Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

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Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: More than just an anti-pesticide, pro-environment polemic, Silent Spring has lyricism and beauty too. The seeds of Jim Lovelock's Gaia theory began with Carson's "web of life". For anyone interested in green issues, this book is a must-read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: September 2000
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: {{{isbn}}}

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The first thing you'll notice about Silent Spring is that it is so beautifully written. In you go expecting a lecture from a person intelligent and worthy but perhaps rather dull. You couldn't be more wrong. Silent Spring opens with a haunting picture of rural America being turned slowly by poison into a barren wasteland. It is only a few pages long but the alarm bells rung by her short parable are alarming indeed. As winter leaves the chemically stricken land what does the new season bring? In Carson's words:

"It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh."

What a sad picture.

Reading on this scene stays lodged firmly in your mind as Carson explains the processes involved in creating and manufacturing the main pesticides in use; the hydro-carbons and the organo-phosphates. She tells how, ironically, many of these toxins were developed as pesticides through research into germ warfare during World War Two. I don't know anything about chemistry but I followed it and with interest too.

There is a dual theme running throughout Silent Spring. The first, and most obvious, is that of the potential ecological and human damage that may be caused by the unrestrained use of pesticides such as DDT. The second, in Carson's words, tells of a "web of life" in which all things are interrelated and thus interdependent. Both these themes are explored as Carson talks of the natural environments of sea, soil and vegetation. She gives example after example, lyrical illustration after lyrical illustration, of how thoughtless intervention by man can cause endless and damaging reverberations throughout the natural world. She tells the sad story of Clear Lake in California where a colony of grebes was wiped out after the spraying of a DDT-like chemical in attempt to rid the lake of gnats that were irritating to the tourist fishermen. She tells of how efforts to control Dutch Elm Disease decimated the American robin population. She tells sad story after sad story and asks you:

"Who has decided, who has the RIGHT to decide... ... ..that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?"

Believe me, I'm not giving it all away. I know I'm guilty of that sometimes. I get carried away. But there are many more such stories to read. I will try and be brief with the rest of it though. The second half of Silent Spring deals with the potential impact of the use of toxic pesticides on our own bodies. True to her theme Carson speaks of man as ecology in miniature and how the functions of each cell of our bodies support the rest in an infinitely complicated and interdependent way. She discusses the carcinogens in DDT and the other chemicals in use and how it may be possible for them to be metabolised by humans. More chemistry here, but don't worry - I understood it so I'm sure anyone could. She notes with worry the rise in cases of leukaemia and other immune system-related malignancies. Some of this, with hindsight, seems wildly speculative, but some of it is eerily, hauntingly and accurately prophetic.

The final part of the book talks of how fruitless much of the use of pesticides has proved over the longer term. Insects develop immunity against these chemicals much as we are seeing now our own immunity in the face of overuse of antibiotics. To Carson Darwin's theory of Natural Selection is being proved in the saddest of ways. She puts forwards ideas for alternative solutions - biological, not chemical solutions. Some, like crop rotation, are as old as the hills. Some require the brilliance, innovation and ingenuity of modern science. Today many are developing her suggestions but still many aren't. Carson knew, and warned us over thirty years ago, that scientific research relies heavily on funding from private, profit-hungry sources.

Of course on publication of Silent Spring there was outcry. Carson was denounced as hysterical and alarmist. Try to remember that she was a forerunner of ecological thought and not part of a movement as it is now. There hadn't yet been any mocking headlines about Prince Charles talking to his plants. Of course too some of the counter-arguments were convincing, made by scientists of equal ability and standing as Carson. Some successfully refuted her points, at least in part. Does it surprise you though to learn that of her most outspoken critics one was Monsanto, today's most vociferous proponent of GM crops?

What do I think? Well, the thing is, I believe in science. I like progress. I'm glad smallpox has been eradicated for instance. I'm glad a couple of trips to the doctor's and one or two inoculations will protect my children from disease. I'm glad of so many other things. But I believe in responsibility too. I don't want science and progress to become mere means to profit for a few multi-national corporations. Reading Silent Spring again reminded me of that. So yes, I like the book as a call to action, for that is what it was intended to be. It's polemic all right, but it's polemic with a dreamlike, poetic quality. I'm not sure if I like Silent Spring best because of it's message and passion or because of it's beautiful writing. If you looked you could find something newer, something more relevant to current environmental themes - GM crops for instance. But I don't think you'd find anything that seemed fresher or more inspiring. You may think Carson's warnings exaggerate the dangers posed by corporatism and agri-business. Your priorities may be different. But I don't think you'd fail to be moved by her descriptions of what we've got to lose.

I bought Silent Spring on a whim because I hadn't read it for such a long, long time. I'm glad I did because I'd forgotten just how good it is. I'm glad I did too because it reminded me of that "web of life" idea where all things are related to each other. Science, belief systems and faith, uplifting music, beautiful paintings, unforgettable writing like Carson's - these things are not born from a vacuum, but from that "web of life" of hers. That is why I like her. That is why, however much importance you attach to environmentalism, that I think you'd like her too.

If you are interested in the way corporations override environmental and social issues in pursuit of profit, you might want to read our review of Shopped, by Joanna Blythman.

Booklists.jpg Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is in the Top Ten Green Books for Eco-Warriors.

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Magda said:

I am extremely prejudiced towards this book (though I have not read it, sad, I know) because it seems to be one of the major reasons for anti-DDT hysteria with resulting return of malaria to palces where it was almost eradicated for example.

But your review acknowledges some of the issues and sees the book for what it is (as in early call to action).

I am not sure if beautiful poetic writing is a Good Thing in polemics, though. Gets bit close to unfair, maybe... like giving the victim families a big voice in murder trials.

surhabiswarup said:

I think that this book is beautifully written and well planned. it is clear in its meaning and it creates a powerful image.

fuzzy_Katze said:

I think that this book made a good point, but became rather repetitive as the book wore on.