive.
Look at the packaging I brought home from a supermarket yesterday, just for some pears (note plastic tray, plastic lid and plastic wrapper surrounding plastic tray and lid- bloody ridiculous!) I wrote to the supermarket asking them why they have over packaged, what they are doing to reduce plastic packaging and what alternatives to plastic they are going to be using. Let’s see what they say.
Oh and the pears have been flown in from Argentina… Well, I put my hands up. I won’t be buying flown in fruit again either.
All my worries… This has been a big concern for a long time… Adding vitamins to wheat and other grains because the soil is depleted. intensive farming, intensive meat production, agri business destroying the earth, literally. We have got to change all these old systems, they are outdated and destructive. It is time and the time is now.
Land degradation threatens human wellbeing, major report warns
More than 3.2bn people are already affected and the problem will worsen without rapid action, driving migration and conflict
Land degradation is undermining the wellbeing of two-fifths of humanity, raising the risks of migration and conflict, according to the most comprehensive global assessment of the problem to date.
The UN-backed report underscores the urgent need for consumers, companies and governments to rein in excessive consumption – particularly of beef – and for farmers to draw back from conversions of forests and wetlands, according to the authors.
With more than 3.2 billion people affected, this is already one of the world’s biggest environmental problems and it will worsen without rapid remedial action, according to Robert Scholes, co-chair of the assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). “As the land base decreases and populations rise, this problem will get greater and harder to solve,” he said.
The IPBES study, launched in Medellín on Monday after approval by 129 national governments and three years of work by more than 100 scientists, aims to provide a global knowledge base about a threat that is less well-known than climate change and biodiversity loss, but closely connected to both and already having a major economic and social impact.
The new assessment goes further by looking at vegetation loss, forest clearance, wetland drainage, grassland conversion, urban sprawl and pollution, as well as how these changes affect human health, wealth and happiness.
Drawing on more than 3,000 scientific, government, indigenous and local knowledge sources, the authors estimate land degradation costs more than 10% of annual global GDP in lost ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and agricultural productivity. They say it can raise the risks of flooding, landslides and diseases such as Ebola and the Marburg virus.
There are also geopolitical implications. The authors cite evidence of a strong association between land degradation, migration and instability. In dryland regions, years of extremely low rainfall have been associated with an up to 45% rise in violent conflict. Depending on the actions taken by governments to address climate change and the decline in soil quality, the authors estimate between 50 to 700 million people could be driven from their homes by 2050. The worst affected areas are likely to be the dry fringes of southern Iraq, Afghanistan, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia.
To counter this, the authors call for coordination among ministries to encourage sustainable production and for the elimination of agricultural subsidies that promote land degradation. They urge consumers to reduce waste and be more thoughtful about what they eat. Vegetables have a much lower impact on land than beef. Farmers are encouraged to raise productivity rather than clear more land. Companies and governments are advised to accelerate efforts to rehabilitate land. There have been several successful projects on China’s Loess plateau, in the Sahel and in South Africa.
The economic case for land restoration is strong, according to the report, which says benefits (such as jobs and business spending) are 10 times higher than costs, and up to three times higher than price of inaction. But in most regions, remedial work is overdue. National governments are not living up to a global commitment to neutral land degradation by 2030.
Participants compared the rundown of land to the 2008 financial crisis. “Back then, people borrowed more money than they could repay. Now we are borrowing from nature at a rate that is many times higher than the world can sustain. The day of reckoning will come,” said Christian Steel, director of Sabima, a Norwegian biodiversity NGO. In Europe, he said, the industrialisation of forest and agriculture is degrading the land. “We are also importing more food and, by doing so, displacing the impact of our consumption. We are fooling ourselves. Disaster doesn’t hit suddenly like in a Hollywood movie. It is already happening gradually.”
Action has been held back by a lack of awareness of the problem and the often wide gulf between consumers and producers. The report notes that many of those who benefit from over-exploitation of natural resources are among the least affected by the direct negative impacts of land degradation and therefore have the least incentive to take action.
