Silent Spring

Springs like these were the subject of Carson's book. Photo: Joe Hennager

Springs like this were the subject of Carson's work. Photo: Joe Hennager

The following book review is part of a series writer Jordan Jones calls the “Environmental Canon,” books that have shaped the environmental movement. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

First published in 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is undoubtedly one of the founding texts of the modern environmental movement. Indeed, as Al Gore noted in his introduction to a 1994 edition, “without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.” I suppose it is a credit to the book’s influence and power that many of its ideas have become widely accepted by the great majority of the public (surely by visitors to this site) and appear so obvious that it seems incredible someone had to write a book to prove them.

Silent Spring was the first popular work of nonfiction to document the dangerous and deadly effects of pesticides on the environment. We now take for granted that chemicals can blight the landscape and cause cancer, but in Carson’s day those ideas were largely unheard of, at least among the general public. The book was actually quite unusual for its time, not only for its scientific revelations, but also for the fact that it flew in the face of Progress — that great American ideal — and refuted the common view that the natural world was a limitless, yet easily subjugated, resource. In Silent Spring, Carson contended that science and industry would perhaps not be able to deliver on their promise of a better world. On the contrary, she told us, the scientific wonders ostensibly developed to help grow the food of humanity could perhaps be the end of it.

The present-day reader can be forgiven for being less than awed by Carson’s thesis, which is as follows: Through an overuse and over-reliance on pesticides, humanity is poisoning the flora and fauna of the land, as well as itself. The application of these chemicals causes them to become a toxic, almost ineradicable presence in the ecosystem, a presence which affects virtually all plants and animals. In addition, it is nearly certain that exposure to these substances causes disease (especially cancer) in humans. Oh, and by the way, pesticides are largely ineffective.

The impact of this book is hard to overstate. It is one of the few books in American literature that can safely be said to have changed the national discourse, belonging to the same rarefied circle as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. Upon its publication, it was immediately the subject of much discussion and controversy (as it is even today). As the clamor grew, so did the sales. The general public was fascinated and appalled by Carson’s findings, and Silent Spring enjoyed a long stay on the bestseller list, helped by its excerpting in The New Yorker and its selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Her critics denounced her as a fraud, a liar, a pagan, and a Communist. (The reasoning behind this last epithet followed from the observation that Carson was unmarried, despite being attractive.) Ironically, the massive propaganda campaign waged against her by the chemical industry and big business only contributed to the book’s fame.

Before long, President Kennedy was forced to appoint a special panel to investigate the book’s dire findings. The panel confirmed Carson’s claims, and eventually Congress held hearings on the matter; Carson herself testified. Though she died of breast cancer in 1964, her book and her ideas lived on. The major environmental achievements of that era — the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the banning of the pesticide DDT, the passage of the Endangered Species Act — can be directly or indirectly traced to Carson’s explosive book and the outrage it provoked among the general public.

Silent Spring is one of those books that is talked about more than it is read, its fame and influence overshadowing its very considerable merits. This is really too bad, because the work is beautifully written, and Carson’s arguments are as devastating and persistent as DDT.

The book begins with a pastoral portrait of a prosperous, small, American town. The crops are plentiful, the fish bite, the birds sing, etc. But suddenly, the crops begin to wither and die, the fish are found belly-up in the river, and no birds sing. This results in a (wait for it) — silent spring! The rest of the book is an attempt to explain “what has already silenced the voices of spring in countess towns in America.”

Carson was a naturalist before she became a writer, and her fine prose demonstrates that the project was the perfect pairing of author and subject. She was already recognized as a great writer before Silent Spring, her fourth book — she was so good that The Atlantic Monthly even published her brochure copy — but she clearly pulls off something quite remarkable in this work. She writes like a woman who divides her reading time between scientific studies and poetry (the title was inspired by a John Keats poem). Here’s a sample:

“One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeoning of the landscape is to be seen in the sagebrush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage and to substitute grasslands.  If ever an enterprise needed to be illuminated with a sense of history and meaning of the landscape, it is this. For here the natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it. It is spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread.”

In chapters with names like “Rivers of Death,” “Indiscriminately from the Skies,” and “Needless Havoc,” Carson thoroughly makes her case against the careless and excessive use of pesticides (she never comes out against them entirely, as her detractors have claimed). She touches upon many subjects: the toxic effect of pesticides and their misuse, the prevalence of carcinogenic chemicals in daily life, the deceptive practices of the chemical industry, the natural cycles of different ecosystems, and the better, less dangerous (and even more effective), alternatives to pesticides.

Along the way, Carson takes the reader on a tour through the natural world, and I think it is this aspect of the book that makes it something special. Carson’s passion and enthusiasm for the natural world are evident even when she is writing about dirt (the “realms of the soil,” she eloquently calls it); the reader cannot help but share in her wonder. She reveals nature to be an extraordinarily interconnected system, a glorious monument to complexity, diversity, and — ultimately — empathy. In charting the murderous journey of a drop of poison up and down the food chain, she demonstrates that every living thing is connected to every other living thing. “In nature nothing exists alone,” Carson tells us.

For me, this revelation is what makes Silent Spring worth reading, because it is a revelation that is so easily forgotten. Sure, the science and statistics are old, but the message, the overriding theme of the book, is just as relevant today as it was then, if not more so. Indeed, if we consider ourselves environmentalists, it is our duty to remind ourselves and others of the reality of the natural world and humanity’s place in it. The book is almost fifty years old, so read it not for an up-to-date account of agriculture or medical science today, but to be inspired and stirred, as others were before you. Unless we do something soon, we will inhabit “a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight,” a world of devastation, of silent springs.

Jordan Jones

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Other Posts in Jones’ “Environmental Canon”

The Revenge of Gaia – Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity

John J. Audubon – Iconic Painter of Birds

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

The Creation – An Appeal to Save Life on Earth

The World Without Us

Ansel Adams at 100