Silent Spring

silent springWhen 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.

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24 Responses to Silent Spring

  1. Thank God for Rachel Carson and her courageous book! Who said an individual could not change the world?
    The 2014 book that has opened my eyes to our mismanagement of the environment is Feral by George Monbiot. My review here: https://alastairsavage.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/feral-by-george-monbiot/ but also check out his regular columns on the Guardian website: http://www.theguardian.com/profile/georgemonbiot

  2. rudejasper says:

    I work as a wildlife biologist and I have to say that the level of destruction and catastrophe that must happen before real systemic, widespread action is taken is disheartening. From that perspective this book is such a beacon of hope in what it managed to accomplish. To be honest, besides journal articles and such I haven’t read a lot of modern books on this topic simply because I’m overwhelmed with it at work everyday but if you haven’t read it before you may enjoy Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. It’s a beautiful collection of essays that is sometimes startling in how accurate he was with his predictions of what the consequences would be if humans continue to think of themselves as being above rather than apart of the natural community.

  3. almathun says:

    Your description of the use of chemicals in the 60s made me wonder whether the rise of Alzheimer is somehow linked to it. And even though there is a wider awareness of the dangers of pesticides, etc. today, thanks to books like Silent Spring, there is still a lot to do. The dying of bees caused by neonicotinoids is just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks for reminding us of this important book.

    • Jenny says:

      I thought of many things besides Alzheimer’s — and given the range of processes that chemicals have been proven to affect in humans, I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m glad you mentioned bees, as well, since Carson talks about the effects that various chemicals have on bees in almost every chapter.

  4. Richard Gilbert says:

    An equally great and important new book: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.

  5. This book should be required reading!

    • Jenny says:

      I almost think so. Isn’t it in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake that Carson is a saint? St Rachel of All Birds?

  6. Scott W. says:

    I found Carson’s Silent Spring on the shelf while in high school, and it scared the bejesus out of me. It’s hard to believe that DDT is actually still being used in places like Africa, where chemical companies don’t have to adhere to environmental regulations in places like the U.S. (and equally hard to believe that there are elected officials in the U.S. actively trying to dismantle environmental regulations which grew out of Carson’s book). I don’t know that anyone has written a more affecting and impactful book on environmentalism since Silent Spring, but I’ll second the recommendation above for Sand County Almanac and also put in a plug for David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, another book that issues an unforgettable warning about what humans are doing to the planet.

    • Jenny says:

      One of the first things I thought of as I was reading Silent Spring was that we may be somewhat more regulated and aware in the US and Europe, but things are far from perfect here, and it’s definitely not a rosy picture globally, where such regulations may never have been put in place at all. It’s a complicated and scary picture, any way you look at it.

      Not only have I read Song of the Dodo, I actually got Teresa to read it, too. That’s an astonishing book — another great recommendation.

  7. Alex Funke says:

    A beautiful review of a most powerful book! I remember well the echoes through many levels of society at the time, and the power of Carson’s words.

    Similar yet different: Michael Pollan, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” It looks at the food world from a similar holistic viewpoint.

    Bravo! Keep on reading! Alex

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I agree it’s a powerful book that has had an impact on society. Great recommendation, thank you!

  8. Jeane says:

    I read Silent Spring more than a decade ago- and still recall it vividly. I was especially horrified by the image of birds dropping dead off their perches by the hundreds, and of a family that used some cleaner (pronounced safe!) on their kitchen floor- only to have the dog and the crawling baby die from it.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, that was an awful story. And all reasonable precautions had been taken — the family had moved out while the pesticide was being used, and the floors washed afterward. Oh, ugh. It’s such a forceful book.

  9. Stefanie says:

    You know, I’ve never read Silent Spring. I keep telling myself I should but I get sidetracked. These days it’s not DDT but Neonicotinoids that is getting everyone riled up because it is killing bees and other important pollinators. And since the overwhelming majority of our food is pollinated by bees, without them we’d all starve. You might like a book I read a number of years ago called Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Smith and Lourie. They detail all the chemicals that are in our living environment and what they are doing to us. If you want a book about the environment that is a little different Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is excellent. She is Native American and a botanist and the book is sort of mixed-genre science/environment/memoir. It’s very good.

    • Jenny says:

      Those are both great recommendations, Stefanie — I just finished reading a wonderful Native American novel, and the difference in the approach to nature was striking, right next to Silent Spring. I really appreciate it.

  10. aartichapati says:

    I had this book for so long but could not bring myself to read it. I think because the subject matter frightened me so much and I know that, even if we are not using DDT any more, we are still using all sorts of other things that we do not know the consequences of. I can only read so many depressing books about the world today in a certain period of time!

    • Jenny says:

      I know what you mean. I think it’s OK to take things in small doses as a measure of self-care. We do what we can for peace and justice. :)

  11. Deb says:

    David Quammen was mentioned above–and I’d like to plug another of his books: Spillover, which is about how diseases that previously rarely, if ever, infected humans are now spreading into human populations (because, in part, we are destroying animal habitats so that those animals must live closer and closer to humans). The latest outbreak of Ebola, now thought to have started when a young boy touched an infected bat, is an example.

    I wonder if the enormous increase in women’s reproductive cancers (breast, ovarian, uterine), also in autism and ADHD, over the past decade is attributable to the chemicalization of our environment. I think that’s more likely than, say, vaccines.

    • Jenny says:

      Great comment, Deb. I was thinking of the rise of various autoimmune disorders, myself.

      Thank you so much for the recommendation for Spillover. I would read just about anything Quammen writes: he is so eloquent, such a great storyteller, and also so well-researched and informative.

      • Deb says:

        Yes indeed! The chapter that imaginatively reconstructs how AIDS moved from chimps to humans (over the course of about 80 years) is alone worth getting the book.

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