“This is extremely urgent,” said another of the co-chairs, Luca Montanarella. “If we don’t change lifestyles, consumption habits and the way we use land, then sooner or later we are going to destroy this planet. Looking for another one is not an option.”
Separately, the United Nations last week released a global water study that forecast more than half of the human population could struggle to secure supplies for drinking, cooking and sanitation for at least one month a year by 2050 as a result of pollution, climate change and rising demand.
Human destruction of nature is rapidly eroding the world’s capacity to provide food, water and security to billions of people, according to the most comprehensive biodiversity study in more than a decade.
Such is the rate of decline that the risks posed by biodiversity loss should be considered on the same scale as those of climate change, noted the authors of the UN-backed report, which was released in Medellin, Colombia on Friday.
Among the standout findings are that exploitable fisheries in the world’s most populous region – the Asia-Pacific – are on course to decline to zero by 2048; that freshwater availability in the Americas has halved since the 1950s and that 42% of land species in Europe have declined in the past decade.
“The best-available evidence gathered by the world’s leading experts, points us now to a single conclusion: we must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature or risk not only the future we want but even the lives we currently lead,” said Robert Watson, the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) which compiled the research.
Divided into four regional reports, the study of studies has been written by more than 550 experts from over 100 countries and taken three years to complete. Approved by the governments of 129 members nations, the IPBES reports aim to provide a knowledge base for global action on biodiversity in much the same way that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is used by policymakers to set carbon emission targets.
Although poaching often grabs the headlines for the demise of the rhino and other animals, worldwide the biggest threats to nature are from habitat loss, invasive species, chemicals and climate change.
Conversion of forests to croplands and wetlands to shrimp farms has fed a human population that has more than doubled since the 1960s, but at a devastating cost to other species – such as pollinating insects and oxygen-producing plants – on which our climate, economy and well-being depend.
In the Americas, more than 95% of high-grass prairies have been transformed into farms, along with 72% of dry forests and 88% of the Atlantic forests, notes the report. The Amazon rainforest is still mostly intact, but it is rapidly diminishing and degrading along with an even faster disappearing cerrado (tropical savannah). Between 2003 to 2013, the area under cultivation in Brazil’s northeast agricultural frontier more than doubled to 2.5m hectares, according to the report.
“The world has lost over 130m hectares of rainforests since 1990 and we lose dozens of species every day, pushing the Earth’s ecological system to its limit,” said Achim Steiner, Administrator of UN Development Programme. “Biodiversity and the ecosystem services it supports are not only the foundation for our life on Earth, but critical to the livelihoods and well-being of people everywhere.”
In many regions, the report says current biodiversity trends are jeopardising UN global development goals to provide food, water, clothing and housing. They also weaken natural defences against extreme weather events, which will become more common due to climate change.
“Richer, more diverse ecosystems are better able to cope with disturbances – such as extreme events and the emergence of diseases,” said Anne Larigauderie, the executive secretary of IPBES. “They are our ‘insurance policy’ against unforeseen disasters and, used sustainably they also offer many of the best solutions to our most pressing challenges.”
Although the number of conservation areas has increased, most governments are failing to achieve the biodiversity targets set at the 2010 UN conference in Aichi, Japan. In the Americas, only 20% of key biodiversity areas are protected.
There are glimmers of hope. In northern Asia, forest cover has increased by more than 22% as a result of tree-planting programs, mostly in China. But this was from a very low base and with far fewer species than in the past. In Africa, there has been a partial recovery of some species, though there is still a long way to go.
Watson – a former chair of the IPCC and a leading figure in the largely successful campaign to reduce the gases that were causing a hole in the ozone layer – said the biodiversity report was the most comprehensive since 2005 and the first of its type that involved not just scientists, but governments and other stakeholders.
Despite the grim outlook, he said there was cause for hope. The report outlines several different future paths, depending on the policies adopted by governments and the choices made by consumers. None completely halt biodiversity loss, but the worst-case scenarios can be avoided with greater conservation efforts. The missing link is to involve policymakers across government and to accept that biodiversity accepts every area of the economy. Currently, these concerns are widely accepted by foreign and environment ministries; the challenge is to move the debate to incorporate this in other areas of government, such as agriculture, energy and water. Businesses and individual consumers also need to play a more responsible role, said Watson.
