Silent Spring: The pioneer of an environmental movement

A book review

By Alexandra Fileccia

Rachel Carson called out public officials and the chemical industry in her 1962 book titled Silent Spring. This book, in addition to her others, [The Sea Around Us (1951), The Edge of the Sea (1955)], inspired the start of an environmental movement, which she did not live to see.

With her main focus on insecticides, herbicides and pesticides, specifically DDT, aldrin and various isomers to these compounds, Carson discusses the harm of exposure to these chemicals for humans and other organisms that come in contact. In the book, she explains levels of toxicity and how chemicals can build up in an organism’s body.

In 1962, chemical companies were deeming deadly chemicals safe to the public and public officials backed them up. As long as their wallets were growing, officials didn’t care to look into side effects. “The production of synthetic pesticides in the United States soared from 124, -259,000 pounds in 1947 to 637,666,000 pounds in 1960.” It was normal for planes to drop blankets of “safe” chemicals on hundreds of thousands of acres of vegetated land, and even people.

Most people, especially the government and farmers, were solely concerned with eradicating weeds and insects that pose threats to crop production. However, as Carson points out in the beginning of Silent Spring, there was a major problem with crop overproduction.

All while Carson presents the horrifying truth, she never says the world is doomed to remain this way. In fact, she advocates for change. In her eyes, the change is left up to the public. In a New York Times review of Silent Spring written in 1962 by Lorus and Margery Milne, they praise Carson for her wake up call. “It is high time for people to know about these rapid changes in their environment, and to take an effective part in the battle that may shape the future of all life on earth,” they say.

The public was mostly unaware of the dangers that common pesticides, herbicides and insecticides of the time presented. People had to seek the information if they wanted it. And, to seek information, the public needed a motive—a danger—that chemical companies kept well hidden or completely denied.

Carson is clear on her viewpoint throughout the entire book, and if she thinks the reader may be confused, she backtracks and explicitly states what she means. She does this right from the beginning, “All this is not to say there is no insect problem and no need of control,” she writes after sharing some facts about overproduction. “I am saying, rather, that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects.”

Not only does Carson explicitly state her opinions, she is also conversational about how she states them. The whole book is written in an effective, colloquial way. The hard scientific facts and statistics are almost always followed up but an explanation in layman’s terms. She is thoroughly convincing this way. She mixed her background as a marine biologist and scientist with her passion of writing and literature, an idea that Linda Lear, author of a Rachel Carson biography, talks about in the fiftieth edition’s introduction.

Carson also capitalizes on the use of rhetorical questions to push the book along—a technique taken from her own literary studies. In a way, the questions break up heavier material and refocus the reader.

By using jarring facts and stories from people she interviewed, she strengthens her argument. In the chapter titled “Elixirs of Death,” she discusses a scientist who studied the effects of parathion on bees. He then experiments with the lethal dosage of human consumption by ingesting the chemical himself. “Paralysis followed so instantaneously that he could not reach the antidotes he had prepared at hand, and so he died.” Such a line is sure to startle a reader.

The connection of all life is emphasized in all chapters of the book to further convince her readers. DDT was not only killing earthworms, but also any creature that eats earthworms—birds take large focus in Silent Spring. The food chain and interdependence in nature are important factors when considering chemical sprays.

“This soil community, then, consists of a web of interwoven lives, each in some way related to the others—the living creatures depending on soil, but the soil in turn a vital element of the earth only so long as this community within it flourishes,” Carson writes.

Carson amps her credibility by offering alternative methods of pest control. In the case of New York State and the Dutch elm disease, she approves of their method and recommends other states adopt similar tactics. New York did not rely on spraying the disease away. Rather, the state contains and manages the disease so it doesn’t spread. Carson calls the New York method intelligent and hopes for more intelligent alternatives.

“It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.”

The New Yorker, as well as other publications, released portions of Silent Spring before it’s publication as a book to stir up hype and get more attention from the public. The book changed the way a generation of people thought about the environment—Carson was a great pioneer. Silent Spring still stands as an important piece of journalism and a reminder of how human interaction can be detrimental to the environment and, in turn, humans as a surviving species.

I had to read Silent Spring for my environmental journalism class, but I ended up really enjoying it. If you haven’t read this book and are interested in environmentalism, or even if you just like to learn about something new, I highly recommend reading it! It’s a little dense in some parts but it’s totally worth it. I am a slow reader so it took my a while to get through. Rachel Carson is truly an inspiration.


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