50th Anniversary of “Silent Spring”

Reaction to Rachel Carson’s research

Of “The 25 Greatest Science Books of All Time” listed in Discover Magazine http://discovermagazine.com/2006/dec/25-greatest-science-books/article_view?b_start:int=1&page=2, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is #16.  That book, credited with sparking the environmental movement, was published September 27, 1962, meaning its 50th anniversary is coming up.  Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907- April 14, 1964), the marine biologist and naturalist who wrote the book, has since been both credited and blamed for just about everything under the sun.  At the very least, we can say that many bird species that would have gone silent are still singing today.  That is worth celebrating.

The book is a valuable but difficult read due to the density of technical information with which Carson shored up her arguments.  Yet, it caught on in her day and was selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club.  President Kennedy considered it a wake-up call, as did so many others, and authorized studies of the effects of chemicals, leading to increased regulation.  DDT was found to kill a broad spectrum of insects and then work its way up the food chain.  I remember being amazed, back in the 60s, that a bug spray was causing birds to produce thin-shelled eggs, thus threatening the survival of Bald Eagles.  DDT was  banned in the United States for agricultural use.

Such bans and regulations did not sit well with corporations that produced synthetic pesticides.  They attacked Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, which served to give the book publicity.  As TIME Magazine reported in 1999, “In their ugly campaign to reduce a brave scientist’s protests to a matter of public relations, the chemical interests had only increased public awareness.”  Even now, some people blame Carson for malaria and mosquitoes in general, as if DDT could have wiped out an insect known for developing immunity to insecticides.

“Carson was not arguing for banning all pesticides,” notes John Wargo of Yale University, who spent six months going through 117 boxes of Carson’s personal files. “She was simply arguing against the broad-scale prophylactic application that would lead to widespread contamination and exposure. Her arguments follow a train of logic and a narrative that would be extremely useful today.” (Lauren Peeples in HuffPost Green)

When Rachel was a child, her mother used to take her on walks, awakening her sense of wonder.  Carson urged us to continue to foster that appreciation of nature in her book The Sense of Wonder.  She closed that book with these words: “The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea and sky and their amazing life.”  Noticing bird song today is a good place to start.

Two of Carson’s books
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