“We don’t make recommendations because governments don’t like being told what to do. So, instead, we give them options,” he said.
The IPBES report will be used to inform decision makers at a major UN conference later this year. Signatories to the Convention for Biodiversity will meet in Sharm El-Sheikh in November to discuss ways to raise targets and strengthen compliance. But there have been more than 140 scientific reports since 1977, almost all of which have warned of deterioration of the climate or natural world. Without more pressure from civil society, media and voters, governments have been reluctant to sacrifice short-term economic goals to meet the longer-term environmental challenge to human wellbeing.
“Biodiversity is under serious threat in many regions of the world and it is time for policy-makers to take action at national, regional and global levels,” said José Graziano da Silva, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Others have put the crisis in starker terms. Biologist Paul Ehrlich, has warned that civilisational collapse is a “near certainty” in the next few decades due to the destruction of the natural world.
Europe’s crisis of collapsing bird and insect numbers will worsen further over the next decade because the EU is in a “state of denial” over destructive farming practices, environmental groups are warning.
European agriculture ministers are pushing for a new common agriculture policy (CAP) from 2021 to 2028 which maintains generous subsidies for big farmers and ineffectual or even “fake” environmental or “greening” measures, they say.
“The whole system is in a state of denial,” said Ariel Brunner, head of policy at Birdlife Europe. “Most agriculture ministers across Europe are just pushing for business as usual. The message is, keep the subsidies flowing.”
Because these payments are simply related to land area, big farmers receive more, can invest in more efficient food production – removing hedgerows to enlarge fields for instance – and put smaller, less intensive farmers out of business. France lost a quarter of its farm labourers in the first decade of the 20th century, while its average farm size continues to rise.
A smaller portion – £14.22bn annually – of EU farm subsidies support “greening” measures but basic payment rules work against wildlife-friendly farming: in Britain, farmers can’t receive basic payments for land featuring ponds, wide hedges, salt marsh or regenerating woodland.
Signals from within the EU suggest that the next decade’s CAP – which will be decided alongside the EU budget by 2019 – will continue to pay farmers a no-strings subsidy, while cash for “greening”, or wildlife-friendly farming, may even be cut.
Birdlife Europe said the “greening” was mostly “fake environmental spending” and wildlife-friendly measures had been “shredded” by “loophole upon loophole” introduced by member states.
This week the European court of auditors renewed its criticism of the CAP, highlighting “inherent limitations” in the basic payment scheme and “insufficient progress on environmental care and climate action”.
Harriet Bradley, agriculture policy officer at Birdlife Europe, said: “It’s a massive scandal but the farm lobby is so powerful it hasn’t penetrated public consciousness.”
According to Prof Richard Gregory of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, there is a strong correlation between higher cereal yields and fewer farmland birds.
“It’s a worrying signal that ecosystem health and function is being severely impacted by the changes in farming and the drive to use more intensive methods,” said Gregory.
While the farm lobby argues increased yields are needed to feed the world, Gregory said the RSPB’s management of a commercial arable farm, Hope Farm, in Cambridgeshire, has shown “you can have your cake and eat it”.
A study of 60 English farms in the highest level of EU agri-environment scheme found that 12 of 17 priority farmland bird species increased in abundance between 2008 and 2014, against a 56% national decline since 1970.
But farmers are critical of how they the EU pays them to help wildlife while simultaneously incentivising them to destroy it. Isabella Tree, the author of Wilding, a study of her and her husband’s rewilding of their 3,500-acre dairy and arable farm in West Sussex, said the EU farm subsidy system was “crazy”.
“Being paid to reverse what you’re being incentivised to do on the other hand is just bonkers,” she said. EU subsidies kept them farming in the 1990s, when it was “the wrong thing for this land and completely unsustainable”. Since rewilding their farm, 16 singing male turtle doves – Britain’s most endangered farmland bird – have returned to breed.
