Silent Spring: Essays and Questions
1. What was the immediate effect of Carson’s book?
Carson and her agent, Marie Rodell, knew they would receive a critical backlash for Silent Spring and worried about possibly being sued for libel by chemical companies. At that time, her thesis was controversial, and the burden of proof on her. She was battling cancer and had little strength for a prolonged fight with critics, so even before publication, she sent chapters around to experts to get their endorsement. She got the professional support she needed, among whom was Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an environmentalist. When she attended the White House Conference on Conservation in May 1962, advance copies of the book were given to delegates. After the book was serialized in the New Yorker in 1962, and became a Book-of-the Month Club selection, publicity against DDT was intense, and the chemical companies such as Dupont and American Cyanamid responded. They were on the defensive because of the outcry over the drug thalidomide that had just been proven to cause birth defects.
Carson was attacked on the basis of her credentials because she was a marine biologist and not a chemist. She was called a fanatic. She was slandered by former secretary of agriculture Ezra Taft Benson as a communist, because of her personal life, including her unmarried status. The chemical companies said she wanted a ban on all pesticides when she specifically denies this stand in the book. She calls for minimum spraying of specific targets will full knowledge of side effects. The academic community supported Carson’s science, and public opinion turned in her favor with TV specials. A congressional review of pesticide dangers cleared her name. Though she received many speaking invitations, Carson was unable to accept because of her illness. In 1963 she appeared on the Today Show and received many awards before her death in 1964. In 1967 the Environmental Defense Fund began to bring lawsuits against the government for using DDT, and by 1972, there was a phase-out of DDT in the United States.
2. How did Carson influence the environmental movement?
Rachel Carson is often revered as one of the three leaders of the environmental movement in the United States, along with Henry David Thoreau (Walden, 1854); and John Muir (The Mountains of California, 1894), founder of the Sierra Club. Thoreau already saw the wilderness vanishing with the heedless industrialization of the nineteenth century. His 1862 essay “Walking” calls for the preservation of wilderness as the basis of a viable civilization: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Muir fought for the Yosemite Valley against loggers, farmers, tourists, and big business. With religious zeal, he helped found the National Parks to preserve virgin lands from being destroyed by commercial interests. These naturalists had a certain following, but they were a minority, and often characterized as cultists, a label some tried to put on Rachel Carson. Carson, on the other hand, wrote at a pivotal moment in the 1960s, when the almost unregulated push of industry after World War II was having a devastating impact, not only on the wilderness, but also on the health of ordinary citizens. She was a naturalist but also a scientist who had worked for the U.S. government (Bureau of Fisheries and Wildlife). Her alarming thesis—that we are poisoning ourselves and the earth—was actually a message ready to be heard by a wider public. It fueled the activism of both the general consumer and a budding environmental movement.
Carson’s book was more than just another enthusiastic wilderness book. After reading her documented cases of wildlife destruction and human illness from pesticides, it was no longer possible for the thinking public to buy the argument of industry that these practices were the necessary price of progress and science. Carson’s study was the necessary groundwork for an extensive and scientifically based activism, an environmentalism based on the science of ecology, which she promoted as superior to self-interested industrial science. She inspired the philosophers of the deep ecology movement, such as Gary Snyder, who spoke of an underlying unity in nature that must be respected, and she inspired grassroots movements around the country with citizens rising up to defend their land against spraying. Carson is also influential among ecofeminists, who see feminist and ecological issues allied (the male conquering of nature vs. female nurturing and interdependence of species).
Another legacy of Carson’s book was the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 to look out for the specific interests of the environment. In her book she points out that it had largely been governmental agencies, influenced by chemical lobbies, responsible for the mass sprayings. Carson continued to come under fire for her stand on pesticides, since the opposing argument is that they controlled diseases like malaria, and they controlled pests for greater crop yields, necessary to alleviate world hunger. The truth is that DDT was never banned for anti-malaria use. Carson pointed out the problem that mosquitoes become resistant to the spraying, so she advised spraying as little as possible until a better solution was found.
3. What is the worldwide consensus on pesticides today?
Although worldwide opinion on DDT and other pesticides has swung largely to the environmental side of the argument, it is still a hot issue among those who claim that insecticides save lives, as in the case of malaria control. In 1955 the World Health Organization started a program to eradicate malaria with DDT, which was highly successful at first until overuse of agricultural DDT led to insect resistance. The early success of DDT for malaria was thus reversed. DDT is called a POP, or persistent organic pollutant, that does not break down quickly in soil or water. President John F. Kennedy ordered his Science Advisory Committee to investigate the claims in Silent Spring and vindicated Carson’s research. In the 1970s and 1980s, the agricultural use of DDT was banned in most developed countries. It was not banned for disease control. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies DDT as a “probable carcinogen.” In India and North Korea, DDT is still used for agriculture.
