Rachel Carson 1962Introduction
First published in the United States in 1962, Silent Spring surveys mounting evidence that widespread pesticide use endangers both wildlife and humans. Along the way, Rachel Carson criticizes an irresponsible chemical industry, which continues to claim that pesticides are safe, and imprudent public officials, who accept without question this disinformation. As an alternative to the "scorched earth" logic underlying accepted pest-control practices, the author outlines the "biotic" approach—cheaper, safer, longer acting, natural solutions to pest problems (for example, controlling the Japanese beetle by introducing a fungus that causes a fatal disease in this insect).
The primary inspiration for the book was a friend of Carson's who was concerned about dying birds in her hometown where the authorities had sprayed DDT to control mosquitoes. At about the same time, a disastrous pesticide campaign against the fire ant of the Southeast was receiving national attention. Formerly a science writer for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson already had some acquaintance with research on pesticides, and she was ready to speak out. Originally planned as an article, Silent Spring became a book of more than two hundred pages when the only outlet she could find was the book publisher Houghton Mifflin.
Though Silent Spring is without question her best-known book today, Carson was already a national literary celebrity when it came out. As work of social criticism, Silent Spring represented a considerable departure from the natural history with which she had made a name for herself. Whether this would have been a turning point in her career or merely a detour is impossible to know because Carson succumbed to breast cancer only a year and a half after Silent Spring appeared. What is clear, however, is that her public image was irrevocably transformed. Average Americans came to see her as a noble crusader while the chemical industry would quickly spend more than a quarter of a million dollars to discredit her.
Few books have had as much impact on late twentieth-century life as Carson's Silent Spring. Though an environmental consciousness can be discerned in American culture as far back as the nineteenth century, environmentalism as it is known today has only been around for about forty years, and Carson's book is one of its primary sources. Her tirade against humankind's attempt to use technology to dominate nature wrenched environmentalism from its relatively narrow, conservationist groove and helped transform it into a sweeping social movement that has since impacted almost every area of everyday life.
Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Robert Warden Carson and Maria Frazier McLean. The family had very little money—Robert Carson made only a slim living as a salesman and utility employee—but thanks to their talented and well-educated mother, Rachel and her older brother and sister enjoyed a comparatively stimulating childhood. A great reader and passionate naturalist, Maria Carson left an especially deep imprint on her youngest child. While still quite young, Rachel began writing stories about animals, and by age ten, she had published a prize-winning magazine piece.
In 1925, Carson earned a scholarship for Pennsylvania Women's College where she hoped to prepare herself for a literary career by majoring in English. As had always been her habit in school, the bright but reserved student focused on academics rather than socializing and was soon one of the college's top scholars. Less expected was Carson's changing her major to biology after taking a class taught by a captivating young zoology professor named Mary Scott Skinner. In 1929, after graduating with high honors, the writer who would someday earn fame for her work on marine life got her first look at the sea as a summer intern at Woods Hole Laboratory on Cape Cod. Later that year, Carson began graduate work in zoology at Johns Hopkins University, but in 1935, when her father suddenly died, family responsibilities put an end to her formal studies. By 1937, she was the sole provider for both her mother and the children of her now deceased sister.
It was at this point that she embarked on her long career as a civil servant, an endeavor that would occupy her for the next decade and a half and the crucible out of which would come the influential nature writing of her later life. Producing publications for the Bureau of Fisheries and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson increased her already considerable expertise in biology and honed her skills as a writer. The bureaucratic elements of such work do not seem to have been at all stifling; in Notable American Women, Paul Brooks credits Carson for setting "a new standard for government publication." It was inevitable that such work would someday come to the notice of a wider circle of readers, as it did in 1941, when she published Under the Sea Wind, a work of natural history that originated in an article she had written for a Bureau of Fisheries publication in the late 1930s. Though it was well received by reviewers, the book was something of a false start: the entrance of the United States into World War II led to poor sales, and Carson herself soon had to put other such projects aside to deal with growing responsibilities at Fish and Wildlife. (By 1949, she was editor of all agency publications.)
It wasn't until 1951 that her next and most popular book, The Sea Around Us, appeared. It was among the first examples of what was to become an important late twentieth-century genre, science as literature. On the New York Times bestseller list for eighty-six weeks, this volume earned Carson enough royalties to enable her to retire from government work and focus on the projects that most interested her.
After completing the third and final volume of her "biography of the sea," The Edge of the Sea, and a handful of smaller projects, Carson was prompted by a series of events to write the book that would make her one of the most important women of the twentieth century. Carson was recruited to help a friend from Duxbury, Massachusetts, challenge a state mosquito control program that seemed to be wiping out birds. This and another widely publicized controversy over a similar development in the Southeast led Carson to write on the mounting scientific evidence about the risks of pesticides. Doubting that she could find a magazine that would publish an article on so gloomy a topic, Carson produced an entire book for an interested editor at Houghton Mifflin. Serialized by the New Yorker in advance of its 1962 publication, Silent Spring became the focus of intense attention, not least because the chemical industry responded with a quarter-million-dollar campaign to discredit the author. Before the controversy cooled, a presidential commission began looking into the problem, and Congress began considering tougher restrictions on dangerous chemicals. (Carson herself testified before Congress.) Already a prize-winning writer, Carson was now elevated to the ranks of the nation's most important public figures. The true magnitude of her accomplishment would only become clear some months later, when Carson died on April 14, 1964, in Silver Springs, Maryland. During the four years that she worked on Silent Spring, Carson also had been battling cancer.
Carson's survey of the research on pesticides opens in a most unscientific fashion with a tale about an American town that has suffered a series of plagues. At chapter's end, Carson acknowledges that the town is an imaginary one, but lest the tale be dismissed as mere fantasy, she hastens to add that each of the catastrophes it catalogs "has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them."
Chapters Two and Three
Not until chapter two does Carson identify the source of the ills described in chapter one: potent synthetic poisons of relatively recent design, proliferating at the rate of about five hundred a year, applied in massive quantities virtually everywhere, with disastrous short-and long-term consequences for both wildlife and humans. To convey the grave danger that these substances represent, she introduces an analogy that will resurface over and over in Silent Spring: pesticides are like atomic radiation—invisible, with deadly effects that often manifest themselves only after a long delay. Chapter three identifies a small handful of qualities that make the new pesticides so much more dangerous than their predecessors: 1) greater potency 2) slower decomposition and 3) a tendency to concentrate in fatty tissue. Carson clarifies the significance of the last two characteristics by pointing out that a toxin that might not constitute a danger in small doses will ultimately do so if it accumulates in the body, and also that substances with this propensity concentrate as one moves up the food chain.
Chapters Four, Five, and Six
Chapters four, five and six form a triptych that stresses the highly interconnectedness of life in three biological systems—plant systems and those centered in water or soil. Given its fluidity and interconnectedness, water is an extremely difficult place to contain a problem, Carson points out. As an unintended result of runoff from agricultural spraying and of poisons sometimes directly introduced in the water supply, groundwater nearly everywhere is tainted with one or more potent toxins. The full extent of the problem, she worries, cannot even be precisely measured because methods for screening the new chemicals have yet to be routinized. In some instances, the danger lies in substances formed by unexpected reactions that take place between individual contaminants; in such cases, toxins might escape detection even where tests are available. Chapter five explains the life cycle within soil-based ecosystems: rich soil gives rise to hearty plant life; then the natural process of death and decay breaks down the plants, and the soil's vitality is restored. Pesticides threaten this fundamental dynamic—fundamental not just for plants but also for the higher organisms that live on plants. An insecticide applied to control a particular crop—damaging insect depletes the microbial life within the soil that facilitates the essential enrichment cycle, hence the millions of pounds of chemical fertilizer required each year by factory—farms. In chapter six, Carson's focus shifts from insecticides to herbicides. The general picture that emerges is of a deceptive chemical industry and ill—informed public authorities spending large sums of taxpayers' money undermining whole ecosystems to eradicate one or two nuisance species.
In "Needless Havoc," Carson's attention turns to the people behind pesticides, the public officials who are responsible for the widespread use of these dangerous chemicals. What has typified their behavior in her view is almost unbelievable recklessness followed by an irrational unwillingness to reckon with the catastrophes they have wrought. Exhibit A is the infamous campaign against the Japanese beetle, a frenzy that swept the Midwest in the late fifties. In the first place, Carson argues, there was no real evidence that the beetle constituted a serious threat. Secondly, officials failed to warn the public of potential risks involved in combating the insect with pesticides.
Not surprisingly, at the very heart of Silent Spring lies a chapter called "And No Birds Sing," where the author recounts the true stories from whence the book's most unforgettable image comes. The chemical villain in these tragedies is the notorious DDT; the principal victims are the robin, beloved herald of spring, and the eagle, revered symbol of national spirit. That the shrewd writer chose species with so much emotional resonance is hardly an accident. Both birds' fates bring the discussion back to the problem of bio—magnification, the concentration of toxins as they pass from one organism to the next along the food chain: the robin receive fatal doses from consuming poisoned worms and other insects, the eagle from pesticide—carrying fish.
Chapter nine explains how blanket pesticide spraying—of forests, crop fields, and suburban lawns—is wreaking havoc on aquatic life in the streams, estuaries, and coastal waters that receive runoff from treated areas. The chapter's most frightening observation is that runoff concentrates in marshes and estuaries where freshwater meets the seas, extraordinarily fragile ecosystems and the primary feeding and spawning grounds for many species—the foundation of much aquatic life.
Reviewing two more disastrous eradication efforts, chapter ten sounds many of the same notes as chapter eight. What chapter ten adds to this now fairly well-developed picture is a clearer sense of the colossal blunder that was aerial spraying. Carson reports that pilots were paid according to how much pesticide they sprayed, and so they drenched the countryside with toxic chemicals, contaminating orchards and gardens, killing birds, bees and other wildlife, poisoning milk cows and even soaking humans who happened to get in the way.
Chapter eleven concerns the minute but repeated exposures to pesticides that every man, woman, and child suffers in all but the most isolated regions of the planet. Carson lays the blame for the breathtaking diffusion of dangerous chemicals in everyday life on the deceptive marketing campaigns of pesticide makers, which insist these products are safe, and government agencies like the Department of Agriculture and the FDA, which not only countenance such disinformation but actively promoted the use of synthetic poisons.
