Trevor Hancock: Silent Spring is getting closer

Fifty-seven years ago, in her eloquent and powerful 1962 book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson — a marine scientist who worked for many years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — warned of the consequences of the widespread use of DDT and other new pesticides.

It is astonishing to re-read this classic now, so many years after it was written. There is the clarity of thinking and the pleasure of good writing, of course, but it is the prescience that takes your breath away.

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She could have been writing today when she states: “Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war, the central problem of our age has therefore become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm.” Future historians, she wrote, “may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion” in seeking to “control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment.”

And she warned: “Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.”

Well, the chickens are coming home to roost. In a disturbing and unusually blunt review of the state of the world’s insects in Biological Conservation in January, Australian entomologists Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys describe “the dreadful state of insect biodiversity in the world, as almost half of the species are rapidly declining and a third are being threatened with extinction.”

Insects, they note “are at the structural and functional base of many of the world’s ecosystems,” so the results of these losses, which “may lead to the extinction of 40 per cent of the world’s insect species over the next few decades,” will be “catastrophic to say the least.” As the Australian cartoon strip First Dog on the Moon notes: “This is literally the biggest news story in the world” and should be front page news.

Much of the data with which they are working are for Europe and North America, since there are good historical data to allow for the determination of trends. However, they note that “insects are not expected to fare differently in tropical and developing countries,” because the underlying causes are worldwide.

The root cause, they state, is “the intensification of agriculture over the past six decades … and within it the widespread, relentless use of synthetic pesticides.” In addition, loss of habitat through urbanization, introduction of invasive species and climate change all contribute to the decline.

So “the conclusion is clear: Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades.” They go on to call for “a serious reduction in pesticide usage and its substitution with more sustainable, ecologically based practices.”

Interestingly, this links to and reinforces the dietary prescription of both the recent EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy and sustainable diets and the new Canadian Food Guidelines that I wrote about recently. One of the benefits of a low-meat, plant-based diet is that more people can be fed on less land, allowing for a less intensive form of agriculture.

But insects are not the only victims, serious though that is; humans are affected, too. Carson warned us — and our governments — a long time ago that: “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.” And she pointed out that these new chemicals, “to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year” have “no counterparts in nature” and are “totally outside the limits of biological experience.” Thus we cannot adapt, nor can other species — certainly not in any timely manner.

Finally, Carson notes: “We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons without their consent and often without their knowledge.” This amounts to an unethical and unauthorized experiment to find out what happens when you expose entire human and non-human populations from before birth and throughout life to a toxic soup of chemicals. That is a disgraceful failure of governance, which I will discuss next week.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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