According to Tree, a “silver lining” of Brexit is the opportunity to devise a UK system that rewards sustainable farming. She believes that farms could be incentivised to create “pop-up” rewilding on parcels of land for 25-year periods, creating a rotational system of wildlife-rich scrub which also restores soil, allowing farmers to return one patch to agricultural land again and rewild another.
“Rewilding is not an enemy of farming – it boosts populations of pollinating insects and restores soil,” said Tree. “We hope the government will accept the idea of rewilding as an easy, cheap and powerful way to restore your soil, and providing scrub habitat for wildlife.”
The enormous “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico will take decades to recover even if the flow of farming chemicals that is causing the damage is completely halted, new research has warned.
Intensive agriculture near the Mississippi has led to fertilizers leeching into the river, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico, via soils and waterways. This has resulted in a huge oxygen-deprived dead zone in the Gulf that is now at its largest ever extent, covering an area greater than the state of New Jersey.
A new study has found that even if runoff of nitrogen, a fertilizer chemical, was fully stemmed, the Gulf would take about 30 years to recover. Even this scenario is “not only considered unrealistic, but also inherently unsustainable”, researchers stated in the work, published in Science.
“We have been building up nitrogen for the past 50 years and it will take time to go through the system,” said Nandita Basu, associate professor of environmental sciences at Canada’s University of Waterloo and the study co-author.
“Money is being spent on the landscape in an ad hoc way. We need to focus better. If we make the right changes it will have an impact, it’s just that it’ll take a few decades. It’s like when you go on a diet – you can’t expect results right away.”
The ailing Gulf of Mexico is emblematic of a global suffocation of the oceans caused by modern agriculture, sewage and climate change, which is causing waters to warm and hold less oxygen. At least 500 sites experiencing hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, have been reported near coasts worldwide, up from just 50 in 1950. The true number may, in fact, be much higher, experts believe.
Fertilizers spilling into the oceans promote the growth of algae, which can trigger toxic blooms harmful to fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. These outbreaks can discolour water and befoul beaches. It also depletes oxygen in the water, leading to further damage to marine creatures and dwindling supplies for the people who rely upon them for food.
In the US, a federally led taskforce set a goal of shrinking the Gulf’s dead zone to less than 5,000 sq km by 2015. However, the hypoxic area was three times that size by the target year, prompting the deadline to be pushed back to 2035.
There is also an interim goal of cutting nitrogen flow to the Gulf by 20% by 2025, but that too looks in peril.
“That short term 2025 goal, based on the course we’re on now, isn’t really possible,” said Kim Van Meter, a colleague of Basu’s and a fellow co-author. “It would take an immediate change and it takes time for that to happen. The legacy of nitrogen in the system means that it will take decades.”
Nitrogen pollution can be curbed with a more careful application of fertilizers, the planting of certain grasses, trees and shrubs that can stop the chemicals getting into waterways and reducing the amount of tilling of the soil, to prevent soil erosion and runoff.
Some US farmers are given governmental support in these efforts, although environmentalists argue that funds have been wasted on projects that merely help farms to increase production of crops and meat, rather than tackle pollution.
“This study shows we need a scientific strategy and can’t expect instant results, but we know what needs to be done to improve things,” said Denise Breitburg, a marine scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center who was not involved in the report.
Of course many people think she’s a saint anyway, but in this book it’s official. The God’s Gardeners – members of a fictional cult that reveres both nature and scripture – needed some saints. The Gardeners would choose them for their devotion to the divine natural world, and their saintly deeds could range from the writing of creature-friendly poetry – like that of Saint Robert Burns of Mice – to the saving of a species, like the efforts of Saint Diane Fosse of the mountain gorillas.
But my first choice was Rachel Carson. She fully deserved beatification, and now she has it: in the God’s Gardeners hagiography, she is Saint Rachel of All Birds.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s momentous book, Silent Spring, considered by many the most important environmental book of the 20th century. Its subject was the human poisoning of the biosphere through the wholesale deployment of a myriad new 20th-century chemicals aimed at pest and disease control. Carson was already the most respected nature writer in the United States, and a pioneer in that field. She knew how to explain science to ordinary readers in a way that they could understand; she knew also that if you don’t love a thing you won’t save it, and her love for the natural world shines through everything she wrote. For Silent Spring – which she already knew would be her last tilt at the windmill – she polished all her rhetorical weapons, and synthesised a wide range of research. She was able to combine a simple and dramatic presentation with a formidable array of backup statistics, and to forge a call to specific action. The impact was enormous – many groups, pieces of legislation, and government agencies were inspired by it – and both its main insights remain central today.