Chapters Twelve, Thirteen, and Fourteen
Chapters twelve, thirteen and fourteen focus on the effects of pesticides on people. Chapter twelve stresses two key issues: first, that pesticides are absorbed by fat, a widely dispersed tissue, and so they insinuate themselves in virtually every part of the system, including the ever so crucial organs and fundamental cell structures; and second, because most people accumulate these toxins by way of repeated minute exposure of which they are rarely aware, it difficult to trace the resulting pathologies to their true cause. Chapter thirteen explains one of the book's main refrains—that pesticides are so very dangerous because they disrupt basic biological processes like oxidation (cell metabolism) and mitosis (cell reproduction). The central claim here is that pesticides are probably responsible for cancer, birth defects, and a wide array of chromosomal abnormalities. Scientific research in this area was still in an early stage when Carson wrote Silent Spring, but plant and animal studies were already suggesting what had long been known about radiation, namely that pesticides had powerful mutagenic properties. Chapter fourteen chronicles the history of the carcinogen, a term that has become only more familiar since 1962. It was first surmised that cancer related to environmental conditions in the eighteenth century, when a London physician noted an extremely high incidence of scrotal tumors among the city's chimney sweeps, who were all day covered in soot. During the nineteenth century, with the rise of industry, several other suspicious relationships had been observed. But with World War II and the rise of widespread pesticide use, the risk of cancer confronted not just members of certain occupational groups but virtually everyone.
Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen
Chapters fifteen and sixteen discuss in a comprehensive way one of Carson's most damning criticism of pesticides, but one she has thus far only voiced in passing: not only are pesticides expensive and extremely dangerous, but they are also terribly ineffective. The trouble is twofold. Chapter fifteen focuses on the first part of the problem; current pesticide practice, Carson argues, is like trying to repair a delicate watch with a sledgehammer. Massive applications of highly toxic substances reverberate through whole ecosystems, upsetting delicate balances and often compounding the original problem. Chapter sixteen highlights the tendency of pesticides to lose effectiveness quickly as insects and other nuisance organisms develop resistance. The problem arises from the indefatigable reality of natural selection. Within any given pest species, some number of organisms will be less susceptible to pesticides as a function of ordinary genetic variety within the species. Pesticide kills off the weak, leaving the pesticide—resilient to thrive and establish a new generation of super bugs. Of particular concern is the loss of effective tools in the fight against disease carrying insects like the mosquito.
Since so many of the book's chapters conclude with some mention of safer alternatives to current pesticide practices, it is hardly surprising that the book itself concludes with an extended discussion of what Carson calls "biotic controls." One of the main arguments of the chemical industry in the face of mounting evidence about the dangers of pesticides is that the risks are justified by benefits to agriculture and other areas. By laying out in fine detail cheaper, safer, and more effective alternatives, Carson pulls the rug out from under the industry with its self—interested talk of pesticide benefits. Broken into three sections, each of which focuses on a slightly different basic strategy, chapter seventeen offers a cogent overview of the elegant science of natural pest control. Part one explains how chemicals derived from the insects themselves can be used as repellants or lures for traps that pose no risk to humans. Part two shows how repeatedly introducing sterilized males into target populations can bring about a gradual decline of pests. And part three reports on the use of natural enemies—bacterial insecticides and predator species—to combat pests.
The Chemical Industry
Because Carson refrains from naming particular corporations, the pesticide makers assume the monolithic shape of an evil empire in Silent Spring. Yet Carson does not preach at the industry. Yes, it develops hundreds of new deadly toxins a year, and, through disinformation and pressure on government agencies, it promotes their widest possible use—the book is very clear about these things. But Carson seems to view such activity as natural to the commercial enterprise and wastes no time calling on pesticide producers to reform themselves.
The government is the other great villain in Carson's story, and though one might think it is the chemical industry that bears primary responsibility for what has occurred, she is much more critical of public servants. Her thinking seems to be that more is to be expected of government. In succumbing to political pressure and helping pesticide makers promote their products, she argues, government has lost sight of its raison d'etre (reason for being), protecting the public interest. Carson holds that instead of echoing industry disinformation and spending taxpayers' money on reckless pest eradication programs, agencies like the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration ought to impose stricter controls on the development, sale, and use of dangerous chemicals and to fund more research.
An overview of key figures in Silent Spring that did not mention nature would be quite incomplete. In terms of the amount of attention that is devoted to them, plant and animals are the most important "characters" in the book, surpassing humans by a wide margin, who are the focus of just a few chapters. Still, despite the almost infinite variety of life forms that Carson mentions, there emerges a single image of nature that has a crucial function in Carson's case against pesticides: nature as a fabric of life in which all things are connected, from the smallest of soil microbes to human beings and other large mammals. If readers accept such a view, they must also agree with Carson that the sledgehammer-like approach of current pest control—introducing large amounts of extremely toxic chemicals into the environment to eradicate a few species of insects—is indefensible. What poisons one part of the fabric of life poisons the whole.
Along with wildlife, the public is a major concern in Silent Spring. The image the book projects of this collective entity is that of a victim of the chemical industry, betrayed by irresponsible public officials and exposed to toxic pesticides at every turn. As the terrible side effects of pesticides become clearer, the public begins to ask questions, demand answers, and insist on greater responsiveness from government agencies.
The heroes of Silent Spring come from several walks of life: scientists laboring patiently in an often tedious and seriously underfunded area of research to determine the precise scope of the pesticide threat; birders and other amateur naturalists, whose careful observation of wildlife in the field yields essential information about the problem; activists driven by a deep concern for their communities and the natural environment to challenge industry and government to behave more responsibly; and philosophers, writers, and other thinkers who help citizens understand the cultural sources not just of the pesticide problem but of the whole range of trouble that modern civilization has stirred up with technology. What all of these individuals share is an uncommon power discernment. Simply recognizing the broad impact of pesticides on the environment and health is a significant achievement. What makes Carson's visionaries even more remarkable is their having probed this tricky problem with great precision in the face of widespread disinformation and obstruction.
- The documentary The "Silent Spring" of Rachel Carson, produced by CBS Reports in 1963, captures the mood of the times when the book first appeared.
- In 1993, PBS produced and presented Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" as part of its "American Experience" series. The film features interviews with several of the writer's colleagues and critics.
- Durkin Hayes published an abridged version of Silent Spring on audiocassette in 1993. The text is read by actress Ellen Burstyn.
The Science of Pesticides
One of the great insights of Silent Spring is its grasp of the pesticide problem as a compound one. On one hand, there are the intrinsic dangers of these chemicals: their capacity to disrupt basic biological processes, their persistence in the environment, and so forth. But Carson knew that the manner in which a dangerous substance is also crucial. To understand how compounds like DDT and malathion have come to threaten life on a global scale, one has to examine what has been done with them. Each of the major themes of Silent Spring belongs then to one of two lines of argument; the first concerns the raw toxicity of pesticides, the second the recklessness with which they have been employed.
Along with atomic fallout, the synthetic pesticides that came into wide use after World War II are the most dangerous substances man has ever created. The heart of the problem, science has shown, is the pesticides' unique capacity for disrupting critical biological processes like metabolism and cell division. Acute exposure can cause catastrophic systemic problems—paralysis, immune deficiency, sterility, etc.—and small doses repeated over time can lead to grave illnesses like cancer.
Carson attributes this radically disruptive potential to the distinctive molecular structure of synthetic pesticides. Part carbon, they mimic the substances that are crucial to life (enzymes, hormones, etc.) and so gain entrance to sensitive physiological systems. Once inside these vital systems, the elements to which the carbon is bound (chlorine and other deadly materials) wreak havoc on the organism.
Two other properties that increase the hazard of pesticides are, first, the slow rate at which they break down and become less toxic, and, second, their tendency to accumulate in fat tissue. It is these characteristics that make even low-level exposure to pesticides so dangerous. A dose that is too small to cause immediate harm is stored in the body and remains active for a considerable period; with each subsequent exposure the cumulative "body burden" increases, and along with it the chance of serious illness. These properties also put species at the top of the food chain at special risk because they absorb large amounts of pesticide from the lower organisms they consume, a process called "biomagnification."
The Culture of Pesticides
Carson takes great pains to show that it is the imprudent use of pesticides, as much as their intrinsic properties, which makes them one of the worst health threats of the twentieth century. Dosing blankets with DDT, spraying densely populated neighborhoods from the air, and pouring pesticide into ponds to kill mosquitoes might have poisoned the planet if not for Silent Spring. From the vantage point of a more environmentally conscious age, it is difficult to understand how such practices could have been so popular. Years ahead of her time, Carson was dumbfounded.
Topics for Further Study
- Look carefully at the material on pesticides at the web site of the Environmental Protection Agency (http://www.epa.gov/ebtpages/pesticides.html). Does the government's attitude toward these products seem different today than it was in 1962, as described in Silent Spring ? Report your findings in a one-page summary.
- Imagine that it is 1962. Write a one-or two-page letter using what you learned from the book to persuade your state representative or senator to do something about the problem Carson describes. Be sure to tell your representative specifically what you would like him or her to do.
- Identify three passages in Silent Spring that seem particularly compelling. Does Carson's language (word choice, tone, images, etc.) contribute something to the force of these excerpts. How? Summarize your observations in a brief essay.
- Examine the labels of some pesticide products around the house, taking note of their active ingredients. At http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/info.htm, see what you can find out about the health hazards of these products. Report your findings in a one-page summary.
As nearly as Carson could figure, mid-twentieth-century attitudes toward synthetic pesticides were warped by a trio of interacting forces: the chemical industry, government, and what she calls "Neanderthal science." In calling science "Neanderthal," she has two characteristics of contemporary methodology in mind. The first is the extraordinarily high degree of specialization. Knowledge might appear to advance at a faster pace along the narrow paths of modern research, but it has also become more fragmented; the entomologist developing a pesticide to control the hungry gypsy moth, for example, is unlikely to know much about the chemical's harmful effects on non-targeted organisms such as birds and fish. The second defect of science, especially in the applied areas, is its habit of conceiving problems in military terms, an outlook it shared to some degree with culture as a whole in the aftermath of World War II. Solutions are always seen to depend on exerting the greatest possible force over an "enemy." This logic expresses itself in pest management strategies that advocate applying the most lethal substances available in saturating quantities to eradicate entire species. As an alternative to the "total war" approach to solving problems, Carson proposes an approach that exploits the natural tendency of systems to seek balance; with a little help, it has been proven time and time again, the natural environment can solve its own problems cheaply, safely, and effectively. Silent Spring recounts some elegant, low-intensity, "biotic" interventions, such as cultivating certain plants to encourage species that compete with pests or introducing a pest-specific disease into a blighted area.
The second major culprit behind the overuse of pesticides is the chemical industry itself. The corporate giants use their enormous political leverage to co-opt government agencies and engage in large scale disinformation campaigns to defuse growing public concern about synthetic poisons. To a certain degree, the short-sightedness of science described above is itself a product of industry influence: because pesticide makers are the largest funders of research in the field, most investigation tends to harmonize with corporate interests; hence the paucity of knowledge about the risks of synthetic chemicals and the limited effort to develop safer, "biotic" alternatives. It is worth noting that, as outrageous as the posture of the industry might appear to some, Carson eschews moralistic argument to make a case that is all the more compelling for its sheer pragmatism. Pesticide makers, she concedes, will always have as their sole concern the profitable sale of pesticides. But if it is absurd to expect them to take a broader view, she concludes, it is just as unreasonable to allow them any role in the process by which public policy on pesticides is determined, a process in which the primary concern must always be saftey.
