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Diamond Jubilee: The Legacy Of ‘Silent Spring’

Although the word groundbreaking has become somewhat cliché, the adjective is still appropriate for Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s 1852 novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘. The author had penned a touching story of how the slaves were tortured, 170 years ago. There was an increase in support for the abolition of slavery after the publication of that novel. The then US President, Abraham Lincoln, reportedly congratulated Stowe for writing the novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be compared to another book… ‘Silent Spring’, by Rachel Carson. Although Carson’s work was published as a book in September 1962, the excerpt from the book was previously published in The New Yorker magazine in June that year. Hence, Silent Spring marked its Diamond Jubilee in June 2022.

It is important to discuss the impact of this publication on human lives for the past 60 years. The magazine, which had informed the global community about the dangers of nuclear weapons by publishing an article after the Hiroshima bombing in 1946, sensitised people about environmental issues by publishing an excerpt from Silent Spring in 1962. With this, The New Yorker made an attempt to establish the fact that the purpose of journalism was not only to entertain, but also to make the society aware of various important issues.

Carson and her publication

In this book, Carson portrayed the picture of a silent spring. Spring is commonly considered as the best time to hear the birds sing… however, Carson’s spring was silent, as she was of the opinion that the excessive use of pesticides had a negative impact on biodiversity. The author also claimed that the worst sufferers were the birds, who were vocal in the spring. After the publication of this book, people started thinking about environmental issues, and it has gradually turned into a movement. A decade later, the US Government established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1972. Now, no food or medicine comes to the US market without getting clearance from the EPA. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), formed in 1988, can be described as one of the far-reaching consequences of Silent Spring.

Unfortunately, the interference of Politics and the State in the Environmental Movement has started hindering its progress. Former US President Barack Obama was an environment-friendly person, but his predecessor George W Bush, seemingly, was not. Hence, Carson’s nightmare is not over, as the environment is still the number one enemy of mankind. According to a 2019 study by Cornell University ornithologist Professor Kenneth Rosenberg, about 29% of birds have become extinct in North America since 1970. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), too, has claimed that more than 40% of amphibians are in danger. In a report, the Audubon Society has stated that the wildlife could not be saved without cooperation from the statesmen. In Silent Spring, Carson mentioned that the main enemy of biodiversity among pesticides was Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). The production of DDT was stopped after it was identified in that book.

Kenneth Rosenberg

Austrian chemist Othmar Zeidler (August 29, 1850 – June 17, 1911) discovered DDT in 1874. In 1939, Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller (January 12, 1899 – October 13, 1965) discovered insecticidal qualities in DDT. It may be noted that Müller received the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his 1939 discovery of insecticidal qualities and use of DDT in the control of vector diseases, such as malaria and yellow fever. Towards the end of the Second World War, DDT was used to control various insect-borne diseases, such as malaria and typhus, when they spread among the soldiers of different countries. Interestingly, the effectiveness of a chemical, which helped Müller win the Nobel Prize, was an enemy of the environment!

Situation in India (Courtesy: Hindustan Times)

Science is fascinating because it never says the final word. The effectiveness of DDT as a pesticide was such a stunning discovery that Müller deserved the Nobel Prize. It is just like the atomic division that is the basic principle of the atom bomb. Like Müller, German chemist Otto Hahn (March 8, 1879 – July 28, 1968), too, was honoured with the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistryfor his discovery of the fission of heavy atomic nuclei“, and it was also seen that the destructions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not far-off. Hahn, a pioneer in the fields of radioactivity and radiochemistry, is referred to as the father of nuclear chemistry and godfather of nuclear fission.

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