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Silent Spring, 50 years on

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. As a youth, Carson enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, originally intending to major in English but later switching to Biology and eventually earning a master’s degree in 1932. She supported herself for a time as a freelance writer, authoring pieces for the Baltimore Sun about the natural history of Chesapeake Bay. Later she found work writing radio scripts on life in the oceans for the Bureau of Fisheries. This led to a full-time position working as a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, where her facility with the written word earned her a spot as editor-in-chief of all the agency’s publications. Silent Spring was the capstone of her career as a writer, and her most enduring legacy.

The book begins with a parable about a pastoral village in which the wildflowers, the fish in the streams, the songbirds, the farm animals and finally the people begin to sicken and die from mysterious maladies. No one community has suffered all of these disasters, she adds, but all of these disasters have occurred in at least one community, and many communities have suffered through a number of them.

Carson proceeds to lay down the gauntlet:

 “The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and seas with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible….

 “The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.

“To adjust to these chemicals would require time on the scale that is nature’s; it would require not merely the years of a man’s life but the life of generations. And even this, if it were by some miracle possible, would be futile, for the new chemicals come from our laboratories in an endless stream; almost five hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone. The figure is staggering and not easily grasped – 500 new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience.”

ImageIn elegant, poetic prose, with crystalline clarity, Carson explains how these poisons accumulate in living cells; how they potentiate each other; how they permeate the water and the soil, wreaking havoc on living things in their path, from the vast network of soil microorganisms and green plants upon which all life depends, to crustaceans, insects, fish, birds, and mammals, and finally to ourselves.


Our attitude towards poisons has undergone a subtle change. Once they were kept in containers with a skull and crossbones; the infrequent occasions of their use were marked with utmost care that they should come into contact with the target and with nothing else. With the development of the new organic insecticides and the abundance of surplus planes after the Second World War, all this was forgotten. Although today’s poisons are more dangerous than any known before, they have amazingly become something to be showered down indiscriminately from the skies. Not only the target insect or plant, but anything – human or nonhuman – within the range of the chemical fallout may know the sinister touch of the poison.”

“This barrage of poisons is not just sickening and killing individual organisms but altering the material of heredity, the very thread that is the continuity of life on earth.

“No longer are exposures to dangerous chemicals occupational alone; they have entered the environment of everyone – even of children as yet unborn. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we are now aware of an alarming increase in malignant disease.”

Carson argued that the indiscriminate broadcasting of poisons as a means of eradicating species labeled “pests” was not just incredibly destructive in the long term but often self-defeating even in the short-term, as the populations of undesired species came roaring back at levels higher than ever. The phenomenon of insecticide resistance is well-known, but an even more important if less well-known factor is the is the destruction of predators, parasites, and competitors which formerly held populations of destructive species in check.


All too often, the response to this sort of thing is more poisons, stronger poisons, higher doses. She noted that the men who decide what, when, where, and how much to spray almost always are on the payrolls of the same companies that manufacture these toxins in the first place.


Just months after the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson died of metastatic breast cancer. In 1980 she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given in the United States of America. At the awards ceremony, President Carter declared:

“Never silent herself in the face of destructive trends, Rachel Carson fed a spring of awareness across America and beyond. A biologist with a gentle, clear voice, she welcomed her audiences to her love of the sea, while with an equally clear determined voice she warned Americans of the dangers human beings themselves pose for their own environment. Always concerned, always eloquent, she created a tide of environmental consciousness that has not ebbed.”


Not everyone has such a sanguine view of Rachel Carson’s life and work. This is a matter we will take up in Part Two.


Photos via Wikimedia Commons


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