A writer's style is always at some level shaped by her purposes, and these can usually be identified without too much difficulty in a work of nonfiction. Indeed, in the case of Silent Spring, Carson really only has one aim: to raise public awareness about the dangers of pesticides with the ultimate goal of bringing about more prudent pest-management practices. What stylistic necessities does this task impose on the writer? The first is accessibility. If her message is aimed at the public, then she must write in a manner that is suitable for the widest possible circle of readers.
The second imperative arises from her determination not merely to inform readers but to motivate them to activism. Carson must put the case in such a way that individuals feel obliged to get involved.
Finding a style that is suitable for a general audience is tricky in writing a book like Silent Spring where so much technical information must be presented. The writer must make the complex comprehensible but avoid doing so in a manner that oversimplifies and therefore undermines the authority of scientific information. Carson had been doing just that for over two decades, first as a science writer for the federal government, then as a bestselling interpreter of marine biology. Not surprisingly, her technique is easiest to examine in those sections of Silent Spring that focus on the most complicated matters—chapters like "Elixirs of Death" (on pesticide chemistry) and "Through a Narrow Window" (on cell biology).
In these two chapters readers find chemical nomenclature ("dichlor-diphenyl-trichloroethane"!), passages on neurophysiology, debate about toxicity reckoned in "parts per million," and exotic terminology drawn from cell biology. Though one might think it counterproductive to include such language in a book aimed at a general audience, Carson is careful not to go too far, and the ultimate effect is quite positive. Not only does the scientific nitty-gritty lend the argument an irresistible objectivity and authority, but the author's own ease with this complicated material builds trust in the reader. What keeps readers afloat in this tide of esoterica (knowledge or information known only to a small group) are Carson's clear explanations. Never does she touch on a technical subject without a clarifying digression, even if it requires a paragraph or two. The unfailing success of these passages lies mainly in her ability to make the abstract concrete. For example, organic chemistry is elucidated through metaphor; the component substances are described as "building blocks" that chemists assemble into more elaborate "Lego"-like compounds. The effects of pesticides on cellular metabolism are likened to the overheating of an engine.
Carson hopes to incite her readers to action, and the scientific data, no matter how well explained, lacks the requisite emotional appeal. To get readers to care about problems like the estrogenic properties of organic chemicals and the depletion of adenine triphosphate, Carson must make them not only understandable but also meaningful.
Carson's solution is to use highly charged language to keep the human implications of the pesticide problem in the foreground. For every use of the word "herbicide," for example, there is one of "weed-killer." The following fragments are culled from just the first few pages of Silent Spring: "Lethal," "battery of poisons," "endless stream" of new chemicals, "violent crossfire" of pesticide use, "fanatic zeal" of pest-control agencies, "tranquilizing pills" of chemical industry disinformation, "agents of death," "havoc," "indiscriminate" spraying.
Still more striking are those passages in which Carson uses such language to paint unsettling images of acute poisoning in animals and humans: birds losing balance, suffering tremors and convulsions, and then abruptly dying; a baby vomiting, experiencing a seizure and unconsciousness, and ending up a "vegetable"; a housewife wracked by fever and never-ending joint pain. Few things affect readers as powerfully as the specter of death, and Carson conjures it again and again in Silent Spring. Pesticides are associated with some of people's worst fears, and she does not hesitate to exploit the connection, evoking among other things the long agony of cancer and the heartbreaking spectacle of children plagued by birth defects.
In such a fashion, the writer virtually assures that readers will become anxious about the problem. Many commentators have noted that Carson very cannily draws an analogy between pesticides and radioactive fallout, a comparison that could not have failed to unnerve readers at the height of the Cold War. But there is quite enough haunting imagery in Silent Spring for it to have stirred up the public even without that powerful association.
The Rise of Synthetic Pesticides
So influential a role did Carson's Silent Spring play in the quickening of concern about pesticides that it is often assumed that she was the first to call attention to the problem. But pesticides had been in wide use since the nineteenth century, and debates about their effects on health had been going on for decades. But the nature of the chemical threat changed dramatically after World War II, and Carson was the first popular writer to explain this development to Americans.
During the early twentieth century, the most commonly used chemical pesticides were arsenic compounds. They were deadly enough to cause a few health scares, but a far cry from the poisons that wartime chemical weapons research bequeathed to the world—an entirely new and ever expanding family of man-made toxins called organochlorines, the most notorious of which was DDT. The new pesticides were more lethal than their predecessors, more numerous, and more widely used. They also stayed toxic over a long period, accumulated in the body, and concentrated in the food chain. By the late 1950s, a handful of scientists, naturalists, and attentive citizens could hear the "rumblings of an avalanche"; ecological and public health problems of unprecedented proportion were beginning to come into view. Rachel Carson was the first to bring this emerging crisis to the attention of the general public in a compelling way.
Science, Technology, and Nature
Since the very first days of the industrial revolution, technology has always been a mixed blessing. It has helped humans to create and to destroy; it has both enriched life and impoverished it. Until perhaps the present moment, which has seen such extraordinary breakthroughs in information science, genetics, and astrophysics, the mid-twentieth century was the most dizzying era of all time on the technological front. The pace of progress, the breadth of innovation, and the size of the strides were quite unprecedented. It was the age in which humanity got its first taste of ultimate power in areas such as organic chemistry where scientists created substances that never occurred in nature, and physics, which spawned the atomic bomb.
Rapid progress has always been intoxicating, and the mid-century boom was no different in this respect. In the heady early years, it seemed that the new know-how would allow civilization to solve all of its problems. But soon this optimism disintegrated in the usual way: the physical universe turned out to be more complicated than it had appeared, and once-powerful tools rapidly exhausted their usefulness. What set this particular phase of disillusionment apart from earlier ones was civilization's recognition that, for the first time in history, technology could threaten life on a global scale. The end result was not just more modest expectations about what science could achieve at that moment, but a series of major social movements (environmentalism, the anti-nuclear movement, etc.) that saw humanity's only hope for survival in a radical reconception of its relationship to the natural world. Silent Spring sprang from this loss of faith in science and technology and also intensified it.
Critics writing about Silent Spring when it first appeared disagreed very little about the author's literary gifts. An anonymous reviewer for Life magazine called the book vivid, a work of great "grace" by a "deliberate researcher and superb writer." Time's reviewer echoed much of this praise; once again, Carson was said to be a "graceful writer" who demonstrated considerable "skill in building her frightening case." In assessing the book's claims, however, the early reviews were sharply divided. Periodicals aimed at birders and other nature-oriented readers, who likely already knew something about dangers of pesticides, found Carson's argument unassailable. The mainstream press, on the other hand, was skeptical on the whole. Some of the resistance stemmed from a natural reluctance to accept what was, after all, a shocking proposition—the technological "miracle" of pesticides, long claimed to be safe by the chemical industry and trusted government officials, was a Trojan horse that threatened life on a global scale. For example, the reviewer for Life found much that was compelling in Carson's "amply buttressed" argument, anxiously hoped that she had "overstated her case" in predicting widespread destruction.
The scenes she describes so vividly—the neighborhood where all the robins perished after eating DDT-engorged earthworms, the woman who died of leukemia after repeatedly spraying spiders in her cellar, the salmon streams emptied by seeping poisons—are all true enough. But they are isolated examples.
One can only conclude that the critic was groping for reassurance here in turning away from the obvious point of Carson's catalog of pesticide disasters, which was that the incidents alluded to were harbingers of worse, more widespread trouble. That he largely shared the author's concerns is clear enough in the review's conclusion where he called for the very same remedies that Silent Spring urges: tougher restrictions on pesticide use and more government funding for research.
Compare & Contrast
1962: Thalidomide, often prescribed for morning sickness, is suspected of causing birth defects, adding to already widespread concern about the dangers of synthetic chemicals.
Today: The Environmental Protection Agency requires pesticide makers to submit data that will allow the agency to determine the special risks of their products for children.
1962: Watson, Crick, and Wilkins win a Nobel Prize for describing the molecular structure of DNA.
Today: Scientists complete a provisional map of the entire human genome.
1963: President Lyndon Johnson signs the Clean Air Act, legislation designed to protect air quality in the United States.
Today: The United Nations agree to the Kyoto Protocol, a plan for reducing emission of greenhouse gases.
Not all of the skeptical reviews were as friendly as Life magazine's; Silent Spring was the target of a well-funded smear campaign by the chemical industry, and a startling number of the early critics align themselves with that effort in one way or another. Indeed, in a magazine as influential in the shaping of public opinion as Time, there appeared a review that so harmonized with the position of pesticide makers that its author, if he was not in fact an industry hatchet man, might as well have been. Calling Carson a "hysterical" woman, the reviewer employed the industry's favorite attack on her and then presented fragments of some of the harshest passages of Silent Spring in an attempt to make its author seem unbalanced. For example, he cited her "emotion fanning" claim that DDT is found in mother's milk and her claim that people "can't add pesticide to water anywhere without threatening the purity of water everywhere." Elsewhere the distortions are even more pronounced, as where he called the writer's advocacy of biologic pest management "reckless primitivism." So egregious are the misreadings and lapses that it is hard not to conclude that the review's object was damage control, not rational debate about the issue.
Since the publication of Silent Spring, critical opinion of the book has changed in three important ways. First, no one questions the soundness of Carson's argument anymore; forty years of scientific research has confirmed virtually all of the book's major claims. The second change is related to the historical importance of Silent Spring, often called the Uncle Tom's Cabin of modern environmentalism. In "The Reception of Silent Spring, " Craig Waddell offered one of the most concise assessments of the book's significance.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote that "[a]ll modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." It would not be too much of an exaggeration to make a similar claim for Silent Spring's relationship to the modern environmental movement. Although the American environmental movement traces its roots to such nineteenth-century visionaries as Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, and John Muir—all of whom were concerned with the preservation of the wilderness—the modern environmental movement, with its emphasis on pollution and the degradation of the quality of life on the planet, may fairly be said to have begun with one book by Rachel Carson called Silent Spring.
Today, more and more critics are turning their attention to historical considerations. Several examples of such work appear in a recently published anthology of essays called And No Birds Sing; for instance, Ralph Lutts argues that the book's initial popularity was in some large measure attributable to the panic over atomic fallout, and Cheryll Glotfelty shows how Carson's critique of "man's [pesticide] war against nature" exploits the tropes of Cold War discourse.
The third major change in the criticism of Silent Spring might be guessed from comparisons of Carson's book to Uncle Tom's Cabin and Huckleberry Finn. Having earned a place among the American classics for its historical significance, it is now the object of the close textual scrutiny always given to such works. Silent Spring is treated as a literary text across the usual range of interests: in "An Inventional Archaeology," Christine Oravec looks at Carson's manuscript to learn about the book's composition; Edward Corbett's "A Topical Analysis" examines the argument through the lens of classical rhetoric; and " Silent Spring and Science Fiction" by Carol Gartner points to its generic kinship with science fiction. Given Carson's considerable talents as a writer, this recent interest in literary dimensions of Silent Spring seems on the whole a promising development.
Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing, and she is a copyeditor and published writer. In this essay, she examines Carson's references to potential human suffering as a result of the overuse of chemicals as presented in her book Silent Spring .
Given time, states Carson in her book Silent Spring, nature will heal itself. "Life adjusts." At least this was true through the previous millennia. But in the modern world, humans are quickly running out of time. Carson even says that "there is no time" left, because modern-day humans are creating havoc at a pace too fast for nature to heal. Modern civilizations are not only quick in creating devastation, they are also broad-ranged, as they are creating synthetic substances that have "no counterparts in nature." Nature will need generations of time to cleanse herself from the toxic pollutants. Carson wrote her book in 1962 as a warning, and since then, things have only gotten worse.
It is through no fault of Carson's that people have not heeded her warnings. Actually, many people have heeded them, but still the chemical companies prevail. Carson died in 1964 of cancer. Who knows if the source of her illness was the chemical carcinogens in her environment. Maybe she sensed her own fate, and tried with her writing to save the generations that were to come after her. How she did this can be found in her book in which she carefully lists all the chemicals that were being produced in her lifetime, as humanity made every attempt to control nature. But her book is not just a catalog of deadly poisons; it is a book about suffering, potential as well as actual. It is about nature suffering in all levels of her myriad forms. It is also a book of what people are doing to one another and to themselves.
Humans are subjected to "dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death," Carson states. Chemicals are everywhere. They are in the soil, water, and air. They are found in almost every household: under the bathroom sink in the form of cleaners, on shelves in the garage in forms of paint thinners and glues, in the kitchen in form of insecticides, in the bedroom in the forms of hair sprays and other cosmetics. They are present in food and drink, even in the milk that mothers produce from their own bodies; they are even present "in the tissues of the unborn child."
The chemicals that Carson focuses on are those whose prevalence began during World War Two, "in the course of developing agents of chemical warfare," and were first promoted on a commercial level when it was discovered that these chemicals were useful in killing insects. But what Carson believed was the worst element of these chemicals was not that they were capable of poisoning but that these new chemical discoveries were capable of making potent and irreversible changes on a deep, biological level in every living thing on earth. These new synthetic chemicals could enter the plants as well as animals and "change them in sinister … ways.… They prevent the normal functioning of various organs, and they may initiate in certain cells the slow and irreversible change that leads to malignancy." Carson was ahead of her time. She sensed scientific truths that would not be proven until after her death. She sensed the cancers that would become more and more commonplace.
Carson warns mankind in part by listing details of the incredible number of new chemicals that are being produced each year. She lists their names and their effects, explaining that "if we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals—eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones—we had better know something about their nature and their power." But it is not until she gets very up close and personal in her discussions that the full power of her book takes effect. The lists of chemicals and their potential power are daunting, nightmarish material, but names don't make the same impact as the fear of suffering and pain. And the source of some of that potential suffering might be as close as the nearest water fountain. For example, it is alarming to know that chemists are creating excessive quantities of chemical compounds in their laboratories, but it is even more frightening to find out that even more deadly compounds are being created in the water that people drink. Runoffs from various chemical sources meet one another in the water resources of this earth, such as when fertilizers mix with insecticides in ground water and create "mingled chemicals that no responsible chemist would think of combining in his laboratory." Even if chemists know the effects that their chemical compounds might have on the living things of nature, they do not, Carson warns, know the effects of the compounds being created on their own in the rivers, the lakes, and the sewers.
Another interesting but scary fact that Carson presents is that chemicals from insecticides and fertilizers can remain in the soil more than twelve years after they have been applied. What does this imply for the farmer who wants to grow foods organically? Just how organic can food be if there is no virgin soil left in which to plant crops? Even if the ideal of organic produce is discarded, oftentimes a chemical used to control insects on one plant kill the rotating crop that is planted the following season, and the season following that one, too. For instance, in the state of Washington, farmers successfully used a chemical to kill a bug that was harming a grain called hops. Later, when grapes were planted in these same fields, the roots of the grape vines died. When planted again the next year, the result was the same. Carson was very concerned that applying these chemicals without fully realizing their potential for destruction was courting ecological disaster.
What Do I Read Next?
- Before she published Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote three popular works of natural history on the ocean, the best known of which is The Sea Around Us (1951).
- Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action (1995) tells a powerful story about one community that looked to the law to protect it from dangerous chemicals.
- Another classic work of environmental literature is John McPhee's Encounters With the Archdruid (1971), an engaging meditation on the then-current conflict over land use.
- In Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (1996), Mark Dowie chronicles the history of the movement with an eye to the errors that have kept it from realizing its full potential.
Carson talks about all kinds of potential disasters, some more severe than others. On the lighter side, she mentions a more aesthetic kind of disaster, one that wipes out the beauty of nature. Using the excuse of traffic control and safety, there was, in Carson's time, and largely remains today, the practice of spraying weeds with an herbicide along all the country's roadsides and highways. In a poetic voice, Carson declares that in those rare places where herbicides had not been sprayed, she would drive along the country roads and her spirit would be lifted by "the sight of the drifts of white clover or the clouds of purple vetch with here and there the flaming cup of a wood lily." These are not weeds that need to be controlled, she says. They are places of great, wild beauty. There is seldom a need to kill back the wildflowers, especially in the dimensions that are employed. In some states, the height at which the spraying occurs is from road level to eight feet above the road. This is needless overuse, Carson contends. She also cites other abuses like the contractor who was caught discharging the herbicides from his trunk into a protected wood side area, a place where no spraying had been authorized. Another contractor's negligence was a little more severe. He purchased chemicals from a "zealous chemical salesman." The herbicide contained arsenic, which eventually ended up killing twelve cows. This was all done in the name of killing weeds. Herbicides, states Carson, "give a giddy sense of power over nature to those who wield them." In the process of using them, herbicides destroy natural beauty. They leave behind a "sterile and hideous world."
More important and much more painful for humans, is the effect of chemicals on their own bodies. In particular, Carson expresses her views on some very serious, life-threatening diseases that have been linked to the use of man-made chemicals. She begins by explaining that cancer-causing agents are as old as the earth. Radiation from the sun and certain rocks in earth's crust has always been capable of producing malignancies. Over time, human biology adapted to these radiations in varying degrees. But with the rapid development of man-made carcinogens, a medical term for cancer-producing substances, human biology has not been able to keep pace. "As a result these powerful substances could easily penetrate the inadequate defenses of the body." Added to this problem is the inadequate research done on the causes of cancer. Chemical use is approved without fully understanding the potential complications. Often it takes years of use before the slow but steady buildup of chemicals in a human body results in a malignancy. Admonishing the government as well as the chemical companies who produce the insecticides and pesticides, Carson writes, "Our recognition of the agents that produce it [the cancerous malignancies] has been slow to mature."
All humans are susceptible to cancers. No age is immune. As a matter of fact, Carson reports that in the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was a rarity to find cancer in children. But by the time her book was published, not only was it not considered rare for children to have cancer, children were being born with cancer already growing inside their bodies. Apparently the developing fetus is the most susceptible to cancer-producing agents. Whereas the pregnant mother may not be affected, the agents may penetrate her body and the placenta and "act on the rapidly developing fetal tissues." As newer and more powerful chemicals are used in the production of food, pregnant women, who eat this food, pass on the carcinogens to their children unaware. Chemicals are used on food without full knowledge of their effects as well as without full disclosure of their potential danger. The result is that cancer rates climb.
There has also been a rise in cases of leukemia, a malignant blood disorder. Whereas malignant cancerous growths may take years to develop, leukemia can occur soon after exposure to radiation and toxic chemicals. In 1960, the Mayo Clinic, a world-famous medical institution, published an opinion that stated that the increase in leukemia could almost definitely be linked to an over-exposure to pesticides. Some of the case studies involved people doing simple tasks around their homes, such as the woman who tried to rid her house of spiders or the man who tried to kill the cockroaches in his office. Both used commercial bug sprays. Both were afflicted with sudden painful symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as leukemia. Both died. Another case involved two farm workers whose job it was to unload bags of insecticide. In all these cases, death was swift.
"Another interesting but scary fact that Carson presents is that chemicals from insecticides and fertilizers can remain in the soil more than twelve years after they have been applied. What does this imply for the farmer who wants to grow foods organically?"
The world is quickly becoming a sea of carcinogens, says Carson. And carcinogens are linked to death. But unlike the last century, where mankind's biggest health concern was contagious disease, carcinogens could be easily removed from the earth's environment. At least a majority of the man-made carcinogens could. She suggests that in addition to looking for a cure for cancer, people should be re-evaluating chemical use. How much is really necessary? Chemicals, she writes, "have become entrenched in our world in two ways: first, and ironically, through man's search for a better and easier way of life; second, because the manufacture and sale of such chemicals has become an accepted part of our economy and our way of life." In other words, if mankind put them here, mankind surely could get rid of them. And along with ridding this earth of chemicals, civilization would rid their own bodies of cancer.
Carson ends her book with a bit of irony and finally with a hint of hope. The irony is that in mankind's efforts to control nature, people are poisoning not only themselves, their food, their water, but their future generations. Added to this is the most ironic fact of all. In an effort to rid the world of pests, to make this world a better place to live, mankind has tried to kill every insect that gets in the way. As a result, insecticides have killed the weak. Stronger insects have not only survived, they have created insecticide-resistant offspring. Added to this is the fact that in killing the insects that were detrimental, mankind has also killed the beneficial insects that helped to maintain a balance in the sheer numbers of insects. So now the earth is suffering through stronger and more powerful plagues.
But there is hope. Carson discusses in her last chapter some of the research that was going on in the 1960s, research that is continuing today. There is the research in the relationships between different kinds of insects in the hopes that by encouraging one type of benevolent insect, a farmer might curb the propagation of destructive types without the use of chemicals. Some researchers were looking into the possibility of sterilizing male insects as a way of controlling their numbers. Others were working on the creation of natural lures or introducing natural predators.
Carson encourages her readers at the end of her book to take a holistic approach to life. She reminds people, who are trying to create favorable environments for themselves, that they are not the only ones living in that environment. Humans are not the only creatures on earth. "Only by taking account of such life forces and by cautiously seeking to guide them into channels favorable to ourselves can we hope to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves," she writes. A lot of suffering has been caused by the rush to use man-made chemicals, a rush to find a quick fix to stop mosquitoes from biting, stop cockroaches from raiding trash cans, stop grubs from consuming the roots of that all-perfect lawn. The suffering is everywhere, in the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the people who live in the cities, the people who live on farms. Carson's book is a portrayal of that suffering. It is also a portrayal of the causes of that suffering, and its very simplistic cure. Curb the use of chemicals.
Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Silent Spring, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Brooks, Paul, "Rachel Louise Carson," in Notable American Women: The Modern Period, Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 138-41.
