Thank You, Rachel Carson
By Richard W. Franke
Professor Emeritus of Anthropology: Montclair State University, New Jersey
Resident: Ecovillage at Ithaca; Board Member: Sustainable Tompkins
October, 2012, will mark the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, just a year and a half before her untimely death from breast cancer and other illnesses at age 56. We in the sustainability movement today, owe a lot to Rachel Carson – to her intellectual brilliance, to her beautiful writing, to her courage and to her perseverance. And to her insistence on the people’s right to know.
Rachel Carson (1907–1964) was a zoologist and marine biologist who worked for many years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She is considered one of the finest science writers ever, producing a series of books and articles including Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955) as well as several technical reports for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Carson also penned articles for popular magazines…including The Atlantic Monthly, Colliers, and The New Yorker. Rachel Carson’s masterpiece, Silent Spring, had been partially serialized in The New Yorker Magazine for a few months prior to the book.
Silent Spring is widely recognized as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. A recent search on the Harvard University web-based library card catalog turned up 257 books and videos under the title “Silent Spring.”
(http://hollisweb.harvard.edu accessed 25 October 2011). Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of citations to the book have appeared in scientific journal articles and popular publications over the decades. The book has been published in France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Holland, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Iceland, Portugal and Israel and has influenced environmental legislation in all those countries (Anon:7). After 49 years, Silent Spring remains in print and up to 2001 at least was still selling 400 copies per week (MacGillivray 2004:57).
The DDT Debate, the Chemical Industry and Right Wing Attacks
Questions about the possible harmful effects of DDT make up a substantial portion of Silent Spring and for many readers Carson’s warnings about the health consequences of pesticides constitute the essence of the book. A particular concern has been the possibility that pesticides cause cancer and birth defects. Recent evidence now also implicates DDT and other POPs (Persistent Organic Polluters) in endocrine disruption – interfering with the operation of human hormones (MacGillivray 2004:113–115). Endocrine disruption threatens a wide range of possible human harm.
In chapter 3 of Silent Spring Carson wrote the first scientific account of the mechanisms by which pesticides interfere with the life processes in language that can be understood by non specialists. Carson explicitly disavowed the total cessation of pesticide spraying. She argued instead for careful and limited usage.
Her book ignited a fierce public debate over the safety of synthetic pesticides created by humans that had never existed in nature. Carson was attacked by representatives of the chemical industry. The lawyer for the Velsicol Chemical Corporation attempted to prevent publication of the book by threatening a lawsuit just before it went to the printer. Corporate supporters and right-wing commentators have continued to attack Carson and Silent Spring up to the present. Most recently she has been accused of facilitating the deaths of hundreds of millions of Africans from malaria. Go to http://rachelwaswrong.org and read the charges against her – charges refuted by Mark Hamilton Lytle (2007:217–228. See the references list below). A more extensive and detailed survey and refutation of the right-wing charges appears in Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (2010:216–239). An online summary of their defense of Silent Spring can be accessed at:
In 1963 Silent Spring led in part, to the appointment by President Kennedy of a President’s Science Advisory Commission. This was followed by congressional hearings that most observers believe vindicated Carson’s warnings that some pesticides and spraying campaigns were threatening to cause environmental and health disasters.
Silent Spring was the impetus for the founding in 1967 of the Environmental Defense Fund which later led the battle to ban DDT – a ban that took effect in the U.S. in 1972. And today Rachel Carson continues to inspire people around the world who want to know what chemicals are being added to our environment, whether they have been properly tested and whether they fit into the web of life she defended in Silent Spring.
Silent Spring and Sustainability
Rachel Carson might never have used the word “sustainability.” But Silent Spring rang a warning bell that uncontrolled and careless overspraying of chemical pesticides could damage the web of life – the evolving, adjusting order of nature. Indeed, the very title of her book refers to the first chapter in which she describes a fictitious town in which a spring arrived but no birds sang.