The book also met with furious resistance, chiefly from the big chemical companies and the scientists in their employ. Multiple attempts were made to destroy not only Carson’s scientific credibility but also her personal reputation: she was a fanatic, she was a “bunny hugger”, she was a dangerous reactionary who would drag modern society backwards into a new Middle Ages filled with pests, vermin, crop destruction and lethal diseases. Yet Silent Spring never advocated an outright ban on pesticides: only careful testing and informed use, in contrast to the scorched-earth policies that had been pursued, with many disastrous outcomes.
Through it all, Carson persevered, countering the vilification with grace, dignity and courage. Just how much courage soon became apparent, for she was suffering from cancer, and died in early 1964. Silent Spring thus acquired the added force of a deathbed testament.
Silent Spring made an impact worldwide, but it also made one in our family. My father was an entomologist who studied insect infestations that destroyed forests, especially the coniferous forests that cover most of Canada’s north. He had been working as a forest entomologist throughout the 1930s, and had seen the advent of the insecticide revolution. It must at first have seemed like a miracle: no insects had yet developed resistance, and the first results looked like a clean sweep. The chemical solution to insect-caused problems was pushed hard by the manufacturers: not only for forest insects, but for crops of all kinds – apples, cotton, corn – disease-carrying bugs, irritating mosquitoes, roadside wildflowers, and, well, anything that crawled, or simply grew where you didn’t want it to. Spraying was cheap and effective, and safe for human beings, so why wouldn’t you do it?
The general public believed the pitch: the stuff was safe for people, unless you drank it. One of the delights of our 40s childhood was to be allowed to wield the Flit gun – a spray pump with a barrel containing a DDT preparation that did indeed slay any insect you sprayed with it. We kids breathed in clouds of it as we stalked around assassinating houseflies and squirting each other for a joke.
Such carefree attitudes towards the new chemicals were common throughout the next decade. When I worked as a camp counsellor in the late 50s, the premises were routinely fogged for mosquitoes, as were campgrounds and whole towns in many parts of the world. After the fogging, rabbits would appear, running around in circles, jerking spasmodically, then falling over. Might it be the pesticides? Surely not. We had not yet read the studies – already in progress – of liver damage and neurological damage, not to mention cancer. But Carson was reading them.
Towards the end of the 50s, my father became an opponent of widespread spraying. His reasons were the same as those detailed in Silent Spring. First, because that kind of widespread blanket spraying killed not only the target insect, but the parasitic foes of the target; and not only insects, but many other life forms as well; and not only those life forms, but everything dependent on them for food. The result of intensive spraying was a dead forest.
Second, some insects would survive and pass on their resistant genes, and soon you’d have a whole generation of hardier descendants that would far out-munch their ancestors, and against whom newer and ever more toxic insecticides would then have to be deployed, until – as Carson puts it – the chemicals would become so deadly that they would kill absolutely everything, us included.
My father took a gloomy pleasure in saying that the insects would inherit the earth, because they would quickly adapt to any controls we could throw at them. (He didn’t yet know about superbugs in hospitals, and about species-jumping microbes such as Ebola and Marburg, and about the many invasive species that were already complicating our lives, but they would have fitted right in.) In the future, my father would proclaim, there would be nothing left but cockroaches and grass. And ants. And maybe dandelions.
This was not very cheerful fare for young and impressionable minds such as those of my brother and my teenage self. On the other hand, it was bracing. So when Silent Spring appeared in 1962, we were ready for it.
But most people were not. It’s hard to imagine the shock it caused. It was like being told that orange juice – then being proclaimed as the sunshine key to ultra-health – was actually poisoning you.