Corbett, Edward P. J., "A Topical Analysis of 'The Obligation to Endure,"' in And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Southern Illinois University Press, 2000, pp. 60-72.
"The Gentle Storm Center," in Life, Vol. 53, October 1962, pp. 105-106.
Glotfelty, Cheryll, "Cold War, Silent Spring: The Trope of War in Modern Environmentalism," in And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Southern Illinois University Press, 2000, pp. 157-73.
Killingsworth, M. Jimmie, and Jacqueline S. Palmer, " Silent Spring and Science Fiction: An Essay in History and Rhetoric of Narrative," in And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Southern Illinois University Press, 2000, pp. 174-204.
Lear, Linda J., "Rachel Louise Carson," in American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 474-76.
Lutts, Ralph, "Chemical Fallout: Silent Spring, Radioactive Fallout, and the Environmental Movement," in And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Southern Illinois University Press, 2000, pp. 17-41.
Oravec, Christine, "An Inventional Archaeology of 'A Fable for Tomorrow,"' in And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Southern Illinois University Press, 2000, pp. 42-59.
"Pesticides: The Price for Progress," in Time, Vol. 80, September 1962, pp. 45-48.
Sale, Kirkpatrick, The Green Revolution: The American Revolution, 1962-1992, Hill and Wang, 1993, pp. 25 and 94.
Steingraber, Sandra, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment, Addison-Wesley, 1997, pp. 31-117.
Waddell, Craig, "The Reception of Silent Spring: An Introduction," in And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Southern Illinois University Press, 2000, pp. 1-16.
Graham, Frank, Since "Silent Spring," Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
Graham's book offers a detailed account of the pesticide controversy that followed the publication of Silent Spring.
Lear, Linda, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, Henry Holt & Co., 1997.
Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature is widely regarded as the definitive biography of Carson.
Waddell, Craig, ed., And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.
The essays in this volume all focus on the language of Silent Spring, not always from the standpoint of the rhetorician, as the title suggests, but in the manner of literary critics more generally—one examining Carson's manuscripts for clues about the her intentions, another attempting to classify the book in terms of genre, etc.
Wargo, John, Our Children's Toxic Legacy: How Science and Law Fail to Protect Us from Pesticides, Yale University Press, 1996.
As the book's title indicates, Wargo asks whether current pesticide regulations adequately safeguard children, but Our Children's Toxic Legacy also provides an excellent overview of the pesticide problem, including a detailed description of the contemporary regulatory process. Along with Steingraber's Living Downstream, Wargo's book is essential reading in this area.
THE LITERARY WORK
A book-length essay about the evils of pesticide overuse in the United States in the 1950s; published in 1962.
Through a broad array of carefully documented bits of evidence, Rachel Carson meticulously builds a case against the indiscriminate uses of both the old mineralbased agricultural pesticides and new synthesized chlorinated hydrocarbons and phosphates.
Events in History at the Time of the Essay
Born in 1907, Rachel Carson grew up on a sixty-five-acre farm and spent much of her young life outdoors while recovering from frequent illnesses. Carson, who was inspired to learn by her mother, attended Pennsylvania College for Women, at first pursuing her childhood dream to become a writer, then in her junior year changing her major to biology. After graduation she combined her two interests, becoming a writer for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. A summer of study at Woods Hole, Massachusetts prompted Carson to write The Sea around Us (1951), a book that gained her widespread recognition. In 1958 she began an investigation of human and environmental tragedies related to the use of pesticides. Her book-length essay Silent Spring presents a continuing list of misuses and careless uses of various pesticides from arsenic to aldrin, one of the many chlorinated hydrocarbons and phosphate-based chemicals developed in the chemical industries during and after World War II.
Events in History at the Time of the Essay
One might assume there would be little enthusiasm for a published exposé of pesticides in 1962. At the time, despite troubles with the Soviet Union and Cuba, America was thriving and its government seemed to be helping it do so. The Agricultural Act of 1910 had resulted in vigorous Department of Agriculture activities to aid farmers in improving production. Progress was slow at first; much of the early government activity involved identifying the insect pests that destroyed or damaged crops.
By 1960 the government had compiled a list of 6,000 insect enemies. There were a growing number of chemicals on hand to combat or “control” these pests. DDT had been developed in 1939, and the chemical industry—its growth accelerated by World War II—had subsequently produced a great array of “organic” pesticides, fungicides, and rodenticides. (Writing about Rachel Carson later, Garrett Hardin credited her with exposing the basic fallacy of such classifications.) If pesticides, for example, kill pests, they are also capable of killing other living things—all the chemical “controls” are best lumped as “biocides,” life-killers.)
The new control chemicals were greatly advantageous in the eyes of many. The old plant sprays contained materials like arsenic—known to be poisonous to humans. The new chemicals were “organic,” that is, modified from carbon compounds like those in living things, and seemingly more nature-friendly. They also were more attractive in that not as much was known about them for certain as there was about the arsenates. By 1960 arsenic had been identified as a carcinogen—a possible cause of cancer, a disease about which so little was known as to create panic at its mere mention. Organic pesticides became the hope of the future. And they certainly seemed to live up to optimistic expectations about them. Using these pesticides seemed to prevent the spread of diseases and eradicate sicknesses among such important food producers as cattle.
The farm production explosion
President John F. Kennedy, who entered the White House in 1961, had initiated programs to examine environmental threats. In spite of a slow start hindered by an international crisis between the United States and Soviet Union over the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba, Kennedy’s administration seemed determined to usher in a new era of progress in America. In agriculture the administration had a running start. With the help of improved farm techniques, some developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and with widespread use of the new organic pesticides, American agricultural production skyrocketed. In 1940 the average farmer had been able to grow enough produce to support himself and eleven others. By 1960 a farmer could supply nearly twice as many people with food. The same twenty-year time period saw the appearance of mechanical and technical improvements that made it possible in 1960 for just 16 million farm workers to accomplish what 46 million workers had been able to achieve in 1940. Thanks in large measure to soil conservation strategies and to widespread use of the new pesticides, American agriculture was booming. In fact, the major agricultural issue had become what to do with the surpluses produced by the greatly reduced farm labor force. The fact that a few birds and fish were adversely affected by the destruction of insect pests seemed of little importance.
In 1939 Paul Muller, a Swiss chemist, introduced DDT as a potent controller of the destructive potato beetle. During World War II this pesticide had been widely used and proven very successful. Mixed with oil and sprayed on Pacific Islands, it helped prevent the spread of insecttransported diseases among the American troops. At the time authorities considered the pesticide very safe for humans, the organism of most concern to them—so safe that when a typhus epidemic threatened military activities around Naples in 1943, 2 million people lined up to be sprayed with DDT dust. By the end of the war, DDT was being hailed as the “Killer of killers” and homeowners as well as farmers were purchasing and using the pesticide (Whorton, p. 249). People seemed to be relieved that there was now an alternative to the old lead, copper, and arsenic pesticides that had been known for more than a quarter century to be capable of causing damage to humans.
Meanwhile, however, a number of scientists were publishing articles expressing concern over random use of the new wonder drug against insects. Articles appeared in Harper’s magazine as well as the Atlantic Monthly, for example, expressing scientific concern about DDT’s potential danger to the environment. A quotation from Edwin Way Teale, president of the New York Entomological Society, illustrates the scientific concerns:
A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety percent of all insects are good, and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away.
(Teale in Brooks, pp. 230-31)
As early as 1945 some scientists of the Fish and Wildlife Service (among them Clarence Cottam, Elmer Higgins, and Rachel Carson herself) had expressed their concern over indiscriminate use of DDT and other new organic pesticides. Food and drug laws, which had begun to be enacted by the federal government as early as 1906, called for rigid testing and documentation of harmlessness for any drug put into foods or cosmetics. These laws, however, did not extend to the use of pesticides, over which there was generally little concern. In fact, government bulletins noted that there had not been a single documented case of human affliction as the result of DDT use. Consequently, there was no reaction when, in January 1958, Olga Huckins wrote her letter to the editor of the Boston Herald and at the same time wrote to Rachel Carson. The Boston Herald letter described the situation from the standpoint of someone interested in larger environmental concerns:
Mr. R. C. Codman, who wrote that he “is actively associated” with the Commonwealth of Mass. aerial spraying programs for alleged mosquito control, also says that state tests have proved that the mixture used—fuel oil with DDT—last summer over Plymouth and Barnstable Counties was entirely harmless.
These testers must have used black glasses, and the trout that did not feel the poison were super-fish.
Dr. Robert Cushman Murphy, distinguished scientist, observed after New York State sprayed Long Island in the same way, that no fish in still waters survived. All bees in large sections of the state were killed. Indeed, evidence of the havoc wrought by all air spraying of DDT is accumulating so rapidly that Mr. Codman’s placid assurance becomes absurd.
(Huckins in Brooks, p. 232)
The aerial spraying referred to in the letter took place in 1957 even though a lawsuit had tried to bar it. Deciding to allow the spraying to continue, the court had thrown out evidence of the probable dangers presented in seventy-five separate scientific documents. The popularity of DDT and related pesticides overshadowed issues of potential damage to humans, and there were very few people like Olga Huckins who worried about birds, squirrels, muskrats, and fish. It is no wonder, then, that when Rachel Carson informed a friend and fellow scientist, Clarence Cottam, that she was beginning to write Silent Spring, he responded, “The whole gamut of poisons should be considered, and I know of no one who is more able to summarize this situation than you. I am sure that you will render a great public service, although I shall predict that your book will not be the best seller that The Sea around Us has been” (Cottam in Brooks, p. 249). Dr. Cottam would prove to be correct about the importance of the book, but wrong about the reception of Silent Spring.
The Essay in Focus
Carson begins Silent Spring with a fictional description of a small town without the beauty of flowers along the roadside, nor fish in the streams, nor birds.
There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example—where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed.... The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices.
(Carson, Silent Spring, p. 14)
The townspeople had unknowingly brought the condition on themselves, and it seemed in the late 1950s to be repeated in many small towns, particularly in farm regions. Carson’s book sets out to explain what has been happening. Carefully documented examples of biocide misuses, interspersed with scientific explanations and statistical evidence, build a clear picture of the dangers that arose in the 1950s and 1960s because of the practice of attacking pests without concern for possible damages to other parts of the environment.
THE MOST PROMINENT PESTICIDES OF 1960
Arsenic, lead and copper arsenates
Herbicides derived from hormones
2,4-D (2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid)
The excursion begins with a brief explanation of the chemistry of hydrocarbons, especially chlorinated hydrocarbons—organic materials of life—remodeled by new developments in chemistry to become instruments of death. Among these biocides are dieldrin, chlordane, and the much more powerful compounds aldrin, DDT, and DDD. Along with older killers such as arsenic, the new biocides are used indiscriminately and without sufficient information, according to the book; as a result, they, too become dangerous killers. A strong case is made for more stringent testing of pesticides that would analyze the damages done by them.