As time has passed, more and more people see Silent Spring as one of the first scientific statements about a major element of sustainability. This is the idea that we humans are part of nature, not its conquerors and that we should use science and technology to maintain or strengthen rather than to weaken or break the strands of the web of life. In Silent Spring Carson warns us that careless use or overuse of pesticides could alter the relationships within the web of life in ways that could result in unexpected consequences for nature and thus for humans. Here are a few of her statements on these matters:
* “The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings.” (first sentence of Chapter 2);
* “It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth – eons of time in which that developing and evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings.” (page 6);
* “…in nature nothing exists alone.” (page 51);
* “The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever shifting, in a constant state of adjustment.” (page 246);
* “Water must be thought of in terms of the chains of life it supports…” (page 46);
* “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance…” (page 297);
* “Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.” (page 13)
Two of Carson’s most important ideas are:
* Pesticides accumulate up the food chain. Because Carson understood the linkages among parts of nature, she was one of the first persons to publicize the accumulation effect: very small amounts of DDT sprayed over large areas eventually led to amounts sometimes hundreds of times larger in animals higher up the food chain as larger units consumed smaller ones and the DDT became stored in the fat (eg. Pages 47 – 48)
* Natural biological processes of mutation make it possible for insects to develop resistance to human attempts to wipe them out with chemicals. This results in turn in more massive sprayings, leading to more resistance and/or the introduction of ever more poisonous chemicals leading only to further resistance. Carson suggested that insects – because of their short life spans – were likely to mutate more rapidly than humans can invent new chemical killers. In other words, we are setting up an ultimately losing contest despite some apparent early and short-term successes. Even in 1962 evidence indicated that as many as 140 insect species had become resistant to DDT (MacGillivray 2004:99).
Furthermore, even when successful, destruction of one pest might only result in expansion of another that had been its prey. Chapter 15 of Silent Spring is titled “Nature Fights Back.” In that chapter Carson provided several examples of paradoxical developments: the destruction of a particular pest – possibly not even one targeted by the sprayers – led to the massive multiplication of another pest. One example is the spider mite that sucks chlorophyll out of evergreen needles. When the U. S. Forest Service sprayed 885,000 acres of western forests with DDT to control the spruce budworm, the forests turned brown, at first mystifying the Service. Then it was discovered that the DDT had also killed most of the ladybugs that are the natural predator of the spider mites in that area. Carson noted that
By their very nature chemical controls are self-defeating, for they have been devised and applied without taking into account the complex biological systems against which they have been blindly hurled. (Silent Spring, page 246);
…the chemical barrage [of pesticides] has been hurled against the fabric of life – a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways. (page 297)
Reading those pages, I could not help wondering: if we substitute “geology” for “biological systems” or “fabric of life,” would Carson’s warning apply to hydrofracking in the Finger Lakes of New York State? Will geology strike back by poisoning our drinking water in response to a paltry few decades of natural gas extraction?
Rachel Carson’s Other Road
The final chapter of Silent Spring offered some of Carson’s alternatives, broadly lumped into the category of biological controls. These included male sterilization of undesirable insects, use of natural repellants, lures, ultrasonic sounds to repel certain insects, species-specific bacteria or viruses, importation of natural enemies and restoration of the populations of predators including birds, bats, spiders and some small mammals that all engage in effective insect control. Some of Carson’s alternatives amount to human interference with naturally evolved systems. Aware of this, she explained that any alternatives should be “based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong” (page 278). Today we might say that Carson understood the need to maintain biodiversity. But it was not just species biodiversity: it was biodiversity of the elements and the networks and systems of the web of life that she recognized as crucial to the existence and quality of human life. Organic farmers today make use of many of the ideas Carson advocated. Her emphasis on connections among the elements of the web of life also makes Carson one of the first science writers to present to the public a systems view of nature and of our place in it.
Rachel Carson is both ancestor and heroine for all of us today who are struggling to create and leave behind for our children and grandchildren a world of sustenance and beauty. Perhaps there will be academic and public events celebrating and evaluating her life and work in October, 2012. After re-reading Silent Spring, I just couldn’t wait to say, “Thank you, Rachel Carson.”
Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Dunlap, Thomas R., Editor. 2008. DDT, Silent Spring, and the Rise of Environmentalism: Classic Texts. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Lear, Linda. 1997. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt and Company. The definitive biography of Rachel Carson. On pages 585—587 is a complete list of Rachel Carson’s writings.
Lytle, Mark Hamilton. 2007. The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.
MacGillivray, Alex. 2004. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Manifesto: Ideas That Changed the World. Hauppauge, New York: Barrons Educational Series, Inc.
Murphy, Priscilla Coit. 2005. What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Oreskes, Naomi and Erik M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press.