A Who’s Who of pesticides is of concern to us all

Silent SpringSilent Spring
by Rachel Carson

This is a book that changed the world and brought hideous criticism on its author, and I’m loath to add to or ratify any of that criticism but this book took me six weeks to read and honestly it often felt like a slog. And yet I still think Carson was a good writer, or capable of good writing.

For those who don’t know the book, this now-legendary tract is a polemic against the widespread of use of pesticides such as DDT, on the grounds that they are dangerous poisons that kill far more than the target insects or fungi. Carson gathered together evidence that the supposedly safe pesticides that were widely sprayed from aeroplanes onto thousands of acres of land were killing fish, birds, pets, livestock, even people. A lot of this evidence came from scientific journals, so it’s not as though the problem was unheard of before she got interested, but she brought it to a wider audience and as a direct result, President Kennedy ordered an investigation into pesticide misuse.

“A Who’s Who of pesticides is therefore of concern to us all. 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.”

With my long history of interest in environmental issues, I am curious why this book didn’t engage me. I think there are several reasons, but they should be cast against the plain fact that this book was a bestseller and has remained in print for decades – obviously others had a better experience than me!

To begin with, I found the tone very uneven. The book starts with a long emotive intro completely devoid of facts, then launches into super technical explanations. This pattern continues, though the balance overall tends to be of more technical language interspersed with poetic sections. The references are all hidden at the back of the book so it’s near impossible to tell what’s scientific fact and what’s speculation in some places – but then elsewhere it’s perfectly clear so obviously Carson was capable of achieving that balance.

“In Greek mythology the sorceress Medea, enraged at being supplanted by a rival for the affections of her husband Jason, presented the new bride with a robe possessing magic properties. The wearer of the robe immediately suffered a violent death. This death-by-indirection now finds its counterpart in what are known as ‘systemic insecticides’. These are chemicals with extraordinary properties which are used to convert plants or animals into a sort of Medea’s robe by making them actually poisonous.”

Another issue I had was that, although we still face many similar problems, the specifics are different. I struggled with the current-day relevance of the endless facts and found myself wishing for an up-to-date equivalent. Of course, the difference is that these days that information is available to me if I go looking for it (in fact a quick scan of the petitions I’ve signed on Change.org is a good start).

On the other hand, this book also had the presumably desired effect of making me furious at the ignorance and deliberate misinformation that led to Carson writing this book – partly because I know that governments continue to side with big business against scientific advice, even when the advice is a cautious “let us do a couple of tests”.

“Soil is in part a creation of life, born of a marvellous interaction of life and non-life long aeons ago. The parent materials were gathered together as volcanoes poured them out in fiery streams, as waters running over the bare rocks of the continents wore away even the hardest granite, and as the chisels of frost and ice split and shattered the rocks. Then living things began to work their creative magic and little by little these inert materials become soil.”

Overall, I’m glad I’ve read it but can’t say it holds a candle to more recent examples of popular science – the science itself is explained clearly but isn’t made interesting and isn’t presented in a logical order (to my mind) and varied wildly in how engaging it was. Clearly this was an early example of a genre that has since been refined and practised much more.

Sections of this book were first published as a series of articles in the New Yorker.
First published 1962 by Houghton Mifflin.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge.

It burned through cities like fire

Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood

This is the second book in Atwood’s trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and will conclude with Maddaddam, out next week. I suspect you don’t need to have read Oryx and Crake to enjoy this book, but that said I did really love spotting all the connections before they became explicit.

The story follows two women who, separately, have lived through the “Waterless Flood”, some form of apocalypse that has left both women struggling to survive and wondering if they are the only human left alive. So far, so much like Oryx and Crake, but unlike that book’s hero, these women are not going mad and their memories are more coherent.

“In the night there are the usual noises: the faraway barking of dogs, the tittering of mice, the water-pipe notes of the crickets, the occasional grumph of a frog. The blood rushing in her ears: katoush, katoush, katoush. A heavy broom sweeping dry leaves.
‘Go to sleep,’ she says out loud. But she never sleeps well, not since she’s been alone.”

Ren is an exotic dancer trapped in the high-end sex club she worked in. Toby has created a rooftop garden on her former workplace, safely away from the prowling animals out to steal her food. Both women used to belong to God’s Gardeners, a group of outsiders who strove to heal the planet through vegetarian self-sufficiency and reuse/recycling. Pretty much hippies, but in the name of religion and at a time when the Earth depicted is far along the road to destruction, the two being linked by the fear of an imminent tipping point when human society will collapse – the Waterless Flood.

“This was the Waterless Flood the Gardeners had so often warned about. It had all the signs: it travelled through the air as if on wings, it burned through cities like fire, spreading germ-ridden mobs, terror, and butchery…It looked like total breakdown, which was why she’d needed the rifle.”

