Monday, February 20, 2017

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson: A review


I first read this book many, many years ago; it must have been in the '70s. It was devastating. Reading it again this weekend, I found it, if anything, even more devastating.

The cover of the book calls it "The classic that launched the environmental movement," and indeed it is. One can trace a straight line from the publication of this book to the public outcry that led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and to the implementation of the Endangered Species Act.

Carson's book was published in 1962. It outlined in overwhelming and incisive detail the damage that was being done to Nature and to human beings (who are, after all, a part of Nature) by the profligate use of chemicals, especially DDT, to fight insects and plants that are labeled as pests and weeds.

Carson argued that those chemicals accumulated in the cells of plants and animals, working their way up the food chain and becoming more and more potent at each step along the way. Thus, at the top of the food chain, for example, animals such as Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Brown Pelicans received the most fearsome dosage of those chemicals; enough to kill them outright or to make them sterile, unable to produce viable young.

By the early '60s, all three of these species were well on their way to extinction. It is not an overstatement to say that Silent Spring saved them. Nor is it an overstatement to say that it saved many other species, less well known or less iconic.

Silent Spring contained a wealth of scientific data and information, but it was written for the public, for the average person with no particular scientific training but with a concern for the welfare of his/her family and the environment in which that family lived. Carson was able to make the destruction of that environment personal for her readers. She was also able to convey to them that it didn't have to be this way; that there was an alternative, a better way.

Today, informed citizens take for granted that biological control of plant and insect pests makes more sense than flooding the environment with more chemicals that will inevitably wind up in the water that we drink and the food that we eat. We understand that we are a part of Nature and that what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. We understand it because Carson taught us. At the time that she wrote her book, none of that was clearly understood at all.

The tragedy is that Carson never lived to see the full impact that her little book had. Within two years after its publication, she was dead of cancer. But at least she lived long enough to know that the book was a success and that people were paying attention.

One has to wonder what Rachel Carson would think if she were alive today, as the EPA is given into the tender care of a man who seeks its destruction and the Endangered Species Act is under attack by those who would kill it. Would she despair? I think that she would try to find a way to communicate to her fellow citizens that the progress we have made over the last fifty years in protecting the environment and protecting ourselves is a very fragile thing and it can be easily reversed by those whose only thought is for the almighty dollar. And I think that she would urge us to continue her fight to make sure that we never have to see a spring when no birds sing.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4 comments:

  1. Great review. So important. I think you are absolutely right about what she would think today. I am slowly reading my way through a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, called American Prometheus. Science is a double edged sword and Rachel Carson a voice crying in the wilderness, literally.

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    1. It is remarkable, I think, that her voice was heard and understood by millions and that she roused them to action. It is a tribute to her communication skills, her talent as a writer to explain things in terms that ordinary citizens could understand and relate to. We need more Rachel Carsons.

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  2. We do need more Rachel Carsons, as you said.

    I have never read this book. I have to put it on my TBR.

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    1. Excellent! We also need more READERS of Rachel Carson.

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