Those were less cynical times: people still trusted large corporations. Cigarette brands were still cosy household names, sponsoring such beloved figures as radio’s Jack Benny; Coca-Cola was still a synonym for wholesomeness, with white-gloved maidens sipping it from their pure lips. Chemical companies were thought to be making life better every day, in every way, all over the world, which – to be fair – in some ways they were. Scientists in their white coats were presented as crusaders against the forces of ignorance and superstition, leading us forward under the banner of Discovery. Every modern scientific innovation was “progress” or “development”, and progress and development were always desirable, and would march inevitably onward and upward: to question that belief was to question goodness, beauty and truth.
But now Carson was blowing the lid off. Had we been lied to, not only about pesticides, but about progress, and development, and discovery, and the whole ball of wax?
So one of the core lessons of Silent Spring was that things labelled progress weren’t necessarily good. Another was that the perceived split between man and nature isn’t real: the inside of your body is connected to the world around you, and your body too has its ecology, and what goes into it – whether eaten or breathed or drunk or absorbed through your skin – has a profound impact on you. We’re so used to thinking this way now that it’s hard to imagine a time when general assumptions were different. But before Carson, they were.
In those years, nature was an “it”, an impersonal and unconscious force; or, worse, malignant: a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw bent on afflicting humanity with all the weapons at its disposal. Against brute nature stood “we”, with our consciousness and intelligence. We were a higher order of being, and thus we had a mandate to tame nature as if it were a horse, subdue it as if it were an enemy, and “develop” it as if it were a female bustline or a male set of Charles Atlas biceps – how awful to be underdeveloped! We could then exploit nature’s resources, which were thought of as inexhaustible.
Three streams of thinking fed into this civilisation/savagery construct. The first was biblical dominionism: in Genesis, God proclaims that man has dominion over the animals, and this was construed by some as permission to annihilate them. The second was informed by the machine metaphors that colonised linguistic space after the invention of the clock, and that spread across the west during the 18th-century enlightenment: the universe was an unfeeling machine, and life forms too were machines, without souls or consciousness or even feeling. Therefore they could be abused at will, because they weren’t really suffering. Man alone had a soul, situated inside the machine of his body (possibly, thought some, in the pituitary gland). In the 20th century, scientists threw out the soul but kept the machine: for a strangely long time, they held that to ascribe anything like human emotions to animals was anthropocentrism. Ironically, this was a direct contradiction of the granddaddy of modern biology, Charles Darwin, who had always maintained the interconnectedness of life, and – like any dog owner or farmer or hunter – was well aware of animal emotions.
The third line of thinking came – again ironically – from social Darwinism. Man was “fitter” than the animals, by virtue of his intelligence and his uniquely human emotions; thus in the struggle for existence man deserved to triumph, and nature would have to give way eventually to a fully “humanised” environment.
But Carson questioned this dualism. Whatever airs we might give ourselves, “we” were not distinct from “it”: we were part of it, and could live only inside it. To think otherwise was self-destructive:
The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.
One can quibble with the metaphor – “Stone Age” people were much more in tune with the wholeness of the fabric of life than were the 20th-century pundits Carson was up against – but the conclusion stands. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail. In the later sections of her book, Carson was exploring other tools, and other ways of solving problems. The world is catching up with her.
The groundwork for a wholistic view of nature already existed, the Romantics challenged the clockwork model; in the United States, worry about the misuse of nature went back as far as Fenimore Cooper and Thoreau. Teddy Roosevelt was an early conservationist. The Sierra Club was founded in 1892, and by Carson’s time was a large grass-roots organisation.
Thus one reason Silent Spring became such a major story was the already widespread popularity of nature-related activities – in particular, of birdwatching as a hobby. Birdwatching had been given a huge boost by the 1934 publication of the Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide. A pursuit that had once required arcane knowledge was now within reach of any enthusiastic amateur. For decades, birders had been scanning back yards and fields and forests, forming networks, collecting data and sharing their discoveries.
