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On the Shoulders of Giants : Rachel Carson

Many of the concepts that go into making a modern green building stem from the ideas and hard work of great minds. In some cases, we are making better buildings thanks to the insights provided by the brilliance of some remarkable people. Often though, we forget to remember from where our knowledge comes and it’s appropriate to remind ourselves from time to time.

You can be forgiven for having never heard of Rachel Carson. Perhaps the name rings a bell, but you can’t remember why. She’s someone worth remembering for her contribution to changing the way we think about our relationship to the world in which we live.

Rachel Carson, 現代環境保護, Silent Spring
Rachel Carson in 1944 while working at the US Bureau of Fishes, three years after the publication of her first book. ©Public Domain

Rachel Carson was born in 1907 on her family’s farm in Springdale, Pennsylvania. From an early age, it was clear she had passion and a gift for writing, with her first story being published when she was just ten. She went on to study English at college but decided to switch her major to biology. After graduating magna cum laude with her bachelor’s degree, she went on to obtain a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. She had intended to pursue a doctorate, but her plans were cut short by the Great Depression, and she was forced to leave academia and seek work to support her parents.

She took a job at the U.S. Bureau of Fishes, where she was responsible for data analysis and copywriting for the Bureau’s brochures and other public-facing literature. It was here that her writing flourished leading to several articles and essays that appeared in various newspapers and magazines, culminating in the publication of her first book, Under the Sea Wind, in 1941. Over the course of the following 14 years, Carson went on to complete a trilogy of critically and publicly acclaimed books about the sea. The second, The Sea Around Us, was so popular that it allowed her to become a full-time writer. Her style of writing, which even today is as compelling and inspiring to read as it is informative, opened the eyes of millions of people to a part of the natural world that remains invisible and illusive to most of us.

But it was the book released just 18 months prior to her passing away that stamped Carson’s legacy in history. Silent Spring, published in September 1962, wove together a wealth of scientific research through Carson’s inimitable prose to alert the public to the grave dangers associated with the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides.

寂靜的春天, Silent Spring, 現代環境保護啟蒙
Silent Spring – Carson’s most famous work, and a book that helped spark the modern environmental movement.

In the decades prior to WWII, scientists began looking at the effectiveness of manmade organic chemicals for use as insecticides. During the war, some governments prioritized research, development, and potential application of many of these chemicals to advance war efforts and potentially use them as weapons due to their extreme toxicity. Perhaps the most infamous of these compounds is DDT, which was put into mass-production in the early 1940s to help protect soldiers from insect-born tropical diseases such as malaria.

As the world recovered after the war, these chemicals were viewed as key to helping to prevent human disease and rapidly increase farm yields due to their acute toxicity to pest species and they were produced on a massive scale and sprayed anywhere it was deemed needed. Crucially, at that time, little study had been invested into the potential downsides to using these pesticides. The immediate effects were considered highly efficacious and, as more chemicals were discovered and launched as products, powerful lobbying groups arose to assert for even broader use.

But some people began to question the wisdom of indiscriminate application of poorly vetted pesticides, and these concerns were curated and given voice by Silent Spring. The book masterfully portrays the problematic nature of the widespread use of chemicals that are indiscriminate in their toxicity, affecting not only the target species, but also many others including humans, and which have a tendency to not only linger in the environment, but increase in concentrations as they move up food chains.

Silent Spring became a rallying cry for a hitherto largely disparate group of concerned people to coalesce around and is credited by many as being the fulcrum that leveraged the dawn of the modern environmental movement and even as helping pave the way for the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency some eight years after it was published.

It’s important to note that Carson never argued for the outright banning of organic chemical pesticides, despite having eloquently outlined their many drawbacks and dangers. Instead, she advocated for the adoption of methods of pest control that include a comprehensive suite of management tools in which these most deadly of chemicals would only be used as an absolute last resort.

This is something we now call Integrated Pest Management (‘IPM”) – it’s one of the cornerstones of operating a truly green building, and something we’ve implemented at Hung Kuo Building which we’ll discuss in more detail in our next article. It’s why we’re remembering Rachel Carson in this post, because without her work, it’s entirely possible, we wouldn’t have an IPM program.

If you haven’t read Silent Spring, perhaps think about adding to your reading list – it’s available in English and Chinese. You could be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much point reading a sixty-year-old book in what we would now call the “Popular Science” genre, because it will mostly be out of date. The great tragedy about Silent Spring, however, is that despite all its successes, which include leading to the banning of some of the most toxic pesticides, it hasn’t changed the fundamental approach to modern pest-management applied by most governments and organizations. When considering current controversies, such as the decimation of global bee populations linked to neonicotinoid pesticides(1), the message of Silent Spring remains as relevant today as it was in 1962, and there is no better primer on this vital subject.

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