Other pesticides have been used as alternatives to DDT, such as dieldrin, discussed by Carson in her book as even more deadly than DDT. Dieldrin was widely used from the 1950s to the 1970s, but it biomagnifies in the food chain, and is now banned by most of the world as linked to Parkinson’s disease, breast cancer, nervous system damage, and immune disorders. The danger of insecticides to pregnant and nursing women and fetuses created an international momentum against insecticides. The Stockholm Convention of 2004 outlawed many POPs or persistant organic pollutants, restricting DDT to disease vector control. This protocol was ratified by 170 countries and recognized by most environmental groups. The Convention banned the “dirty dozen” worst POPs (aldicarb, toxaphene, chlordane, heptachlor, chlordimeform, chlorobenzilate, DBCP, DDT, the drins [aldrin, dieldrin, and endrin], EDB, HCH, and lindane, paraquat, parathion, penta, and 2,4, 5-T).
Along with the regulation of pesticides, organic farming has become an important alternative for food production, an example of following Carson’s idea of pursuing “the road less traveled.”Organic farming does not use synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified plants and animals, but uses techniques of biodiversity, crop rotation, green manure, compost, and biological pest control. It is a food production method that maintains the health of the entire ecosystem. Pioneers in this method began with Rudolf Steiner in Europe, with Albert Howard and Lady Eve Balfour in Great Britain, and J. I. Rodale in the United States. Modern organic agriculture is only a fraction of farming today, but the demand for it continues to grow rapidly with environmental awareness.
4. Who are some modern environmental heroes and organizations promoting environmental change?
Vandana Shiva is a particle physicist in India who advocates a return to traditional organic farming and is head of Navdanya (Nine Seeds), an organization to promote indigenous culture and sustainable farming.Gro Harlem Brundtland is a physician, scientist, former prime minister of Norway and director of the World Health Organization. She is a special envoy on climate change, convincing countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions.Wangari Maathai from Kenya is the first woman in east Africa to earn a doctorate in biology. She founded the Green Belt Movement in Africa, inspiring women to plant trees. For her work combining environmentalism, human rights, and democratic change she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.Al Gore, former vice president of the United States, was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his presentations on climate change and promotion of research. His 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” won an Academy Award.
Some of the well-known organizations dedicated to the environment include Earthwatch, Greenpeace, the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Nature Conservancy, The Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Worldwatch Institute, the Environmental Justice Foundation, Earth First!, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Wilderness Society. Ecology and environmental majors are now part of every college curriculum to prepare people for careers in environmental fields, demonstrating that Rachel Carson’s passion has persisted and magnified, in the United States and around the world.
5. What are some other environmental classics?
Rachel Carson is sometimes thought of as an Appalachian author, since she came from that region. There are other famous Appalachian authors interested in environmental issues, such as Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver. Berry’s naturalist poetry describing Kentucky is found in The Broken Ground (1964), and some of his essays on sustainable agriculture in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Sierra Club, 1977). Kingsolver’s essays in Small Wonder (2002) and her account of operating a family organic farm in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007) have made her an important voice for ecofeminism. Like Carson, she was an English major who switched to biology and has had a long and distinguished literary careeer.
Aldo Leopold has been called the father of wildlife management for his work with the U. S. Forestry Service. His collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac (1948), is a classic for his description of the ecology of various natural systems, written in the 1940s when the topic was new. One of Barbara Kingsolver’s neighbors and inspirations in Tucson, Arizona was Edward Abbey whose book Desert Solitaire, 1968, is an autobiographical account of his life as park ranger at Arches National Park. He has been considered the Thoreau of the desert. Annie Dillard, (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974) describes her literary and religious musings in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a book that won a Pulitzer Prize. Ernest Callenbach’s Ectopia, 1975, is one of the first depictions of an ecological utopia, influential in the counterculture of the 1970s. Based on current scientific research for benign alternatives to industrial culture, it is the sort of futuristic thinking Carson would have approved.
Gary Snyder (The Practice of the Wild, 1990) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and practicing Buddhist, whose essays lay the groundwork of a spiritual environmentalism called deep ecology. He reeducates the Westerner on practices of courtesy in the wild, how to be with nature, as native peoples have always known. From the Rocky Mountain Institute of research on environmental solutions, Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins published Natural Captitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution in 1999. This is a seminal work integrating green practices and business. The authors show a shift in attitude and accounting are needed to calculate the true cost of business that includes human and natural resources. They give case studies where business is sustainable through proper management of natural resources and principles such as biomimicry. A moving personal account of trying to save the California redwoods from loggers comes from Julia Butterfly Hill, The Legacy of Luna, 2000. She lived in Luna, a giant redwood, for two years without touching the ground, to preserve its life. Her adventures and musings are in the spirit of John Muir.