In the News


Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' turns 50 this year. How might it inform us in upcoming election?

By Chris Krohn
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 11/4/12

Rachel Carson could teach us some lessons as we head into the Nov. 6 election. Her epic 1962 work, "Silent Spring," inducted Carson into the pantheon of exposé writers joining the likes of Upton Sinclair ("The Jungle," 1906), John Steinbeck ("Grapes of Wrath," 1939), and John Hersey ("Hiroshima," 1946). Fifty years later, what might her work imply about current environmental decisions on desalination and genetically modified organisms now before the voters?

Carson's ability to rally large numbers of Americans against the capricious applications of DDT and other dangerous chemicals was nothing short of heroic. Large chemical corporations, including Monsanto, Shell, American Cyanide, Dow and Velsicol did not expect their largely unsupervised applications of toxic chemicals to be made public. Carson's descriptions were scathing. She revealed out-of-control, profit-driven corporations producing chemicals that killed not only pests, but beneficial insects, birds and plants as well.

When "Silent Spring" was published in 1962, it became a call to arms for an American middle class buffeted by scandals involving Thalidomide that deformed limbs and organs of thousands of European babies; fallout from nuclear bomb testing that left Strontium 90 in baby teeth; and an entire pesticide-tainted cranberry crop that had to be destroyed right before Thanksgiving in 1959.

"Silent Spring" quickly became a best seller; it still sells more than 25,000 copies each year. American chemical corporations, however, led by the National Agricultural Chemical Association, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to mercilessly attack Carson. Nonetheless, she had successfully alerted the public to the dangers the chemical industry posed. She participated in congressional hearings, and her work led to changes in public policy.

So, how might a book written 50 years ago be relevant to the people of Santa Cruz, as we head into a very significant election?

Carson's epic book was prescient in questioning the assumption that new technologies are always a step toward progress. The high-stakes game of desalination is one of those new technologies. She invites her readers to consider that "road less traveled" by doing their homework. County residents have the opportunity to heed this notion and question the rush to construct a desalination plant on our beautiful coast. Fifty years ago, Carson demonstrated that environmental protection is not incompatible with prosperity. Desalination may, in fact, be an environmental nightmare. It consumes energy, discharges brine to the ocean, and supports ongoing overconsumption of freshwater. We would do well to look at Carson's methodology of using good science and research to inform good policy decisions in deciding our water future, and, importantly, leaving power in the hands of the populace to decide which environmental risks to take and which to reject.

We also have an opportunity in this election to support local organic food production by forcing the same company that fought Carson 50 years ago, Monsanto, and other large food producers to label products with the full disclosure statement: "contains genetically engineered organisms."

Carson sought to change the public's behavior in the face of unrelenting chemical industry propaganda. Her solution was simple: understand "basic knowledge of animal populations and their relations with their surroundings." Genetically engineered crops have already been shown to affect humans and plant and animal species across the planet. Why should we be denied information about whether they are in our food?

The indiscriminate spraying of pesticides targeted by Carson is not different from squandering energy to extract desalinated water from the sea or hiding genetically modified ingredients from consumers. All these practices undermine environmental sustainability, and contradict Carson's core values. On Nov. 6, in this 50th anniversary of "Silent Spring," vote yes on P locally, and yes on Prop. 37 on the statewide ballot.

A former Santa Cruz mayor, Chris Krohn is the internship coordinator for the Department of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz.

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