By John Gibb

We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one “ less travelled by” – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.”

Readers of Rachel Carson’s classic 1962 book Silent Spring, which launched the environmental movement, may have viewed the above warning with some degree of optimism. Surely the point of no return on that superhighway was far in the distance and there was plenty of time to find the off-ramp to the road less travelled. Sixty years later, that is clearly not the case. The distance between those two roads has increased significantly!

She may not have been able to predict the complexity and scope of the challenges we face today, but Rachel Carson clearly addressed the causes and symptoms. Let’s explore some of these.

On what we now term ‘captured regulators’: “The ominous pattern that is clearly being revealed is the elimination from the Government of career men of long experience and high professional competence and their replacement by political appointees.”

For mono-crop ‘green revolution’ agriculture: “ …  the devotion of immense acreages to a single crop sets the stage for explosive increases in specific insect populations. Single crop farming does not take advantage of the principles by which nature works; it is agriculture as an engineer might conceive it to be.”

On GMO crops necessitating the use of toxic pesticides: “Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds.”

Consider the little we actually know about the unintended consequences once chemicals we’ve created leave the laboratory. For instance, the genocidal impact the neonicotinoid group of pesticides has on many pollinators. She aptly quoted Dutch scientist C. J. Brieger: “Once again we are walking in nature like an elephant in the china cabinet.”

Carson’s interest in the biological effects of radiation followed Hiroshima and domestic DDT use in 1945. She understood that DDT and related synthetics could lead to damaged genetic material and cancer long after exposure. Today more substances than we can keep track of are classified as probable or confirmed carcinogens and mutagens: “Among the herbicides are some that are classified as ‘mutagens,’ or agents capable of modifying the genes, materials of heredity. We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation, how then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in chemicals that we disseminate widely in our environment?”

Did Silent Spring support our right to know the potential hazards of exposure to tobacco, asbestos, freon, PCB’s, UFFI, silicone, microwaves, nuclear radiation, nanoparticles, and the ‘forever chemicals’?  “We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts. If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals, eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones – we had better know something about their nature and their power.”

In 1963, Rachel Carson intended to write about something now directly facing each one of us. “We live in an age of rising seas,” she wrote. “In our own lifetime we are witnessing a startling alteration of climate.” She died before she could begin. We are left to imagine that book as her next vital signpost to the road less travelled …