Carson’s essay argues for careful analysis of the uses of pesticides—not for abandoning their use. Its strategy is to present the effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides in one example after another, along with simple biological explanations of how pesticides are constructed, and how they interact with the environment. A pesticide such as DDT or DDD, for example, used to kill a particular insect pest, accumulates in soil and water. Animals who eat the insect, or drink the water, or eat plants growing in the contaminated soil, take in and store increasing quantities of the pesticide. Through their accumulation of a pesticide, the numbers of fish in streams in the Midwest decline. The cats in one city die. The soil and the streams of Alabama are poisoned. Reckless attacks on the relatively harmless Japanese beetle, an insect neighbor to many Detroiters, result in unusual numbers of bird deaths. In every case, DDT or some other hydrocarbon pesticide is suspected.
Silent Spring also presents the status of pesticide production. The book reveals that, at the time, two hundred chemicals had been invented for use in destroying insects, weeds, and rodents. Some even entered the ordinary household in the form of bug killers and repellents. Furthermore, a number of highly dangerous household insect controls were stored in glass bottles that could be easily broken or whose contents could be misused. The possibilities of human contamination from such common poisons as chlordane were growing rapidly. As pesticides increase, the book argues, so do the number of cases of leukemia. Silent Spring maintains that one of four people in the United States appears threatened by cancer, and many of the cases seemed to be related to the use of pesticides.
The book reveals a more hidden issue. Even though the applications of pesticides were sometimes small, the dangers from them continued to grow through an unusual quality of the new drugs. Chemicals such as DDT are stored at every stage of the natural food chains, Animals, including humans, eating foods from areas in which the pesticides are used, accumulate and store them in their own bodies in ever-increasing quantities. Small amounts in plants such as corn can thus grow into larger amounts in cattle and eventually in the humans who eat both corn and beef; in other words, their poisonous effects grow. In 1961, a team of investigators from the United States Public Health Department reported that every meal it tested contained DDT. The committee reported that “few if any foods can be relied upon to be entirely free of DDT” (Silent Spring, p. 161). Contamination from pesticides was rapidly becoming universal.
Accumulation of poisons is not the only problem addressed in the book. Perhaps even more distressing was the reaction of some of the intended victims of the biocides. Insects who survived developed amazing resistances to the chemical sprays, creating a constant demand for new and more powerful poisons. The same conditions applied to weed killers. The whole situation seemed so ridiculous that one scientist was led to write, “Once again we are walking in nature like an elephant in the china cabinet. In my opinion too much is taken for granted. We do not know whether all weeds in crops are harmful or whether some of them are useful” (Briejer in Silent Spring, p. 77). Thus the book presents the untested use of pesticides as an exercise not only of great risk, but of equally great futility.
As noted in Silent Spring, the northern California resort of Clear Lake was a popular fisherman’s stop and a growing resort area. It suffered, though, or so people thought, from the presence of a pesky obstacle that was preventing it from becoming one of the great resort areas of the region. Clear Lake was the breeding ground for a small gnat. Though not a biting, diseasespreading insect, the gnat in large numbers would be bothersome to the potential resort visitors. Resort owners, therefore, decided to try to control the number of gnats and pressured government agencies for action. Efforts to eradicate the gnats met with little success until it was decided to treat the lake with a pesticide. DDD, a relative of DDT, seemed not to have much effect on the fish in the lake. Authorities for this and other reasons therefore chose to use it as an insecticide to combat the gnats in 1949. After carefully surveying the lake, DDD was added in the amount of one part for every 70 million parts of water. Initially it seemed to work and the gnat population faded. The gnats reappeared, however, and so another round of treatment was needed in 1954.
By that time, other problems had begun to surface. Clear Lake was the winter home of western grebes, a diving bird which fed on the fish in the lake. The grebes also built floating nests on the lake to use as their breeding ground. After the 1954 treatment, more than a hundred grebes were found dead. Still more died after a third treatment in 1957.
The deaths seemed mysterious until someone examined the tissues of the dead grebes. The fatty parts of the birds were loaded with DDD in the amount of 1600 parts per million—a dosage thirty times more concentrated than the DDD in the lake. Fish in the lake and the plankton on which some of them fed also contained DDD. The plants showed 300 parts per million of DDD—even though tests of the lake water shortly after the treatment showed that it had been cleared of DDD. Meanwhile, the plant-eating fish showed an even higher concentration—2500 parts per million.
DDD had been collected from the water by every living organism in the lake’s ecosystem and stored in the tissues of plants and animals, to be passed up and accumulated in every link of the lake’s food chains, finally to be collected and stored with disastrous results in the grebes.
This situation, documented in Silent Spring, was soon found to occur in many of the lakes and streams in America with effects of much greater concern to humans than the plight of western grebes. Garrett Hardin, in Biology, Its Principles and Implications, illustrates the complexity of the biocide issues that inspired the writing of Silent Spring:
A farmer in Iowa may increase his income this year by spraying biocides on his crops; but the income of a commercial fisherman a thousand miles away may be decreased next year when some of the same biocide molecules, dissolved in water or carried by plankton, reach the lower Mississippi.
(Hardin, p. 472)
Hardin, like Carson, defines the pesticide problems in terms of overwhelming social issues and value judgments best dealt with by changing the equation “live insects plus insecticide equals dead insects” to a question, “the web of life plus biocide equals what?” That question is the central issue in Carson’s Silent Spring.
So great was the furor in the scientific community over Silent Spring that President Kennedy requested his own scientific advisor, Dr. Jerome B. Weisner, to make a study of the whole environmental endangerment issue. As a result, a Pesticide Committee was set up by the U.S. Office of Science and Technology, and it soon released a report entitled “Use of Pesticides,” dated May 15, 1963. The report criticized the practices of the agricultural industry as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, opposing the popular attitude that it was all right to use chemicals unless their danger had been proven. Instead the report endorsed the position argued in Silent Spring—that people should not engage in massive use of chemicals about which little information has been gathered.
In the late 1950s, Rachel Carson was already a popular and well-known science writer. Her books about the sea were widely read and acclaimed. The most popular of these, The Sea around Us (1951), had sold 338,000 copies in hardback editions, an extraordinary amount for a nonfiction book. Soon two other Carson books joined the bestseller list. Her popularity as a science writer inspired the previously mentioned 1958 letter from Olga Huckins, a friend who lived in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Huckins reported that her town had recently been sprayed by airplane with DDT in a mosquito-control program and that after the spraying, birds began dying in large numbers. Her letter triggered the massive research and writing of Silent Spring, rekindling a concern that Carson had harbored for several years.
Carson was working for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service just after World War II when that organization began to “control” (attempt to eradicate) pests with chemicals such as DDT. She had felt then that these chemicals hadn’t been effectively researched. The operators were using pesticides with little or no idea of how they might affect the organisms that people did not want to control. At the time, in 1945, Carson had just published her first magazine article, a story about bats, in Collier’s magazine. When Reader’s Digest decided to reprint the article, its editors expressed a hope that Carson would submit other articles. She suggested writing one on a DDT application near her home, but Readers’ Digest was not enthusiastic about the idea. Nevertheless, Carson continued to monitor reports on pesticide use—reports that indicated the dangers of indiscriminate use. Her findings, along with the advice, data, and encouragement of many scientists whom she encountered in her seventeen years with the Fish and Wildlife Service, became the foundation of Silent Spring.
Carson had been aware of the pesticide problems for so long that upon receiving Huckins’s letter she felt obligated to expose them. She put aside a book about the continents that she was writing at the time and began Silent Spring.
Publication and reviews
Sections of Silent Spring were published in New Yorker magazine before the book itself appeared in 1962. On the basis of these sections, the book’s ideas were broadly reviewed even before it was published. So extensive was Carson’s research that the book carried a much more complete argument than those first magazine articles. Critics of the book version both praised and damned it. Scientists and businessmen from the agriculture industry blasted the work for its one-sided presentation of the facts. On the other hand, reviewers for the Christian Science Monitor lauded the book for the same reason: “Miss Carson has undeniably sketched a one-sided picture. But her distortion is akin to that of the painter who exaggerates to focus attention on essentials. It is not the half-truth of the propagandist” (Cowen in Davison, p. 342). When published, the book was reviewed in most of the literary publications by such prominent scientists and scientific writers as Loren Eiseley, Marston Bates, and H. J. Muller, along with science reviewers such as Edward Weeks. These scientists generally recommended the book as necessary reading for every citizen.
Perhaps the most powerful tribute to Silent Spring came from Loren Eiseley, writing for the Saturday Review of Literature. Eisley described the book as “a devastating, heavily documented, relentless attack upon human carelessness,” and he thought that Silent Spring should be read by any American who did not want to be an epitaph in the very near future (Eisley in Davison, p. 203).
In fact, the book did reach an immense audience. Exceeding the outstanding sale of 338,000 hardback copies of The Sea around Us, Silent Spring sold more than 500,000 copies. Rachel Carson had helped millions of people hear the ticking of the environmental time bomb, partly triggered by careless pesticide use.
For her pioneering effort in environment awareness, Rachel Carson won many awards, among them the Francis Hutchinson Medal of the Garden Club of America, a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a conservation award from the Isaac Walton Society, and the Albert Schweitzer Medal of the Animal Welfare Institute. She received few of these awards in person, however, for Rachel Carson was fighting cancer, a disease from which she died in 1964, two years after the publication of Silent Spring.
For More Information
Brooks, Paul. The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
Carson, Rachel. The Sea around Us. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Davison, Dorothy, ed. Book Review Digest. Vol. 58. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1963.
Hardin, Garrett. Biology, Its Principles and Implications. 2nd ed. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1966.
Whorton, James. Before Silent Spring: Pesticides & Public Health in Pre-DDT America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Silent Spring, a book about the dangers of pesticide use on the environment and human health, was written by American marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907–1964). It was first published as a series of articles in the New Yorker magazine, then as a book in 1962. It had a remarkable impact, perhaps more so than any other environmentalist book of the last century, and it has remained continuously in print since its publication. Silent Spring is often credited with having changed the scope and nature of the environmental movement, and helping trigger the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
In the mid-twentieth century, agriculture in the United States and some other countries became highly industrialized. That is, rather than being carried on by a large population of farmers working many relatively small farms using animals for draft (pulling) power in the fields and fertilizing with manure, it became mechanized and reliant on chemical inputs, especially fertilizers manufactured using fossil fuel, pesticides (chemicals designed to poison pests, especially insects), and herbicides (chemicals designed to poison unwanted plants). By the 1950s, hundreds of millions of pounds of pesticides were applied to crops in the United States, as well as to lawns and gardens. Large profits were generated by sales of these chemicals, but little public attention was paid to the harms they might be doing. Rather, journalists tended to celebrate the wondrous new age of high-productivity in industrial agriculture, where farmers driving air-conditioned tractors and harvesters across vast fields could listen to music while raising history’s largest crops of pest-free wheat, corn, and other foods.
