First published in 1962, Silent Spring can singlehandedly be credited with sounding the alarm and raising awareness of humankind's collective impact on its own future through chemical pollution. No other book has so strongly influenced the environmental conscience of Americans and the world at large.
In Silent Spring Rachel Carson imagines a world in which spring is unnaturally silent because of the pesticides and herbicides then in use killing off the wild life, including birds with their beautiful songs, hence the silence of spring. She informs the reader that such a scenario is not so far off and begins to document incident after incident where the use of dangerous chemicals has harmed the wildlife in our environment. The meticulous research involved in documenting the harm done by pesticides and other dangerous chemicals, especially DDT, is overwhelming and one can appreciate why the chemical industry tried to go after and discredit Rachel Carson. Moreover, she then documents that if these killing chemicals are harming the wildlife then they are certainly harming us as well.
She documents the increase in cancer and traces it back to the overuse of pesticides, herbicides and other dangerous chemicals. Any pesticide, herbicide, or fungicide is a biocide she argues, if it kills life than it is killing us slowly but surely. At that time she states that cancer will become an epidemic and strike one out of every four people living if the wholesale use of pesticides and herbicides are not used more wisely if not banned outright. She documents how cancer can take decades to develop and that repeated small exposures to these dangerous chemicals disrupts cellular processes. Appreciatively, she writes in such a way that the layman can understand these complex biological functions. Ms. Carson argues forcefully that we ought to be working to prevent cancer from occurring as well as fighting for a cure. Instead, she points out, the medical establishment works upon fighting cancer once it has appeared rather than prevention. Unfortunately, not much has changed concerning cancer prevention verses cancer treatment. She herself died of breast cancer two years later after Silent Spring was released. For now it is a sad fact that one out of two men will have cancer in his lifetime and one out of every three women will so it is much worse than she predicted back in 1962.
One of the original reviews by The New York Times gave it a glowing recommendation but the reviews by the chemical industry were not so favorable which is not surprising given that her book strikes at the hand that feeds them. Many of the reviews by the chemical industry were sexist and patronizing in the extreme. However, the public overwhelmingly endorsed Ms. Carson’s recommendations.
Silent Spring has been credited with beginning the environmental movement in the United States. So powerfully did the book argue against the use of chemicals to control the natural world that DDT was eventually banned for use in the United States. Although there are portions of the book where the science is outdated, because of the impact this book has had upon our nation’s use of pesticides such as DDT and because it was an impetus for the environmental movement in this country, the title deserves to remain upon the shelf at public libraries.
Carson does an amazing job of giving explanations of some basic biology as well as the plentiful descriptions of case studies. Well worth reading.
Rachel Carson blended science with a deep concern for the environment to produce a book of breathtaking beauty.
There is a strangely lyrical quality to her writing. I read the book almost through in one sitting.
When I read about the reactions that followed the publication of this book, I can only stand back and admire her courage. I wish we had such people in India.
In 1962, the poison producers simply brushed aside the concerns of the people, nowadays, they cry their best crocodile tears and promise that they are moving mountains to reverse the situation whilst, in reality, they blithely ignore the issues, as before.
Back to the book, history has proved Carson correct on almost every fear that she expressed. Admittedly, the planet still exists but, it would be interesting to know how many deaths might have been avoided had the "progressives" accepted the flaws in their approach: indeed, had they so done, maybe the knee jerk reaction to genetic engineering and fracking would not be so universally negative. If the general public could have any belief that safeguards were in place, I am sure that a far greater number would be willing to allow this research, without attempts to disrupt.
You may feel that this review is at a tangent to the book but, these are the areas which Ms. Carson would, I am sure, be tackling, were she to be writing now. The issues have changed, the response has not. The evidence of current misdemeanour's is kept from us, it is only by reminding ourselves of the historical position that we can see how to proceed now.
The introduction really helped place the book for me, in a period before environmentalism; after the cold war, when unpatriotic suggestions that we couldn’t control nature were frowned upon; and during a time when radiation was a recently recognized danger. Reading through the book without the introduction, Carson’s repetitive comparisons of chemical sprays to radiation might have become annoying. However, as the introduction pointed out, this was a rather clever move on her part given public consciousness of radiation as a real danger. The afterward also did a really good job of placing the book in relation to the following environmental movement and current ecological concerns. If you’re going to read Silent Spring, I would strongly recommend the 40th anniversary edition for these nice contextual additions.
As anticipated, the writing was often very beautiful. Despite my half-dozen or so biology classes, I’ve never found the inner workings of the cell half as beautiful as I did reading Rachel Carson’s descriptions. At other times, her writing did become over the top with references to “the chemical death rain”, but her descriptions of the results of these chemicals made the hyperbole seem warranted. In fact, finishing this book I actually felt a profound sense of relief that we don’t live in a world without birds, because of the damages these chemicals caused.
My only complaint with this read was that it quickly became repetitive. Although Rachel Carson’s point was novel at the time and people may have required more convincing, I was a convert pretty early on. In part because of the repetitiveness, I found the book informative but never really engaging. With a really great book, there’s always that point where you’ve really gotten into it and don’t want to put it down, except maybe to sleep…if you absolutely have to. With this read, I just never got to that point. Instead I felt like I had to force myself back into it whenever I took a break. Despite not getting really sucked in, this was an interesting and informative read which I think provides a great introduction for anyone interested in the history of the environmentalist movement.
Although the information in the book is dated, it is well worth the read to understand the history of the environmental movement, and what could be if environmentalism is minimized or ignored.
This book is on some of the lists of most influential books of the 20th century, and essentially backed up the eventual banning of DDT, though Carson herself does not argue that insecticides should not be used, merely that their use needs to be done carefully, specifically (ie., killing the intended insect without upsetting the ecosystem more than necessary), and with full understanding of the dangers of the chemicals. While I am not sorry to have read it and I understand that it was an important work for its time, much of the specifics that Carson focuses on are dry and not as relevant today as they were forty years ago. Her chapters on cancer and genetics in particular have not aged well as our understanding of both have developed significantly. Since the book began as a series of articles written the New Yorker, the chapters are extremely topical and somewhat repetitive. In the end, I was rather bored and wishing for a Cliffs Notes version.
If you haven’t read this book yet and you are concerned about the environment and the food that you eat, please read this book. It will be an eye opening experience. It will probably make you very uncomfortable. It will probably make you think twice before you eat things like potatoes and apples. It will probably make you think twice before you apply chemicals to your gardens or your lawn especially if you have children or pets.
I got a bit tired around the mid-way mark of reading about chemically-induced disasters and found myself skimming over some of those middle chapters, but I'm glad to have finally got around to reading the book.