Features » May 21, 2012
Our Silent Spring
Fifty years after Rachel Carson’s warning call, have we learned anything?
In the face of the corporate-backed PR campaign, the effort to build consensus on climate change must focus, as it did for Carson 50 years ago, on educating the public.
Fifty years ago, America was on its way to being the kind of place few species would want to inhabit. Toxic waste flowed into rivers, soot floated out of smokestacks and pesticides were driving some species to the brink of extinction. Then, amid the turbulence of the 1960s and early 1970s, people began to realize that the earth might be something worth protecting. The result was our modern framework of environmental advocacy and regulation: Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed landmark legislation like the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act; advocacy groups like Greenpeace, Environmental Defense Fund and the National Resources Defense Council were born; and older organizations like the Sierra Club were reinvigorated. On April 22, 1970, about 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day. The healing began.
It’s a familiar narrative – and would be a happy one if it ended there. Instead, today we face the gravest environmental threat that humanity has ever known – a threat that our system of environmental protection, so painstakingly constructed, is powerless to address. It’s been 24 years since NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony before Congress brought global warming to the public’s attention. Yet despite the ceaseless work of activists and scientists, the carbon-fueled industrial economy that is wreaking havoc on the climate is still firmly in place. Neither the government nor the public evinces the will to confront it.
At such a critical moment, it is worth considering the book that first snapped the country out of its complacency and set the environmental movement in motion. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring asked us to reconsider the blind rush toward what the industrial world called progress. Carson warned us that by destroying the environment, humans would destroy themselves.
Somewhere along the way, her message has been lost.
The web of life
Silent Spring begins with an allegory about a pastoral town, alive with blooming flowers, flowing streams and singing birds. All is well in this village, until suddenly it isn’t. Bad things start to happen: The birds disappear, livestock starts dying, the countryside turns brown and dry, and children fall sick and die from a mysterious illness. Carson goes on to explain, in descriptions that are rigorously scientific and at times moving, how the effects of organochlorine pesticides, including DDT, reverberate far beyond their intended targets, disrupting the dynamic between species and their habitats and even making people sick. “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of life in this stricken world,” Carson wrote. “The people had done it themselves.”
First serialized in The New Yorker in June 1962, Silent Spring is credited with changing the way we understand the natural world and our place in it. The natural world is not, Carson explained, populated by independent organisms. Rather, each element – microbes, soil, insects, plants and animals – functions in a complex relationship with the others. The way the inhabitants of these systems play off one another is breathtaking, but caution is required; altering a single piece could trigger a chain of destruction.
Though common knowledge now, Carson’s ecological view of the world was a revelation to most readers. And she emphasized how we humans are part of this system. “Man is a part of nature,” Carson told an interviewer, “and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
“What Silent Spring did,” the environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben says, “was to cause people to start questioning, for the first time, and in a big way, whether modernity was quite as shiny as they’d assumed. Or whether there were deep hazards hidden right in the middle of the huge industrial enterprise.” McKibben, the founder of the environmental organization 350.org – 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide is the upper limit of what can safely exist in the atmosphere, according to many scientists; we’re currently at about 394 – has led the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline. “It wasn’t just DDT that people were reacting to. It was the idea that things were not what they seemed, that they often came with a shadow attached. That’s a notion that’s grown, and it turns out that the biggest shadow of all is attached to the most ubiquitous chemical of all – CO2.”
“The modern world,” Carson wrote in 1963, “worships the gods of speed and quantity, and of the quick and easy profit, and out of this idolatry monstrous evils have arisen. … As for the general public, the vast majority rest secure in a childlike faith that ‘someone’ is looking after things – a faith unbroken until some public-spirited person, with patient scholarship and steadfast courage, presents facts that can no longer be ignored.”
Carson was referring to Ruth Harrison, a British animal-rights activist whose 1964 exposé of industrial livestock production, Animal Machines, Carson had agreed to preface. She was also, of course, referring to herself.
But Carson never got the chance to see Silent Spring’s impact reach as far as it did; she died of breast cancer in April 1964, at the age of 56. She may not have been altogether surprised, however – Carson carefully calibrated Silent Spring to achieve maximum effect, and in the two years following publication the book and its author were the subject of countless news stories, and even cartoons, as well as an episode of CBS Reports. Carson was invited to testify before a Senate subcommittee on the potential dangers of pesticides, and President John F. Kennedy asked his Scientific Advisory Committee to investigate the matter.
No one would have picked Carson out as the instigator of a wide-ranging social movement. Trained as a biologist, she was, according to her biographer Linda Lear, practical and reserved. She spent much of her career working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where her aptitude for explaining complex scientific concepts in lucid prose led to her writing wildlife guides for the public. Meanwhile, she began selling stories to local newspapers about things like the oyster farms of the Chesapeake Bay.
In 1937, an article Carson published in The Atlantic Monthly titled “Undersea” caught the attention of an editor at Simon & Schuster, and in 1941 Carson published her first book, Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life. A second book, The Sea Around Us, followed 10 years later. Initially serialized in The New Yorker, the book made Carson famous and won her the National Book Award. It was also a bestseller, as was her third book, The Edge of the Sea.
But as advances in science and technology sped forward, something changed for Carson, and describing the wonders of the sea no longer sufficed. She became unsettled by the unknown costs of so much change. In a letter to a friend written in 1958, as she was preparing to begin work on Silent Spring, Carson explained what drove her to take on the project:
It was pleasant to believe, for example, that much of Nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man … . These beliefs have almost been part of me for as long as I have thought about such things. To have them even vaguely threatened was so shocking that … I shut my mind – refused to acknowledge what I couldn’t help seeing. But that does no good, and I have now opened my eyes and my mind.
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Molly Bennet is an Associate Editor at In These Times. She attended Wesleyan University and was previously a reporter for New York Magazine.