Many of these amateur naturalists had noticed a decline in bird numbers, especially among raptors such as eagles, falcons, and ospreys. Now there was an explanation: DDT accumulated in the bodies of alpha predators, since they fed at the top of the food chain. In the case of raptors it thinned their eggshells, so new generations were not hatching. This was only part of the story that Carson told in Silent Spring, but it was a part that ordinary observers could verify. Where were the American eagles that had once filled the skies all over the continent? And from eagles, it was a short jump to the rest of the story: if a chemical was exterminating birds, how good was it for people? And what about the other chemicals that were being poured into the environment in such vast amounts? It was Carson’s book that began this public debate in earnest. Many of the results of that debate have been positive. No informed person now would seriously advocate deploying pesticides or herbicides or any other chemical agent in the wholesale manner of the 1940s and 50s.
It’s tempting to wonder what Carson would have done next had she lived. Would she have warned us that the human race was skirting the brink during the Vietnam war, when the fearsomely toxic herbicide, Agent Orange, was being shipped across the Pacific Ocean in huge vats to kill Vietnamese jungles? These jungles have not yet recovered; and the poisonous effect on both military and civilians is now known. But Carson might have alerted us to a greater danger. Imagine the consequences of a large Agent Orange spill. The death of the bluegreen algae in the sea would have been a global disaster, since this algae makes 50 – 85% of the oxygen in our atmosphere.
And what would Carson have said about the spraying of dispersants during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill? “Don’t do it,” no doubt. Many experts said this, but the powers that be did it anyway. What would she have said about the rapidly melting Arctic ice, or about the plans to shove a pipeline through the Great Bear rainforest to the Pacific shore?
She would have seen many signs of hope – thanks to her, people are at least aware of some of the problems. But how can anyone keep track of them all? Our hi-tech civilisation is leaking, and it’s leaking into us. The more inventive we become, the longer grows the list of chemical compounds we may be breathing, eating and rubbing on to our skin. PCBs, chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants and dioxins have been identified and somewhat controlled, but many harmful chemicals are still at large, and are joined every year by new ones we know little about.
But as long as they don’t fall over, most people don’t spend much time worrying about invisible toxicity. We’re a short-view species: for most of our history we’ve had to be: we stuffed ourselves while we had the chance, like most hunters and foragers. However, unless we stop fouling our own nest, the Earth, we may be a short-term species as well, and my father’s gloomy prognostications about the cockroaches inheriting the planet will come true. Demonising environmentalists – as happened with Carson, and as continues to happen today – will do nothing to change this.
On the positive front, awareness has grown. Although the percentage of giving to nature-related organisations is still pitifully small, there are now many organisations devoted to answering our biggest question: how can we live on our planet? Large groups such as Greenpeace, World Wildlife, and BirdLife International rest on a pyramid of other organisations, from the national to the local. Thanks to their members we know much more about the details of life on Earth than we did in Carson’s time. We know where the sea currents flow, and how forests replenish their nutrients, and how seabird colonies enrich marine life. We know that although we have destroyed 90% of fish stocks since the 1940s, the establishment of marine parks allows regeneration. We know where the bird species nest, and what hazards they must navigate while migrating, and the importance of habitat preservation in our well-mapped Important Bird Areas.
But though our knowledge is immense, our collective political will is not strong. The energy for change – and thus our preservation – will have to come from grass-roots networks, which is where it’s most often come from. One of the newest is called TerraMar; it’s proclaiming the “high seas” as a country, in which you may acquire citizenship. Its goal is to raise awareness about the destruction taking place in our oceans – from toxic spills to huge plastic-bit vortices, from overfishing to bottom-dredging. As a trained marine biologist, Carson would certainly approve.
Her latest headchild may seem unlikely: Bug A Salt, a toy rifle filled with table salt and used to shoot flies. A crowd-sourcing campaign just raised half a million dollars for its inventor: seems like a lot of folks want to shoot bugs, just as we 1940s kids wanted to shoot the Flit gun.
Bug A Salt has two green selling points: it needs no batteries, and it uses no pesticides. I’m not sure it’s the answer to widespread forest infestations covering hundreds of square miles: that would take a lot of table salt. But still, Saint Rachel would applaud its core values: no bird is ever likely to be silenced by Bug A Salt.