Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962): An Environmental Classic

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Silent Spring (1962) is the most enduring work of nonfiction by Rachel Carson (1907–1964), the noted American marine biologist and groundbreaking environmentalist.

In this book, Carson made a passionate argument for protecting the environment from manmade pesticides. Written with grace as well as passion, it’s an indictment of the pesticide industry that arose in the late 1950s. It lays out a disturbing view of the damage these chemicals can cause to birds, bees, wildlife, and plant life.

Rachel Carson’s official website recognizes how prescient she was: “Silent Spring inspired the modern environmental movement, which began in earnest a decade later. It is recognized as the environmental text that changed the world.”

From this site’s biography of Rachel Carson:

“The public’s growing awareness of the dangers of chemicals created a natural readership for Silent Spring, serialized in The New Yorker beginning June 16, 1962, and published as a book on September 27, 1962.

Silent Spring sold more than 100,000 copies in the first week and was on the bestseller list by Christmas. By now it has sold more than two million copies and has been translated into more than twenty languages.”

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Learn more about Rachel Carson
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Carson was subject to backlash and attacks from the pesticide industry, which conspired to discredit her. A 2012 article in Yale Environment 360 titled “Fifty Years After Silent Spring, Attacks on Science Continue” observed:

“When Silent Spring was published in 1962, author Rachel Carson was subjected to vicious personal assaults that had nothing do with the science or the merits of pesticide use. Those attacks find a troubling parallel today in the campaigns against climate scientists who point to evidence of a rapidly warming world.”

Rachel Carson has been more than vindicated for her contributions to contemporary environmentalism. Newspaper reviews were generally positive, if genuinely surprised and disturbed by the case she laid out about pesticides, particularly DDT. Here is one such review from when the book was published, after it was serialized.

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Silent Springby Rachel Carson- 1962

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27 Quotes from Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
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A 1962 review of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

From the original review of Silent Spring in the Calgary Herald, October 6, 1962:  In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson tells a story that intelligent citizens will find both illuminating and disturbing. Imagine a spring season without bird song. Miss Carson writes:

“On the morning that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs the litters were small and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.”

Such a sterile, silent world, of course, does not exist. But some day it may, Miss Carson warns, because of care less and indiscriminate use of insecticides and other chemicals. Poisons of this kind are often more effective than the users realize: if they kill insects, weeds, rodents and other pests, they may also kill other forms of life and even penetrate human germ cells to alter the structure of heredity, thereby initiating a chain of evil that is in part irreparable and irreversible.

Many of them are capable of destroying the enzymes that protect the body from harm, of blocking the oxidation process, of causing malignancies.

It is not Miss Carson’s contention that such chemicals should never be used. She argues only that their ultimate effect upon the environment must be thoroughly studied and understood.

For example, in large areas throughout the U.S. midwest and New England a certain DDT spray was used to combat Dutch elm disease. The spray seeped into the earth and was absorbed by the cutworms, which in turn were eaten by robins: The result was thousands of dead robins-and meanwhile the Dutch elm disease continued largely unchecked, because the truly effective means of curbing it seems to be scientific pruning or the destruction of diseased trees.

Similarly, in the 1950s the Canadian government attempted to protect forests from the ravages of the spruce budworm by extensive aerial spraying. Millions of salmon were killed when the spray contaminated rivers and streams, but each year budworms reappeared in great numbers.

Miss Carson makes it clear that insect pests, insect-borne diseases and such cannot be ignored, but she questions whether even carefully controlled lethal spraying with chemicals is the answer. Scientists should look rather for a biological solution of the problem she indicates.

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The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson

See also: The Sea Around Us
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For example, it was discovered that a Canadian shrew devours sawfly cocoons, Newfoundland was plagued with sawflies, and when these shrews were introduced to the island, the end of the sawfly problem was in sight. There is, Miss Carson believes, a whole battery of such solutions awaiting scientists patient enough to look for them. Miss Carson says:

“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, in a report on Silent Spring, adds: “We need a Bill of Rights against the Twentieth Century poisoners of the human race. The book is a call for immediate action and for effective control of all merchants of poison.”

Rachel Carson is a graduate of Pennsylvania College for Women and has taken an advanced degree in zoology at Johns Hopkins University. At first associated with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in Washington, she was later appointed editor-in-chief for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Her best-known book is The Sea Around Us (1951), a tremendous popular and critical success for which she won the Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society, the John Burroughs Medal, the Gold Medal of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia and the National Book Award.

Much of the material in Silent Spring has been drawn from about 2,000 pages of testimony submitted in connection with a suit brought by Robert Cushman Murphy and other Long Island citizens against the State of New York for “needless and highly destructive” spraying of sections of Long Island. The case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear it on technicality.

Using this material as a point of departure, Miss Carson spent some four years gathering further relevant data from scientists all over the world. Only then did she begin the formidable job of organizing her facts in a continuous and readable narrative.

The result has been called “an eloquent protest in behalf of the unity of all nature, a protest in behalf of life.”

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Silent Spring by Rachel Carson-1962

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