Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is a book everyone should read.
Published fifty years ago today, it is the defining work of modern environmentalism. There is a hard sell in claiming that everyone should read an environmental book, but Carson’s work transcends the category it represents. It is distinct from Thoreau’s Walden idyll or Aldo Leopold’s Sand County nature walks. Silent Spring deals in reverence for nature, but also cutting-edge science, politics, economics, and pure human drama. It’s a story about the modern life we are all living. Events in the book are not played out in remote wilderness or with endangered species, but on interstate highways and apartment buildings and suburban homes.
Many of those events are deeply chilling. Two children find a bag that once contained pesticides, and use it to repair a swing; both of them die, and three other children become ill. A family returns to their home that has been treated with insecticide to remove cockroaches; within hours the family dog has died, and shortly thereafter the family’s infant descends into a coma. Suburban communities are showered in a flurry of snowflake-shaped chemical poisons, causing frenzy and death in squirrels and birds and other animals, and unknown effects in the residents who are unable to avoid exposure. These same chemicals are found in the food being put on dinner tables every evening. These incidents — just a few of the many Carson cites — do not assume a fundamental love of nature or the environment. Carson’s larger goal was respect for the ecosystems that surround us and exceed our capacities for control. She calls for humility to accompany the extraordinary capacity for creation we see in modern technology and chemicals. She asks that we remember that we are part of nature in ways that we cannot avoid or escape.
Silent Spring’s impact was undeniable. Millions of Americans read the book when it debuted. President Kennedy formed a task force to examine the use of pesticides in American communities, and Carson was called to testify before Congress — which she did in the final stages of her losing battle with breast cancer. DDT, a pesticide Carson focused on in the book, was eventually banned in the United States. Perhaps the greatest indication of the book’s power was the campaign waged by the chemical industry to discredit it. Companies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to cast doubts on Carson’s character and her science, setting the tone for anti-environmental campaigns that continue today.
There is no 50th anniversary edition of Silent Spring, and the book is difficult to find in stores. But it is still relevant to the conversations we have in America fifty years after its publication. I first read Silent Spring in 2009, during my time as chief speechwriter for Lisa P. Jackson, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency. The book remains an important guide to what we talk about when we talk about environmentalism. Carson focused on the threats to health, particularly the health of children. She made clear that the problems she was writing about happened not just to animals in forests, but also touched the lives of people in cities and the suburbs. And she knew that our responsibility is not just to outline challenges, but to offer workable solutions that appeal to more than just nature lovers. Carson never called for the outright elimination of the use of chemicals, and often noted that savings could be found in municipal budgets if we adopted limited but equally effective use of chemical sprays. Following this last example was essential when trying to draw attention to environmental priorities against the backdrop of the largest economic downturn in modern history.
But Silent Spring has another far more important piece of personal relevance for me. Twenty years after its publication, on September 27, 1982, my younger brother was born. In the time between Carson’s book and Zach’s birth, the United States passed laws protecting our air, water and drinking water, and took measures to safeguard us against toxic substances in our homes and communities and the products we buy. They would soon limit lead emissions from cars on the road, and take steps to close the hole in the ozone layer. I have no dramatic tale to tell about Zach’s life, and that is exactly the point. He was born without incident, into a world that was better protected against many of the threats Carson brought to light, and many others the environmental movement had taken on since. Today is his 30th birthday. Right now he is on his honeymoon, driving across America. He and his wife stopped in New Orleans, which once had a stretch of water known as Cancer Alley because of all the pollution nearby residents were exposed to. They crossed the Mississippi River, which is today protected by clean water laws. They sent us pictures of the Grand Canyon, which might have been covered with haze and were it not for the success of the Clean Air Act. They passed by Los Angeles, once known as the smog capital of the world, then spent a few days in Portland, Oregon, which is leading the latest phase of the environmental movement by building a city economy around going green. Zach is happy and healthy, and one of millions who grew up that way at least in part because of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring and the movement it helped inspire. It is the best reminder I have of why her book was, and is, so important.
- Michael Moats