“This book is an attempt to explain...”
No book could be more pertinent to society as a whole than Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Silent Spring, first published in 1962, celebrated fifty years in 2012 with a republishing by Mariner Books. The author, Rachel Carson, has been credited as “the mother of the environmental movement.” Even though chemical pollutants had been documented before, it is thanks to Silent Spring that they gained widespread recognition. Carson gained notoriety for Silent Spring, but she had previously published two books that also pertained to the environment. She faced tough critics: she was a woman protesting a pesticide when DDT was looked at as a perfect solution to the insect problem. She was fighting against a social norm without the backing of a major organization or institution that came from a well respected background; she had her own knowledge from her degrees in biology and zoology and very little complementary research. Her writing style, using remarkable and articulate wording, was different for the 1960s which led critics, especially pesticide manufacturers, to denounce her as an unsupported naysayer. Nonetheless, Carson stimulated the environmental movement on all levels. Not only did she grab the attention of President John F. Kennedy and spur legislation, but her book also started and fuelled a grassroots environmental movement across the United States.
The chapters of Silent Spring highlight the effects of harmful pesticides in different parts of the environment – air, water, land, plants, animals, humans, et cetera.
“Carson’s thesis that we were subjecting ourselves to slow poisoning by the misuse of chemical pesticides that polluted the environment may seem like common currency now, but in 1962 Silent Spring contained the kernel of social revolution” -- (Silent Spring, x).
A basic tenant of Rachel Carson’s argument in Silent Spring is the effect we have on the food chain; we can kill insects with massive amounts of pesticides, yet those insects will transfer the pesticide when consumed by a member higher up in the food chain. Carson explains this more eloquently: “We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison travelled, step by step, through the now familiar elm leaf-earthworm-robin cycle.” Silent Spring broke down how DDT remains in the environment even after rainwater dilutes it: “500 new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of the biologic experience” (Silent Spring, 7). Pesticides used in mass without proper control ultimately taint the total food system.
Humans (and human civilization) are part of a larger body – the natural environment we attempt to dominate. Carson viewed humans as a part of nature; therefore, human survival is dependent on nature as a whole. In Silent Spring, Carson uses her background as a biologist to describe the effects humans are having on the natural environment. Today, sustainability has become a catchphrase used in referencing Carson’s phenomenon of how humans must coexist with nature rather than vice versa. Learning from Carson and Silent Spring, we can use the DDT disaster as an example of why policy and research are vital in all aspects of the environment. One of the most profound statements in Carson’s book, introduced at the beginning of the novel, is simply: “All this is being risked – for what?”
Yet Carson is realistic: “All this is not to say there is no insect problem and no need of control. I am saying, rather, that control must be geared to realities, not to mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along the with insects” -- (Silent Spring, 9).
In the words of Introduction author Linda Lear: “We are a nation still debating the questions it raised, still unresolved as to how to act for the common good, how to achieve environmental justice.” Rachel Carson and Silent Spring cannot be given all of the credit for starting the environmentalism movement, but the author and novel are key factors in synthesizing information that Americans can use to better understand their affect on and place in the natural environment.
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Credits: All quotes from Silent Spring, unless otherwise noted. Images by Katie Poppel.