Scientists, meanwhile, were gathering a large body of evidence that the uncontrolled application of herbicides and pesticides was causing death and sickness in many bird and animal species, including some humans. Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, gathered together much of this evidence and wrote a passionate appeal advocating controls for poison spraying, Silent Spring, that received praise both within the scientific community and the public at large. Carson argued that pesticides were being used recklessly and that this was endangering human health, threatening species of wild animals and birds with extinction, and—if the trend toward greater and greater use of such poisons continued—leading toward a world stripped of much of its life, especially its birds. Her grim vision of a spring with no birds to sing—a silent spring—gripped millions of readers.
The pesticide on which she focused most was DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), a chemical discovered in 1874, but not used as a pesticide until 1939. DDT and related chemicals are particularly damaging to the environment because they do not break down quickly and can be passed up the food chain, concentrating in the tissues of predators. For example, DDT sprayed on leaves or seeds is first eaten by insects, which are poisoned by the chemical. Before or after the insects die, they are eaten by birds, which build up DDT in their own tissues. At sufficiently high concentrations, the DDT kills the birds; at lower concentrations, it interferes with egg development, causing eggshell thinning and fewer chicks to hatch. Fish that eat DDT-contaminated insects also concentrate DDT in their tissues; eagles eating the fish concentrate the DDT still further. In North America, bald-eagle reproduction rates were depressed by DDT while it was still widely used, but recovered in the years following the banning of the chemical in 1972. The EPA has also classified DDT as a likely human carcinogen (chemical that potentially causes cancer).
Impacts and Issues
Carson’s book was an immediate bestseller and triggered widespread public discussion of chemical pollution, pesticides, and the need for regulation. She was called to testify before Congress, and President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) established a special commission to study whether chlorine-containing insecticides such as DDT should be banned. In 1963, the commission recommended such a ban, and in 1972, DDT was banned by law in the United States.
Carson’s book was attacked angrily by supporters of the chemical industry even before its publication and continues to be reviled today. A number of critics make the argument that use of DDT was halted for insufficient scientific reason, allowing malaria—a disease spread by mosquitoes that causes 1.2 to 2.7 million deaths per year—to spread and kill without restraint. In 2007, the hundredth anniversary of Carson’s birth, a number of editorials in politically conservative journals and mainstream newspapers were devoted to expressing this view. For example, columnist John Tierney wrote in the New York Times that Silent Spring was a “hodgepodge of science and junk science, dubious statistics, and anecdotes…. The human costs have been horrific in the poorcountries where malaria returned after DDT spraying was abandoned.”
In fact, Carson never called for a total ban on DDT, in Silent Spring or elsewhere, and no such ban has ever
WORDS TO KNOW
DDT (DICHLORO-DIPHENYL-TRICHLOROETHANE): One of the earliest insecticides, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, used until banned by many countries in the 1960s after bird populations were decimated by the substance, and other negative environmental consequences occurred. Lately, selective DDT use has returned in targeted areas in Africa in order to eliminate high concentrations of the mosquitoes that carry the parasite that causes malaria.
FOOD CHAIN: A sequence of organisms, each of which uses the next lower member of the sequence as a food source.
FOSSIL FUEL: Hydrocarbon fuel that has been obtained from the death and decay of living matter millions of years ago.
been instituted. The 1972 law that banned DDT in the United States contained an exception for malaria control—never invoked because malaria is rare in the United States. Nor has DDT ever been banned for anti-malarial use internationally (only for agriculture): As of 2007, DDT is again used for indoor spraying in 10 African countries. The global decline in DDT use for outdoor anti-malaria spraying is partially due to the evolution of increased insect resistance to the chemical, a problem with all widely used pesticides. In Silent Spring, Carson advised DDT use to be limited to “Spray as little as you possibly can.” Thus, Carson never advocated a reckless and inhumane ban on using DDT or any other pesticides for fighting insect-borne disease.
In 1980, Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Primary Source Connection
Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was the first meticulously referenced, book-length attack by a scientist on the practices of an entire industry, in this case the pesticide industry. Silent Spring provoked a response that was also the first of its kind, as partly described in the 1962 article “‘Silent Spring’ Is Now Noisy Summer” by John M. Lee. A many-fronted public-relations counterattack on Carson was mounted by corporations displeased by her book.
The full extent of the industry response was not known at the time that Lee wrote his article. Besides the criticisms quoted there (published before the book version of Silent Spring appeared), the chemical and pesticide industry took a number of specific actions againstSilent Spring
IN CONTEXT: RACHEL CARSON
Rachel Carson (1907–1964) is best known for her 1962 book, Silent Spring, which is often credited with beginning the environmental movement in the United States. The book focused on the uncontrolled and often indiscriminate use of pesticides, especially dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (commonly known as DDT), and the irreparable environmental damage caused by these chemicals. The public outcry Carson generated by the book motivated the U.S. Senate to form a committee to investigate pesticide use. Carson’s eloquent testimony before the committee altered the views of many government officials and helped lead to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Before beginning her graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, Carson had arranged an interview with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries for a part-time science writer to work on radio scripts. The only obstacle was the civil service exam, which women were then discouraged from taking. Carson not only did well on the test, she outscored all other applicants. She went on to become only the second woman ever hired by the bureau for a permanent professional post.
At the Bureau of Fisheries, Carson wrote and edited a variety of government publications—everything from pamphlets on how to cook fish to professional scientific journals.
Carson. A group of chemical companies—including DuPont, Monsanto, Shell, Dow Chemical, W.R. Grace, and the members of the Manufacturing Chemists Association—hired public relations experts to question Carson’s credibility and even, on occasion, her sanity. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association spent over a quarter of a million dollars to oppose the book through ads, press conferences, and other public-relations methods.
Velsicol Chemical Company, a pesticides manufacturer, threatened to sue Houghton Mifflin for libel. Velsicol also threatened Audubon magazine with a lawsuit if it published excerpts from Silent Spring, warning that printing “a muckraking article containing unwarranted assertions about Velsicol pesticides [might] jeopardize [the] financial security” of persons employed by the magazine and that of their families. One chemical company threatened to sue the New Yorker if the magazine ran the final installment of Carson’s book. The editor responded, “Everything in those articles has been checked and is true. Go ahead and sue.” In the end, however, no libel lawsuits were actually brought against Carson or anyone else involved in the publication of her book.
‘SILENT SPRING’ IS NOW NOISY SUMMER
Pesticides Industry Up In Arms Over a New Book
Rachel Carson Stirs Conflict—Producers Are Crying ‘Foul’
The $300,000,000 pesticides industry has been highly irritated by a quiet woman author whose previous works on science have been praised for the beauty and precision of the writing.
The author is Rachel Carson, whose “The Sea Around Us” and “The Edge of the Sea” were best sellers in 1951 and 1955. Miss Carson, trained as a marine biologist, wrote gracefully of sea and shore life.
In her latest work, however, Miss Carson is not so gentle. More pointed than poetic, she argues that the widespread use of pesticides is dangerously tilting the so-called balance of nature. Pesticides poison not only pests, she says, but also humans, wildlife, the soil, food and water.
The men who make the pesticides are crying foul. “Crass commercialism or idealistic flag waving,” scoffs one industrial toxicologist. “We are aghast,” says another. “Our members are raising hell,” reports a trade association.
Some agricultural chemicals concerns have set their scientists to analyzing Miss Carson’s work, line by line. Other companies are preparing briefs defending the use of their products. Meetings have been held in Washington and New York. Statements are being drafted and counter-attacks plotted.
A drowsy midsummer has suddenly been enlivened by the greatest uproar in the pesticides industry since the cranberry scare of 1959.
Miss Carson’s new book is entitled “Silent Spring.” The title is derived from an idealized situation in which Miss Carson envisions an imaginary town where chemical pollution has silenced “the voices of spring.”
The book is to be published in October by the Houghton Mifflin Company and has been chosen as an October selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. About half the book appeared as a series of three articles in The New Yorker magazine last month.
A random sampling of opinion among trade associations and chemical companies last week found the Carson articles receiving prominent attention.
Many industry spokesmen preface their remarks with a tribute to Miss Carson’s writing talents, and most say that they can find little error of fact.
What they do criticize, however, are the extensions and implications that she gives to isolated case histories of the detrimental effects of certain pesticides used or misused in certain instances.
The industry feels that she has presented a one-sided case and has chosen to ignore the enormous benefits in increased food production and decreased incidence of disease that have accrued from the development and use of modern pesticides.
The pesticides industry is annoyed also at the implications that the industry itself has not been alert and concerned in its recognition of the problems that accompany pesticide use.
Last week, Miss Carson was said to be on “an extended vacation” for the summer and not available for comment on the industry’s rebuttal. Her agent, Marie Rodell, said she had heard nothing directly from chemical manufacturers concerning the book.
Houghton Mifflin referred all questions to Miss Rodell. The New Yorker said it had received many letters expressing great interest in the articles and “only one or two took strong objection.”
In an interview, E. M. Adams, assistant director of the biochemistry research laboratory of the Dow Chemical Company, said he would be among the first to acknowledge that there were problems in the use or misuse of pesticides.
“I think Miss Carson has indulged in hindsight,” he said. “In many cases we have to learn from experience and often it is difficult to exercise the proper foresight.”
Emphasizing that he spoke as a private toxicologist, Mr. Adams said that in some procedures, such as large-scale spraying, the possible benefits had to be balanced against the possible ills.
He referred to the extensive testing programs and Federal regulations prevalent in the pesticides industry and said, “What we have done, we have not done carelessly or without consideration. The industry is not made up of money grubbers.”
Tom K. Smith, vice president and general manager of agricultural chemicals for the Monsanto Chemical Company, said that “had the articles been written with necessary attention to the available scientific data on the subject, it could have served a valuable purpose-helping alert the public at large to the importance of proper use of pesticide chemicals.”
However, he said, the articles suggested that Government officials and private and industrial scientists were either not as well informed on pesticide problems as Miss Carson, not professionally competent to evaluate possible hazards or else remiss in their obligations to society.
P. Rothberg, president of the Montrose Chemical Corporation of California, said in a statement that Miss Carson wrote not “as a scientist but rather as a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.” He said the greatest upsetters of that balance, as far as man was concerned, were modern medicines and sanitation.
Montrose, an affiliate of the Stauffer Chemical Company, is the nation’s largest producer of DDT, one of the pesticides that Miss Carson discusses at length. She also discusses the effect of malathion, parathion, dieldrin, aldrin and endrin.
“It is ironic to think,” Miss Carson states at one point, “that man may determine his own fixture by something so seemingly trivial as his choice of insect spray.” She acknowledges, however, that the effects may not show up in new generations for decades or centuries.
The Department of Agriculture reported that it had received many letters expressing “horror and amazement” at the department’s support of the use of potentially deadly pesticides.
The industry had a favorite analogy to use in rebuttal. It conceded that pesticides could be dangerous. The ideal was to use them all safely and effectively.
