We recently read Silent Spring, the classic exposé of the impact of pesticides written by Rachel Carson in 1962. The book details the use of these chemicals, and the severe but overlooked impact on the environment, from widespread destruction of wildlife and domestic animals to the frightening and ubiquitous exposure to humans. Leading up to the March for Science and Earth Day, we thought this was a fitting example of the importance of scientific analysis of public concern, and the value of communicating these ideas and findings with the public.
What impressed you most about the book?
Megan: What’s not to be impressed about? This book created an irrevocable social awareness of the detrimental effects of careless pesticide use, spawned a coherent fact-based environmentalist movement, and provided the legal and social leverage necessary to create the EPA. David Attenborough said that Silent Spring has probably had the most impact on the scientific world after Origin of Species, and I think he’s right.
Carson did this by creating a concise, clear, and convincing narrative. She doesn’t pander, doesn’t go on self-indulgent tangents, and is neither overly technical nor emotional. Her passion for her country and its natural beauty, however, becomes obvious through the unrelenting accumulation of anecdotal and documented evidence she meticulously catalogues regarding the destruction wreaked upon it by the wanton and widespread use of pesticides. She uses facts instead of rhetorical devices and scare tactics. The amount of gumption, research, persistence, courage, and hard work involved in the production of this book is humbling.
Carson is an inspiration to anyone who aspires to write or communicate about science—and even more so when you remember she was largely excluded from the academic scientific establishment because of her gender.
SweetScience: It is amazing that Carson pulled all this together when, as noted in E.O. Wilson’s afterward, ecology was not a supported science, and conservation biology was not even a thing! It takes a really special mind to be able to synthesize information from seemingly different realms to come to new big ideas; and to be able to then communicate all of the research to capture the hearts and minds of a lay audience is astounding.
What surprised you about the book?
SweetScience: I was shocked at how many times the same mistake was made without any regard for past experiences – states employed programs of mass pesticide use with little reason, destroying life, often in incredibly visible ways, like hundreds of birds and other animals writhing and dying in plain view, and virtually always without success eradicating the intended pest. How could they not have researched this before making the choice?
Megan: I’ve recently heard a lot of people, typically right-wing, crediting Carson for the wholesale ban of DDT. These people also blame her, and the environmentalist movement, for millions of malaria deaths worldwide. So, I was somewhat surprised to read that her position was much more nuanced. She writes: “No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story—the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting.“ In other words, blanket spraying of DDT leads to insect resistance to DDT. So, if blanket spraying in high concentrations were not conducted (sometimes for agricultural reasons), DDT may have proved a more effective weapon against insect-borne diseases. This is what Rachel Carson was arguing for: the use of powerful chemicals according to scientific, evidence-based, careful practice– as scalpels rather than anvils, as precision tools to cure a specific ill rather than to kill indiscriminately.
What questions did the book raise for you?
SweetScience: Since the book was published in 1962 and focuses on events of the preceding decade, I was constantly wondering how much was still true about regulations, which chemicals are commonly used, and especially whether agencies and people ignore the evidence and warnings in choosing to use mass application of pesticides. And then unfortunately that question was partially answered by the EPA’s recent rejection of scientific evidence of chemical harm. I also want to know about the differences in organic farming, especially what pesticides are allowed and how much they have been tested. I really wish there was a modern response/annotation to the book that outlined how things have changed since then.
Megan: Sooo many questions…. As a society, we’re currently facing down threats to our environment and public health, and we’re being led by a political administration with little regard for science, or even facts. How can we most effectively deal with the threat of Zika, while learning from the lessons of Silent Spring? What will the impact of the repeals of EPA regulations under Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt be? What would Rachel Carson do today? What can we do, as citizens and scientists?
Who would you recommend the book to?
SweetScience: I suggested this to someone who cares a lot about preserving the environment and is really worried about the current state of government control on these issues.
Megan: Scott Pruitt.
Also– environmentalists, feminists, scientists, science writers, US historians, politicians, voters, policy-makers, citizens, farmers, teachers…
But mostly Scott Pruitt. I may even mail him a copy.
Here are a few excerpts that resonated with us.
Megan: “For mankind as a whole, a possession infinitely more valuable than individual life is our genetic heritage, our link with past and future. Shaped through long eons of evolution our genes not only make us who we are but hold in their minute beings the future– be it one of promise or threat”.
I just love her writing style: “[Genes] hold in their minute beings the future”… I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about genetics phrased so eloquently!
SweetScience: “Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?”
The description of the introduction of natural predators to maintain a forest ecosystem in the chapter “The Other Road” really struck me with its final note that “Much of the work of caring for the ant colonies (and the birds’ nesting boxes as well) is assumed by a youth corps from the local school… The costs are exceedingly low; the benefits amount to permanent protection of the forests.” which is really something to aspire to: community understanding and involvement to maintain precious resources.