This March, in honor of Women’s History Month, I read Silent Spring, by environmental pioneer, Rachel Carson. I selected the 40th-anniversary edition which includes an introduction by the biographer, Linda Lear and an afterword by author and scientist, Edward O. Wilson.
Simple, beautiful, and evocative illustrations by Lois and Louis Darling begin each chapter.
In a way, Silent Spring is a classic tale of warfare—us against them. The war described in the book is between man and other members of nature, specifically unwanted insects (pests) and to a lesser extent unwanted plants (weeds). As with all wars, there is collateral damage and unintended consequences. The weapons of this war were pesticides, herbicides, and other toxic chemicals, many of which were byproducts of another war, World War II.
Readers learn about the impact of these “elixirs of death” on not only their intended targets of insect pests and weeds but also on the water, soil, plants, animals, and humans. Carson recounts the effects of widespread insecticide spraying operations that took place over millions and millions of acres of land, often repeatedly. In the end, the insects just came back in greater numbers as they adapted quickly to the poisons, but damage to plants, animals, and humans was long lasting and sometimes fatal.
The book tells of how chemical companies convinced farmers, ranchers, foresters, and governmental agencies that insecticides and herbicides were necessary and safe. They, in turn, informed the public there was nothing to worry about. The areas sprayed included forests, agricultural land, orchards, roadsides, and even residential neighborhoods. Many times insecticides and herbicides were applied without the consent of the public and often without any pre-notification.
Carson was not against killing insects that carry infection and disease, just the practice of killing off everything else at the same time. In the final chapter, she describes some alternatives. Silent Spring contains a lot of scientific information, research, facts, and examples. The 50 or so pages at the end of the text contain Carson’s sources.
One section in the book that struck me described an effort to expand cattle grazing land by using herbicides to kill off sagebrush. Justice William O. Douglas tells of attending a meeting where citizen protests were discussed. A woman had opposed the plan as it would kill all the wildflowers. Justice Douglas said,
“Yet, was not her right to search out a banded cup or tiger lily as inalienable as the right of stockmen to search out grass or of a lumberman to claim a tree?”
The Bottom Line
Rachel Carson was a marine biologist and enjoyed writing about nature. She spent most of her professional life with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was already an accomplished nature writer by the time Silent Spring was published in 1962.
The publication of Silent Spring brought the widespread use and effects of pesticides and herbicides into the public view and provided inspiration for environmentalists across the country.
Silent Spring unleashed an avalanche of attacks on Carson and many people tried to discredit her. In the end, her voice was not silenced and although Silent Spring was written over 50 years ago, Rachel Carson and her message live on.
The next time you grab a can of insecticide to kill an ant trail in your kitchen or a can of herbicide to spray to kill the crabgrass on your lawn, put the can away, and go read Silent Spring.
- Diary of an Eco-Outlaw – Book Review
- Eco Amazons – Book Review
- Living Downstream – Book Review
- Love Canal – Book Review
- Moonrise – Book Review
- Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy – Book Review