Silent Spring’s 50th anniversary: Birds sing, air is cleaner, water is cleaner

June 16, 2012

Fifty years ago today New Yorker published the first of four parts of Rachel Carson‘s epic research book, Silent Spring.

Cover of New Yorker Magazine, June 16, 1962 -- the issue which carried the first of four parts of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

Cover of New Yorker Magazine, June 16, 1962 — the issue which carried the first of four parts of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

What a difference five decades make!

People outside of it claim claim Carson started the entire environmental movement .  Historians, politicians and people inside the movement don’t forget the contributions of John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Moran, John Wesley Powell, Laurance Rockefeller, John Muir, Thomas Meagher, Gifford Pinchot, William H. Jackson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and dozens of others of more or lesser fame and prominence.  Carson’s book still stands tall among the contributions of those giants, for its literary achievement, its voice, and its scientific foundations.

Contrary to the history of history-turning books, the controversy over Silent Spring grows stronger in the last decade.  Upton Sinclair‘s fictional works on Chicago meat packing company misdeeds gets lionized in high school history courses.  Thomas Malthus‘s work on population growth crops up in economics texts.  Adam Smith shows up on ties.  Few read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but no one defends slavery nor calls Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s book inaccurate even though it was a work of fiction.

In contrast, the attacks on Carson and Silent Spring grow more shrill — today’s Google searches find many more listings for scathing and wildly inaccurate critiques of the book than there are tributes to either.

Carson and her book deserve the praise most often denied, and they deserve little if any of the criticism.  Fifty years on Silent Spring’s influence is almost universally positive.

  1. Carson forced the public, and scientists, to look at the wild as an integrated whole, including the plants and animals and mineral, land and ater resources, and also including the towns speckled among wild lands, and especially the farms sprawling in verdant production across most of America.  Carson, almost as much as Darwin, forced scientists to see their science as part of a larger whole — study of ecosystems became important, perhaps more important that the study of individual species or locations.
  2. Silent Spring alerted humans that all actions in the wild have consequences in the wild, and that the tyranny of numbers affects the entire out-of-doors as much as smaller parcels.  Human effects were seen as world-wide.
  3. Carson’s writing found firm footing in science and showed literary flair, with more than 50 pages of careful and thorough footnotes including precise citations to science research publications.  This demonstrated what Richard Feynman later brilliantly described, that a knowledgeable, scientific view of nature makes it more beautiful, and more charming.  This near-refutation of Mark Twain‘s philosophy of learning from Life on the Mississippi opened a new genre of literature that is non-fictional and floridly descriptive, but readable and persuasive because of its scientific accuracy.
  4. Silent Spring made it clear that local actions can make big environmental effects.  The bird-killing, spring-silencing actions that could cause the silent spring fable in the books introduction was not a massive federal project, but was instead the result of actions of small towns and cities, county governments, and even individual farmers.  Planet-saving action could be started at home, next door, in the block in the neighborhood, in the county — and did not require first approval from a national government.
  5. Silent Spring unabashedly pointed a finger at all of us as the culprit of the damage, and not some “other” as a bad guy.  While this troubles many today, it carries with it the explicit realization that our own actions can start our own salvation.  Personal responsibility becomes real in Silent Spring.
  6. Silent Spring made nature appear accessible to anyone with a yard, or a patch of grass nearby.  This gave rebirth to the parks movement, and it encouraged countless thousands to recreation in the outdoors, and to careers outdoors as farmers, ranchers, scientists, forest and park rangers, land managers and gardeners.
  7. Carson specifically addressed the trade-offs required to stop pollution.  DDT was a key part of the campaign to eradicate malaria from the planet, she noted.  But overuse or abuse of DDT would surely lead to insect resistance to the stuff, she documented with research already a decade old that showed exactly that.  If DDT overuse were allowed to continue, she said, DDT would stop being effective in the fight against malaria.  The book was published in 1962.  In 1965 the World Health Organization stopped its campaign against malaria in Central and Subsaharan Africa that relied on DDT.  Getting support from the not-strong national governments in the region had delayed implementation (80% of all households must be treated with DDT in this program and medical care must be improved to cure malaria in human carriers to make it work).  Worse, in areas yet untouched by the WHO campaign, mosquitoes were already resistant and immune to DDT due to overuse in agriculture and other fields.  Within 18 months after her 1964 death, Rachel Carson had been revealed as a reluctant prophet.
  8. Carson alerted the world to alternatives to technological fixes, especially those that carry high costs.  Carson worried about the effects on the fight against malaria if DDT was to be rendered ineffective by overuse.  Few planned for that eventuality, but it happened.  Happily, she also pointed to other solutions.  At peak DDT use, 500 million malaria infections annually killed 4 million people worldwide.  Today, mostly without DDT but instead with wiser policies of medical treatment and the use of bednets, malaria infections have been cut in half, to about 250 million annually, and malaria deaths have been reduced by 75%, to under 1 million annually.  This is more impressive when one realizes the total world population more than doubled in the same time, and the area where malaria is endemic also increased.  Carson told us it was possible to defeat a disease without poisoning our selves and our environment, and we have done it, to a great degree, with malaria.
  9. Birds still sing in the spring, the bald eagle is off the Endangered Species List, America’s air is cleaner, America’s water is cleaner, and more land is set aside for the regeneration of America’s renewable resources and our national, collective psyche in recreation.  Much of this can be attributed to actions by people inspired by Rachel Carson’s book.
Rachel Carson in New Yorker, 2007, illustration by Tom Bachtell

Rachel Carson in New Yorker, 2007, illustration by Tom Bachtell

Rachel was right.  Careful research, care in writing forged by years of research and writing about research, gave Carson the voice and the research chops to write a readable, scientifically accurate call to action.

That call still sounds today, even if one must strain to hear it over the chorus of ill-informed or ill-intentioned hecklers.

More, resources and related articles:


Tea Party symbols: Forgetting history and science

July 13, 2010

From the Los Angeles Times blogs, Opinion, from February 2010:

Tea Party footnotes

February 7, 2010 |  7:39 am

A couple of musings about the Tea Party convention in Tennessee:

I’m puzzled by the disgruntled reaction among Tea Partiers to the fact that the convention charged money to attend — about $550, it’s been reported — and that the convention organizer was a for-profit company. Yeah, it’s expensive, all right, but isn’t profit-making quintessentially American?

And I’ve seen photos of conventioneers wearing T-shirts with the image of a bald eagle on the back, the national bird, symbol of the nation. When the Founding Fathers were drawing up the blueprints for the United States, there were hundreds of thousands of bald eagles, coast to coast, clime to clime.

But then humans began crowding them out and shooting them down in such numbers that a law protecting them was put into place in 1940. But that was just about the time that DDT began to be used in vast quantities, and there went the bald eagle population again. DDT in the food chain rendered bald eagle shells too thin to incubate or hatch and perhaps rendered some adult birds infertile.

Rachel Carson’s seminal book ”Silent Spring” raised the public’s awareness of the risks of DDT. In 1967, bald eagles were ruled an endangered species in much of the U.S. — a status that was made national on the nation’s bicentennial, in 1976 — and they weren’t declared to be a thriving species once again until 2007.

Which means that, if it hadn’t been for all those tree-hugging pinko environmentalists, the bird of prey on all those T-shirts, the proud bald eagle, might very well have been a dead duck.

— Patt Morrison

Audubon watercolor of bald eagle - Library of Congress image

Audubon watercolor of bald eagle – Library of Congress image

Help save the bald eagle from Tea Party sniping:

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