Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, and it’s an environmental science classic. She was one of the first authors to expose the realities of pesticides to the general public. Now, the world has always had natural pesticides. Sometimes it’s a protective plant—like planting marigolds near your tomatoes. Other times, the natural world has predatory creatures, like spiders, who keep other bugs in check. But Carson’s concern was the synthetic pesticides being created in mass quantities by chemical companies.
Carson was both researcher, scientist, and journalist. And she researched all the angles of pesticide uses and misuses. For example, it’s certainly true that fire ants are nasty little creatures. I’ve stepped in their mounds and had dozens of painful bites all over my feet and ankles. But the government and chemical companies decided to use airplanes to spray DDT widely over known fire ant regions. And Carson explains the havoc this wrecked on the rest of nature in the area. The terrible harm done for this and other chemical pesticide campaigns is mind-boggling.
Silent Spring is now nearly 60 years old. But the scary thing is how man still manipulate nature to their advantage. And sadly, they also don’t acknowledge the importance of the natural world to man’s survival.
I’m glad I finally finished this book, after telling myself to read it for a decade. At the same time, it’s really quite outdated, due to the successful efforts of Carson and her supporters. Still, she’s an icon of grassroots environmentalism. She was also the rare female scientist of her time. Even today, people like Hope Jahren write about how biased the profession is. And that makes Carson and her work even more remarkable.
I found Carson’s writing style uncomfortable to read. It’s both formal and poetic, and the cadence just didn’t suit me. After trying the ebook for a while, I switched to the audiobook. Thankfully, the narrator’s efforts made the rest of the book go quickly.
As I write this review sitting near my own garden, I remember how much Silent Spring influenced my dad. He loved gardening and jumped right into the organic gardening movement of the 1960s and 70s. He was always using some weird concoction to make things grow or stop pests. And I’ve tried to follow in his footsteps. So again, Carson connected my experience to her knowledge. And that’s a wonderful feeling.
More than once Silent Spring also made me think of Monsanto and Roundup. Carson focuses on the damage pesticides do to the natural world. But she also discusses the little we knew about human exposure all those decades ago. She probably let out a little cheer (from wherever she might be) when Monsanto decided to settle the class action lawsuit about Roundup and cancer. Would we have such a case if people actually listened to Carson 50 years ago?
If you’d like a more current book with a similar environmentalist spirit, try Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe by Maria Rodale. Or try Material Value: More Sustainable, Less Wasteful Manufacturing of Everything from Cell Phones to Cleaning Products from Julia Goldstein, Ph. D.
I recommend Silent Spring for insight into environmental issues of the late 20th century. Plenty of the same concerns exist today.