When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, I’m not sure she could possibly have known what an impact it would have on her readership. She might have hoped that people would listen to her urgent, horrifying message about the poisons we were pouring into the environment each day — DDT, chlordane, toxaphene, dieldrin, and more — but she couldn’t have known for certain that anyone would take her seriously.
After all, this was the age of the Flit gun. It was the age when trucks went through towns spraying DDT into the ditches, and kids ran after them, playing in the spray. It was the age when states paid people to do daytime aerial spraying of insecticides over towns and farms, and housewives swept the pellets off sidewalks in the afternoon. You could get your kitchen shelf paper impregnated with insecticides; or get a nifty gadget fitted to your lawn mower so that it sprayed weed killer as you walked along, mowing; or get a vaporizer of insecticide for your bedroom. It was all supposed to be perfectly safe: our mastery over nature.
Rachel Carson’s message was that this “mastery” had taken place without thought for the balance of the world. When you try to poison the one insect that annoys you, she said, you poison all of them, and then the birds die of the poison. Or worse: when you spray for Dutch elm disease, the leaves of the trees fall down and turn into soil, and the earthworms eat them, and the robins eat the earthworms, and now we have almost no robins left to announce the spring — but Dutch elm disease is as hardy as ever. Or when you spray your crops, you find that years later, that poison is still in the soil killing the insects and the trees and the livestock, and in the mud of the ponds killing the fish, and there’s no way of getting rid of it. Or you discover that rates of cancer are four times what they used to be, even in tiny children.
What can we do? Carson’s book focuses mostly on pesticides, and she has ideas about how to control insects and weeds in much more natural and less chemical ways. She points out that with the exception of a few things like sunlight, which have always coexisted with people, every carcinogen on earth is the invention of humans — so we can put ourselves in charge of eliminating them from the world. The book shows a deep love and respect for creation — not only its balance, but its beauty. Preserving the loveliness of back-country lanes and the songs of birds is as important to Carson as any principle of preservation.
I read this book with mounting horror, one chapter more deeply frightening than the last. You might wonder why, since it is a fifty-year-old book, whose claims about specific pesticides have long been superseded, since it was so influential during the five to ten years after its publication. But it is still terrifyingly relevant. We may have stopped using DDT; we may not use arsenic or dieldrin on our cotton any more. But there are still millions of chemicals in use in our environment, for all sorts of purposes, including pesticides. There is BPA; there are endocrine disruptors; there are GMOs. We are still such short-sighted people. This book, for instance, introduced me to an idea I’d somehow never considered before: that chemicals in your body can combine to make new, unforeseen chemicals. Or chemicals can combine with radiation (say, X-rays.) How could I not have thought of that? No one can predict what those chemicals will be. Ugh! And we are not much better about thinking about the balance of nature: sure, go ahead, use dispersants for that huge oil spill in the ocean! I’m pretty sure there will be no problems!
Carson was viciously attacked after the publication of this book. As you might expect, companies that produced insecticides and weed-killers and other chemicals insisted that their products could practically be put in baby bottles. They claimed she was hysterical; they said she was working for the Communists; they said she was a single woman, so why did she care about how the chemicals affected our genetic material? But it was too late. The book was out, and it did its mighty work.
I wondered if there were a sort of update to this book, fifty years on, but it seems the topic is too big now to be contained in just one volume. Do you have recommendations for what else I might read on this subject? There are so many books out there on ecology, from general nature writing to polemics. I would also really welcome other recommendations of science classics intended for a general audience.