Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (50th Anniversary edition). New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962, 2002.
Summary: This classic of environmental writing made the case that pesticides were rendering harm to just about everything in the American landscape, including human beings, except for the pests targeted by these chemical poisons.
I grew up in the era when pesticide use was far more common than at present. I probably carry DDT and a host of other chemicals in my fatty tissue, though far less than would otherwise have been the case because of Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 work. Carson was a trained marine biologist who became a science writer winning a National Book award for her 1951 best seller The Sea Around Us. In high school, we celebrated the first Earth Day and read an excerpt of her work. But I never read the work in its entirety until now.
The book is a case against pesticide use and ultimately resulted in the banning of DDT and limitations on the use of other pesticides. Carson tells a tale of how pesticides sprayed from planes or by other means end up in rivers and ground water, often killing fish, wildlife and domestic animals, and sometimes human beings. Her meticulous research covers things like the effects of these pesticides on soil, which is a living thing, not just dirt, until pesticides wipe out much of the life in the soil. The title comes from the effects of pesticides on birds. She describes spraying operations that wipe out whole bird populations and others that essentially sterilize the birds, meaning no young hatch from the few eggs they are able to lay. And she tells the human toll, in terms of various health effects including rising incidence of cancer.
But she doesn’t stop there. She goes on to show that insects, the primary target of these pesticides quickly develop natural resistance, primarily because they breed much faster than humans or other animals. Therefore, these poisons are quickly rendered ineffective. She argues that biological controls and natural enemies are a far better way of dealing with these pests. Her account is a salutary tale of the use of chemical and technological solutions that are far worse than the problem they are intended to solve.
The book combines a beauty of style with meticulous research and numerous citations of scientific papers to support every example cited. She expected a firestorm of opposition from the chemical companies, which she indeed encountered but her clear and beautiful prose won the day in the court of public opinion, a victory she was not around to witness, losing her life to breast cancer in 1964. The Fiftieth Anniversary edition includes an Afterword by biologist E. O. Wilson paying tribute to Carson’s work.
Finishing her book left me wondering whether someone could write a similar book today about our coming water problems, or the climate changes that will drastically alter life, if not for us, then for our children. Then, as now, powerful interests stand against any decisive action to address these issues. Yet one woman, already dying, wrote with style and care making a case that awoke the American people and gave birth to the environmental movement. Because of her, bald eagles have rebounded, chemicals are at least less-pervasive than they once were and organic growing is bringing us safer foods. Will such a book be written to address the ills facing our children and grand-children? Let us hope so.