What would Rachel Carson do?

A world-altering book, Silent Spring, hit the shelves 50 years ago this week. The gospel according to Rachel raised awareness of the widespread, dangerous use of pesticides and their impact on birds, wildlife and human health. Her teachings essentially launched environmentalism, leading to salvation of species like bald eagles and peregrine falcons, and human life besides. But humanity continues its grave sins against the Earth on an accelerating fall into ecological hell. The question of the hour is, “What would Rachel Carson do?”

Silent Spring, published on Sept. 27, 1962, called into question indiscriminate use of pesticides. Carson claimed chemical companies had given misleading information about their safety, and that public officials had failed to look critically at these claims. Predictably, chemical companies responded harshly to Carson’s allegations, but many scientists backed her up. The following year she testified to President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee and received backing from their report. Ironically, by the time the book was published, Carson was suffering from malignant breast cancer. She died on April 14, 1964, less than a month after I was born. Her arguments eventually led to a worldwide ban on DDT for agricultural use, but some countries still use it to combat malaria by controlling mosquitoes.

Carson highlighted the deleterious effects of pesticides on natural ecosystems. In particular she illustrated how they were killing off birds, hence the book title. It turned out DDT presented a special challenge to birds at the top of the food chain by thinning their eggshells, so eggs could not mature without breaking. The ban led to a recovery of various predators, notably bald eagles. They were removed from the endangered species list in the United States in 2007. Bald eagles have recovered substantially here in Ontario, but remain protected under the Endangered Species Act.

She was primarily concerned with the toxicity of chemicals toward humans and wildlife, and did not call for an outright ban on the use of all pesticides. What she probably did not foresee was a change in the populations of insects themselves. Now a different group of birds seems to be affected not by reproductive failure but a loss of prey. These are the aerial insectivores: swifts, swallows, flycatcher, nightjars and the American kestrel. Data from the past 40 years shows they are all in decline. Some such as the chimney swift are considered threatened.

We do not have long-term data on insect populations because nobody has cared. In general, humanity hates them. It will be difficult to provide conclusive evidence for this problem, but it needs to be recognized and action taken. These bird species and their prey are vital to ecosystems. A world without bugs would not be a better one; it would be grossly out of balance.

So what would Rachel Carson do? She would dig deep, gather data, not hesitate to speak against the powers that profit from pesticide use, and testify to committees. She would certainly write another book. This one would probably advocate for another group of creatures much maligned, regarded since the dawn of civilization as an enemy of humanity. She would point out what harm will come if we continue to treat insects indiscriminately as pests. She would not give up until change happened.

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