For a long time now, the name of Rachel Carson has been synonymous with the environmental movement. Many times I have heard that Silent Spring, her 1962 classic, was the fuse that triggered the explosion culminating in the current wave of environmental activism, and should be counted among the few books that have actually altered the course of history. I have even echoed its praise to my friends. But until recently, I had never actually taken the time to pick up and read the book. I hadn't a clue, really, of what exactly Carson had done to change the world, or whether she had acted deliberately to have such impact or stumbled accidentally into her place in history.
I recommend that anyone who has an interest in issues of science, agriculture, writing, feminism, politics, environmentalism, or social justice read Silent Spring. If, as I did, you assume that a book published 28 years ago must by necessity have a dated feel to it or be in many ways factually obsolete, you can expect a big surprise. If, as I did, you also believe that secondhand reports of Carson's achievements can provide you with all you need to know about her, please reconsider. Carson's work deserves to be known directly.
First, Rachel Carson's writing smolders with passion and sings with poetic beauty, while revealing a highly trained and disciplined scientific mind. Silent Spring, her searing indictment of our rampant misuse of agricultural pesticides, is a very good book. The reader will enjoy the experience, while, at the same time receive a solid but painless initiation into the world of pesticide theory. Carson's theory isn't a dry read because she never allows it to become separate from the passions of the web of life, the assault on which she so eloquent1 y chronicles.
Second, it is not just a cliché to say that Silent Spring, her last work, is the single most formative influence on the modem environmental movement, and perhaps the Environmental Protection Agency, which was established in 1970 in remarkable accord with recommendations prescribed by Carson in her 1963 testimony before the U.S. Congress. As we proceed into the current Decade of the Environment, it would be a shame to do so without a clear knowledge of the woman and the book that made "environment" a household word.
Third, Silent Spring is truly a paradigmatic work. It focuses explicitly on the dangers of chlorinated fluorocarbons and organic phosphates, and other "biocides" (a term that Carson prefers to "pesticides" because it more honestly points to the indiscriminate death-dealing nature of these poisons), but it does much more. With relentless force, it lays bare the way of thinking that has given us nuclear arms proliferation and the so-called "peaceful atom," as in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the recently disclosed Hanford (Washington) disaster. She makes plain the connections between the demented love affair of corporate power with the chemical insect controls and the now-confirmed tragedy of its current obsession with nuclear power. Carson reveals the way of thinking that brought US Love Canal, the Bhopal disaster, the Thalidomide horror and even the Dalkon shield. Although she died in 1964, having witnessed only the first vibrations of the chord she struck in the soul of her generation, her vision illuminates the conditions of the 1990s as clearly as if she now stood amongst us in the flesh.
Fourth, Silent Spring is, at least implicitly, a feminist work. The indignant and life-loving denunciation of the outrages of patriarchy that characterizes the best feminist theory permeates every page of Carson's book. If she had lived to see it, Carson would have undoubtedly found a home within the modem feminist movement that emerged within a few years of her death. In The Recurring Silent Spring, a tribute to Carson, Patricia Hynes brings to light the hardship that went along with being a woman scientist in Carson's day, not to mention the present, and further illuminates the virulent sexism that characterized the agribusiness smear campaign against Carson. Her enemies had no factual grounds to attack the integrity of her painstakingly documented work so they fruitlessly appealed to our ugliest oppressive conditioning to weaken her impact.
Fifth, in these days when 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth tops the NY Times best-sellers list, Carson's work stands out as one difficult thing that a woman did to save the Earth. She made her intentions to halt humanity's war on the biosphere very explicit. Her book was deliberately constructed to withstand any rebuttal. Twenty-eight years later, her work remains as fundamentally sound as the day it was published. Four years elapsed from the inception of Silent Spring to its publication, during which time she battled with arthritis and a host of other health problems, including breast cancer, a condition that eventually took her life. Most of what we need to do to save the Earth will not be simple. Silent Spring shows forth as one of history's greatest tributes to the difference that one person armed with the truth and a love of life can make to the future of the world.
Today, as we stand in the doorway to the Third Millennium, we witness an emerging voice from people of color and the poor as the conscience of the environmental movement, insisting that we make the connections between social and environmental justice, between civil and environmental rights. Silent Spring fails to make the connection as explicit as I would like. This is the book's only weakness, one that can excused given its historical context.
Anyone who decides to take up the task of reading or rereading Silent Spring should read as a companion volume Patricia Hynes' The Recurring Silent Spring. Where Carson stops short, Hynes soars, complimenting and expanding on the vision of Silent Spring in a thoroughly exciting manner. Hynes points out that, by coincidence, the charter convention of the United Farm Workers (UFW) took place on September 30, 1962, only 3 days after the publication of Silent Spring. Carson made several references to the possible human costs of pesticide use but mistakenly assumed, probably due to her academic conditioning, that there was little "hard data" available on the subject. If Carson had attended the UFW convention she would have encountered a wealth of "hard data" on the human toll of chemically-dependent agriculture. She would have received first-hand accounts of the skin rashes, dizziness and nausea, respiratory ailments, miscarriages, birth defects, cancers and deaths faced by the farmworkers due to pesticide exposure. Carson's activism would have certainly been enriched and deepened by these struggling Latino farmworkers; she would have undoubtedly come on strongly on their behalf, and the movement that she inspired might have developed a much stronger social justice critique than it has. All speculation aside, Silent Spring is a book of unique and timeless impact, and Rachel Carson, a remarkable individual. Such distinctive humanity deserves our keenest attention and our utmost appreciation. In times like ours, when we desperately need environmental heroes as models after which to pattern our own commitment to celebrating and defending our home planet, we need look no further than this woman, our bold foremother, to lend us the courage and example we need to carry the good work forward into the next century.
Victor Lewis is a policy board member of the Urban Habitat Program.
Pesticides - Vol. 2 No. 1 - Spring 1991