The public debate over pesticides is just beginning and the industry is preparing for a long siege. The book reviews and publicity attendant upon the book’s publication this fall will surely fan the controversy.
John M. Lee
LEE, JOHN M. “‘SILENT SPRING’ IS NOW NOISY SUMMER.”NEW YORK TIMES (JULY 22, 1962).
Primary Source Connection
The following news article acknowledges the American ornithologist Bridget Stutchbury’s book Silence of the Songbirds, which, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, discusses how human actions can negatively impact the environment, particularly in relation to birds. Stutchbury makes the connection between consumer choices and the future of the habitat of these birds. Stuchbury holds the Canada Research Chair in Ecology and Conservation Biology at Yale University.
PICKING UP WHERE ‘SILENT SPRING’ LEFT OFF
By now, the litany of human-driven environmental problems is probably beginning to sound depressingly familiar. Coral reefs are bleaching, forests and the wildlife they host are disappearing, and humanity, which has doubled in numbers since the 1960s, is stressing Earth’s resources. Scientists predict that global warming will only exacerbate these problems. Many worry about imminent ecosystem meltdowns. Civilization is inextricably linked to the natural world and as Jared Diamond and others have pointed out, in the past, ecological shifts have coincided with the collapse of entire civilizations.
To this rather grim picture, ornithologist Bridget Stutchbury brings a book about an often overlooked and important denizen of the natural world: the songbird. In Silence of the Songbirds, she explores the reasons behind songbirds’ alarming decline in the past 40 years. She tells of how, flying thousands of miles at nighttime in vast flocks that show up on radar, the little birds connect Canada’s boreal forests with Central and South America’s jungles. She explains how forests rely on them for pollination, seed dispersal, and insect control. With the exhaustive and sometimes plodding style of a good trial lawyer, she documents how habitat loss, forest fragmentation, and pesticides have wreaked havoc on their populations. And she postulates new and fascinating reasons why fragmentation might cause songbird populations to decline: Songbirds avoid forests devoid of other birds. They need habitat large enough to sustain bird communities.
Thankfully, after outlining these problems, Stutchbury doesn’t desert the reader. By connecting consumer choices with harmful land practices in the birds’ wintering grounds, she gives readers an avenue of action. What coffee you choose—organic and shade-grown versus sun-grown and pesticide-treated—can lead to either more or less bird habitat. Even your choice of toilet paper can mean a tree cut down in Canada’s boreal forests, where many songbirds summer. Choose the right products as a consumer, and you can help rather than hurt.
Unfortunately, Stutchbury doesn’t explore possible solutions beyond consumer choice. As she’s well aware, enlightened consumer choices can’t fix everything. The poverty, weak regulation, and nearly nonexistent enforcement of existing laws that drive environmental degradation in Central and South America cannot be remedied only by drinking Fair Trade coffee in Boston. Effective solutions will require both top-down and bottom-up efforts by all those involved. And we are all involved.
So yes: Silence of the Songbirds is another book you probably won’t feel like reading. Who needs to feel forlorn, dejected, and guilty and responsible? But before you move on to more pleasant and probably less relevant fare, let me explain why the book is, in fact, worth reading.
Extinction and ecosystem collapse are part of Earth’s natural history. Species have eaten themselves and others out of existence before and they’ll do so again. And yet, in the current human-driven disturbance, there is a new element to this oft-repeated drama. Probably never before has a species possessed both full knowledge of what was happening and the know-how to avoid it.
And this is why, as both observer and participant, it’s worth being fully apprised of what’s at stake. If we make the wrong decisions, it’s simply nature’s version of “business as usual.” But in a “sustainable” resolution to our environmental dilemmas lies the beginning of something truly unique on earth. For the first time, an organism will have altered its behavior not when catastrophe hit but before. Homo sapiens—Latin for “wise human”—will have truly earned its moniker. This self-adjustment would herald the emergence of a new intelligence in both the human and natural realms.
VELASQUEZ-MANOFF, MOISES. “PICKING UP WHERE ‘SILENT SPRING’ LEFT OFF.” CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR (AUGUST 14, 2007).
See Also Agricultural Practice Impacts; Environmental Activism
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Crest, 1962.
Murphy, Priscilla Coit. What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.
Russell, Edmund. War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Tierney, John. “Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Out Real Science.” New York Times (June 5, 2007).
People’s Weekly World Newspaper. “Defending Rachel Carson,” by David Pimentel. http://www.pww.org/article/articleprint/11914/ (accessed April 12, 2008).
In 1955 Rachel Carson was at the peak of her profession as a popular writer of science books about the sea. Under the Sea Wind (published in 1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955) were all best-sellers, and they catapulted her into celebrity as one of the best loved and most sought after American authors. By 1956, she was planning a book in which she intended to explore the human race's relationship with nature. Fearing that human beings were severing their connection to the web of life, she began the painstaking research that would form her next work, Silent Spring, a book that would change her life and the world.
Carson's deepest held beliefs were in the delicate interconnectedness of nature and the sanctity of life. Her work as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during World War II (1939-1945) had involved studying documents concerning the horrendous chemical and human-made devastations that were occurring. After the war, many of the chemicals developed for the military were unleashed on neighborhoods and farms in a war against nature. By 1960, there were some 200 untested chemicals used in pesticide formulas. That same year, 638 million pounds of poisons were broadcast in the United States alone. The chemical pesticide business was a $250 million industry enthusiastically supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other agencies. Government researchers had documented the dangers of uncontrolled pesticide use, but their warnings were ignored or destroyed, with many of the scientists encouraged to find other jobs. A chance note from an ornithologist friend concerning a die-off of baby birds after a DDT spraying of a nearby marsh spurred Carson to act. As she began reading hundreds of scientific papers and contacting biologists, chemists, agriculture experts, and doctors around the world, her alarm and her determination grew. "The more I learned about the use of pesticides the more appalled I became. I realized that here was the material for a book. What I discovered was that everything which meant the most to me as a naturalist was being threatened and that nothing I could do would be more important" (Jezer 1988, p. 79).
After four years of research, Silent Spring began appearing in a serialized condensed version in The New Yorker on June 16, 1962. It included an appendix of more than fifty pages of scientific references. Response was immediate and overwhelming. Praise and concern in the form of thousands of letters and telegrams poured into the magazine from citizens, scientists, and even the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy. The response from the American Medical Association, the USDA, and the chemical companies was even more vocal, however. They targeted a quarter of a million dollars for a brutally negative publicity campaign, impugning Carson's science and her morals. One member of a government pest control board scoffed that Carson had no business worrying about genetics as she was a "spinster." The Velsicol Chemical Corporation sent her publisher a threatening letter insisting that Carson was part of a communist conspiracy to undermine the economy of Western nations. Houghton Mifflin was undeterred and the book was published on schedule, on September 27, 1962. As the book soared on the best-seller list, the attacks intensified in print and on television. Her opponents must have realized—as was indeed the case—that she was questioning not only the indiscriminate use of poisons but also the basic irresponsibility of an industrialized, technological society toward the natural world. She refused to accept the premise that damage to nature was the inevitable cost of progress.
President Kennedy initiated a Science Advisory Committee to study the dangers and benefits of pesticides. After eight months of study, their report concluded that "Until the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides." A U.S. Senate committee was formed to study environmental hazards. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall acknowledged, "She made us realize that we had allowed our fascination with chemicals to override our wisdom in their use." Most importantly she touched a chord in the population of the United States and the dozens of countries worldwide where her book was translated. Grass-roots conservation and environmental organizations sprang up demanding political action. By the end of 1962 more than forty bills regulating pesticides had been introduced in legislatures across the United States. By 1964, the U.S. Congress had amended federal laws to shift the burden of demonstrating the safety of new chemicals to the manufacturers, requiring the proof of safety before the chemicals could be released. As her ideas gained momentum, Carson was showered with honors and awards, including the Audubon Medal and honors from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Wildlife Federation, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the American Geographical Society. Carson continued to warn that "modern science has given human beings the capacity to destroy in a few years life forms that have taken eons to evolve. Humans are challenged to use this new power intelligently and cautiously. Conservation is a cause that has no end" (Jezer 1988, p. 99).
On April 14, 1964, Carson died of breast cancer. Before she wrote Silent Spring few people were aware of the ecological principle that all of life is interrelated. Because of her courage, determination and eloquence, these ideas have become widespread. Millions of human beings have begun to take responsibility for humanity's place in the natural world. They agree with Carson that "man is a part of nature and his war against nature is a war against himself. The human race now faces the challenge of proving our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves" (Jezer 1988, p. 105).
see also Carson, Rachel; DDT; Environmental Degradation; Habitat; Habitat Loss; Pesticide.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Harlan, Judith. Sounding the Alarm. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1989.
Jezer, Marty. Rachel Carson. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
SILENT SPRING. The biologist Rachel Carson (1907–1964) published Silent Spring in 1962, first as a series in The New Yorker, then as a book. She had become concerned during the 1950s at the rapid increase in artificial pesticide and herbicide spraying by farmers and government agencies. Carson, an elegant writer, already famous for the best-selling The Sea Around Us (1951), singled out DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane)as a particularly toxic chemical and criticized its widespread and indiscriminate use. Not only did such chemicals kill benign insects and birds and work their way into the food chain, she argued, they also encouraged the evolution of resistant strains of the pest insects and the displacement of indigenous flora by opportunistic weeds. Worse, they reached high levels of concentration in lakes, killed fish populations, and were slow to biodegrade. Even on purely economic grounds they made no sense because spraying, once begun, had to be done annually, at great cost. She recognized that pest control was sometimes necessary but made the case for introducing natural predators, including imported insects, and for neutering male insects in laboratories to reduce populations.
The book's commercial success took Carson and her publisher by surprise. Its success is not hard to explain, however. Silent Spring contained not only the relevant chemical equations but also a forcefully argued moral case, invoking the grand tradition of America's natural beauty under threat and pointing to the danger that even mothers, breast-feeding their infants, might inadvertently pass the poisons along. Here was a problem affecting every citizen's life and safety. The book took its title from the opening chapter, a dystopian vision of a rural community rendered silent in springtime, its habitual birdsong silenced by the mass poisoning of all the birds. The Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation both honored the book with prizes, and 600,000 copies were sold in the first year of publication.
American chemical manufacturers were afraid that Carson's work would damage their reputation as purveyors of progress and that they would be exposed to tighter government regulation. The former secretary of agriculture Ezra Taft Benson dismissed her as a "hysterical female." President John F. Kennedy's secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, by contrast, praised the book and organized an investigation of the industry, which led ultimately to the Pesticide Control Act of 1972. Carson did not live to see this consequence of her work, dying of cancer in 1964. Environmental historians today recognize Silent Spring as the first literary salvo of the new environ-mental movement.
Gartner, Carol. Rachel Carson. New York: Ungar, 1983.
Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.
McKay, Mary A. Rachel Carson. New York: Twayne, 1993.