I’ve just finished reading Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, written back in 1962, but still timely. President Kennedy read it eagerly, followed by Nixon in a time when presidents read books. (President Obama is another omnivorous reader in our own time.) Nixon was so deeply affected, that he founded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a safeguard.
I first became aware of the book in teaching college English composition classes where it appeared as an anthology excerpt, modeling sound expository writing. While Carson had written a thoroughly researched book steeped in chemical analysis, she did so in a way that rendered science transparent to the public, fostering its appeal, unlike a rival text written on the same topic that virtually no one read outside the science community.
Carson’s work models not only coherent analysis at its best, but delivers its thesis with a lyrical beauty underscoring its urgency and moving readers to call for policy change. In a letter to her close friend, Dorothy Freeman, she would write, “Once the emotions have been aroused—a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration and love—then we wish for the knowledge of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.”
A perfectionist, she researched exhaustively and revised continually, concerned not only with message, but delivery. She had begun her college days as an English major before switching to biology. Carson composed Silent Spring while battling aggressive breast cancer, initially misdiagnosed. She had planned to write four other science books. The miracle is that she produced anything at all.
Since those days of teaching writing and my growing commitment to the green movement and awareness of the existential, exponential threat of climate change, I have wanted to return to her foundational work. I’m not sure how many of us are into eco-literature and Silent Spring or her other noted works, The Sea Around Us (National Book Award Winner) and best selling, The Edge of the Sea, but I knew reading it fully was something I just had to do to do, not least, to honor her—she passed so quickly from us after Silent Spring—but also as a means to gauging our progress in addressing her concerns.
Silent Spring deals with the havoc waged by land, sea, and air to the environment through indiscriminate use of pesticides by federal, state and local communities in support of economic interests, e.g., logging, agriculture, community agendas, heedless of consequences, repeatedly so, even when evidence of harmful repercussions had proven pervasive. An act of willful hubris, a genocide against nature, it resembles our own era when fossil fuels, primary contributors to a changing climate, continue as principal sources of energy reliance.
Silent Spring can be painful reading in its strident account of corporate interests in liaison with government, pillaging our environment and disregarding human welfare. Today, nearly every plant, and animal, including ourselves, even where spraying has ceased, show chemical residue. Species have been sharply reduced, disturbing a complex ecology, while augmenting pest resistance and promoting cancer proliferation.
There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example—where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.
All of this fallout unnecessary, for safer biological tools had proven successful, yet still, the spraying continued. The corporate sector, spending $250,000, a huge sum at the time, resisted Carson’s assault, much like today’s Monsanto, arguing correlation not establishing causality, and disparaging Carson’s credentials: no Ph. D, no standing in the science community, no academic affiliation, a “bird lover,” her followers, “health quacks.” Shockingly, the American Entomological Society listed Velsicol, Monsanto, Shell Chemical Company, and other chemical corporations among their “sustaining associates.” One major pesticide firm threatened her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, with a lawsuit if the book were published without changes.
Carson was understandably surprised by the book’s smashing success, selling 65,000 copies in its first two weeks and its subsequent Book of the Month Club selection.
Against all odds, Silent Spring had found its way into the public’s consciousness. DDT was halted, though hypocritically allowed for export, much like cigarettes later on. As noted, the EPA came into being as the book’s consequence. In 1981, years after her passing in 1964, Carson was posthumously awarded our nation’s highest civilian honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Sadly, Carson’s critics have continued their assaults, covertly changing their tactics and employing political correctness. The late science fiction novelist, Michael Crichton, for example, a vociferous climate change denier, branded her “a mass murderess” for the ultimate banning of DDT and deaths of millions of African children from malaria, while others have dismissed her as a white elitist. They ignore that DDT was actually banned only domestically, subsequently proven ineffectual against increasing mosquito resistance abroad, and replaced by newer, more effectual pesticides and innovative pharmaceuticals to contain malaria. Ironically, Carson hadn’t actually called for its banishment, but for its judicial use along with other pesticides.
Among poisonous chemical substances Carson addressed in Silent Spring, herbicides continue as a primary public menace, particularly for gardeners using the ubiquitous box store Roundup. There have been three trials involving pesticide giant Monsanto, two in state courts and the other in federal court, with up to 100,000 plaintiffs, alleging resulting non-Hodgkin lymphoma and consistent Monsanto coverup. Significantly, on March 19, 2018, a unanimous jury found Monsanto culpable and $25 million was awarded to plaintiff Edwin Hardeman.
Dismayingly, Trump’s EPA has currently sanctioned Monsanto’s employment of a new crop herbicide, dicamba, resulting in widespread crop damage, and Monsanto’s presently facing legal intervention by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. As with the frequent scenario Carson underscored in Silent Spring, corporate priorities like those of Monsanto have plunged headlong into pressing economic gains, even when their own studies revealed imminent liabilities, conspiring with the EPA to soft-pedal the herbicide’s dangers:
Documents filed in court show Monsanto met multiple times with EPA officials about the concerns, even editing EPA language about certain steps Monsanto should take in communications with retailers. In an October 2017 email, an EPA official forwarded a Monsanto official comment from the agency regarding the company’s product label, writing: “Like I said, no surprises.” (Carey Gillam, The Guardian, April 2, 2020).
After so many years, Carson’s legacy continues. The Sea Around US (1951) and Silent Spring have been translated into more than forty languages, with the latter averaging 25,000 sales annually. A collection of Carson’s unpublished work appears in Lost Words: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson., ed. Linda Lear (1998). For a biography, and there are several, I would begin with M. H. Lytle’s thorough and cogent, The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement (2007).
I’m glad to have read Silent Spring, which launched the modern day environmental movement, and unhesitatingly regard her as one of the foremost women of the last one-hundred years, unflinching, passionate, yet empirically based in her environmental witness. I end with the final paragraph of Silent Spring:
The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.