I wasn’t sure at first where I was in the timeline as compared with Oryx and Crake but it comes together, in fact more so than I had expected. Of course this means many of the issues dealt with are the same or similar, but I felt that The Year of the Flood was far more emotionally engaging. Maybe I connected better with Ren and Toby than I did with Snowman, or maybe the overall storyline cut closer to issues I care about – this book really did put the emphasis on the environmental angle rather than the bioengineering and I know I said in my review of Oryx and Crake that that could get preachy but actually it did the opposite – it made it all more real.

“It’s daybreak. The break of day. Toby turns this word over: break, broke, broken. What breaks in daylight? Is it the night? Is it the sun, cracked in two by the horizon like an egg, spilling out light?”

I think I also liked that most of the characters in this book really cared about things, rather than floating through the world. I know both types of people exist and are equally capable of good or bad but I am a carer, so I guess I empathise better with characters who care. I even forgave them all the God stuff (which was in any case heavily loaded with irony in places) because, after all, facing imminent apocalypse who knows what I’d turn to?

I found this a thrilling, wonderful read and I’m really looking forward to Maddadam and to hearing Atwood talk about all three books in Bristol next week.

Published 2009 by Bloomsbury.

Source: I bought it from Waterstones.

Time to make those far-off lands distant again

When the news first broke about the Icelandic volcano eruption causing a flight ban across much of northern Europe, I must admit that I was a little pleased about it. Great! I thought. People will turn to the alternatives (trains! boats! holidays close to home! eating locally produced food!) and discover that they’re not so bad. Of course, as the situation has continued and the news has been filled with little else, my naivety has been proven. It is of course miserable for most people affected and may continue to be miserable for some time to come.

The thing is, for the first 48 hours most of the news I heard or read was overwhelmingly positive: John Cleese takes comically expensive taxi ride across Europe, people use the internet to find other travellers to share alternative journeys home with, skies are clear and blue, hot-air balloon flies safely over Bristol Airport. The reality that’s now emerging is that it’s costing a lot of people a lot of money – the extra costs incurred to get home by other means and/or stay in a hotel for extra nights; missing work and therefore pay; African farmers not being able to sell their crops that are usually air-freighted to Europe; businesses reliant on tourism from the US and Canada watching their bank balances with horror – not to mention the non-monetary issues like major operations being postponed; missed birthdays, weddings, funerals, anniversaries; students and schoolchildren missing exams and coursework deadlines.

Obviously a crisis like this is not the way to show the world what life would be like without flying. The world relies so heavily on flight that a sudden ban would never work. Alternatives need to be improved and people need to start using them. Then we can start significantly reducing flights and discover that it’s better all round. Stuart Jeffries paints an attractive picture of this but like many people he concentrates heavily on how we can all change our holidaying habits. This isn’t just about holidays, it’s about business travel, air freight, artists on tour, student exchanges, sports tournaments. So much of modern life relies on air travel and that’s going to be difficult to change.

I do not think that everything about globalisation is bad. I honestly believe that it broadens the mind to travel as much as you can. I love working with and meeting people from all over the world. I love trying new and interesting foods. If a truly environmentally friendly plane fuel became readily available then I would be fine with flying. However, I do not believe in carrying on as we are, hoping for that magic pill. We, as a whole world, should be trying to fly less. Businesses need to start actually using those expensive teleconference systems that gather dust in meeting rooms, farmers need to be encouraged to grow crops that have a market in their own country (or that can be freighted by ship or train, I suppose)…and 101 other little changes that have been talked about for years but don’t seem to be happening. George Monbiot has covered this in a lot of detail.

The alternatives to flying need to get better, cheaper and more readily available. For example, crossing the Atlantic – there are currently 10 cruises per year from Southampton to New York (and back, obv.), 6 cruises per year from Southampton to Barbados, plus various cargo ships that carry 2–12 passengers. (This website looks like a pretty good source of info if you’re considering a transatlantic boat trip.) Not a lot of capacity for the millions of Brits who travel to the US each year, let alone those visiting other American countries or indeed any other nationalities wishing to cross the Atlantic (I can’t seem to find useful numbers on this – let me know in the comments if you have some). The cruises that do exist are luxury Cunard ones, with the fastest one taking 6–8 days each way and costing over £2000 per person. Cheaper, faster boats are going to be needed for the average Atlantic crosser to even be able to consider it as an alternative.

What should be easier – and arguably more useful – is improving rail infrastructure within each continent. You can currently get to almost anywhere in Europe and a lot of Asia by train. I don’t know about Africa, Australasia or South America but I hear that North America is pretty bad for rail travel (please do tell me in the comments about any experiences you have of rail abroad). The Man in Seat Sixty-One does a sterling job of explaining rail travel (and indeed all land and sea travel options) all over the world (though it does assume you’re starting from the UK). The problem is that it’s slow and expensive compared with flying and, while some train journeys are beautiful and comfortable enough to be a holiday in themselves, many are not.

For reliance on flying to be significantly reduced, we need to find alternatives that suit everyone, not just reasonably well off well intentioned holiday-makers. Everything needs to change, which is frightening and exhilarating. What an opportunity: to create a better world.