The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.
Fifty-five years ago a voice emerged to report on a little known and unromantic cause: environmental destruction due to chemical pesticide use. Rachel Carson wrote a steady and meticulous essay, calling for environmental protection with a keen feeling for the damage being wrought on the world’s ecosystems, and confidence that her readers would share in her outrage. Her book Silent Spring was not only a well-researched polemic—it was also an ode to the natural world as she saw it: a wonder of complexity, a system of checks and balances in which every piece was necessary to the health of the whole. Carson’s descriptions of environment and biology broke new ground in popular writing on science and are still some of the finest examples of the genre. She shows us nature as a delicate machine, which, if tampered with, can run itself into grotesque and alarming shapes. Recklessly transforming the natural world, she wrote, would have effects on humanity that could last generations. With its enormous popularity, Silent Spring kick-started the environmental consciousness of a nation and, along with the ensuing denials and smears from the chemical industry, sparked a new phase of the never-ending battle between commerce and the defenders of a clean and hospitable planet.
Carson was writing about a trend in pest control that had become popular in postwar America. They were new synthetic chemicals, more potent and more dangerous than earlier methods, and more enduring: they could remain in an ecosystem for generations after a single application. Where did this innovation come from? Like so many of the technologies we enjoy today, these poisons were first conceived for military use. As Carson writes,
This industry is a child of the Second World War. In the course of developing agents of chemical warfare, some of the chemicals created in the laboratory were found to be lethal to insects. This discovery did not come by chance: insects were widely used to test chemicals as agents of death for man.
The link between chemical weapons and modern pesticides is a startling and important one: in Carson’s view, we should be suspicious of any claim that a particular chemical is only poisonous to the creatures being targeted. A poison that targets the boll weevil or the aphid could very well harm the biological processes that are common to many strains of life, including humans. The chemicals, says Carson in a memorable passage, should not be called “insecticides” or “herbicides,” but “biocides.”
This book is probably most famous for raising awareness about the insecticide DDT, which was later banned in the United States, due in part to the outcry that arose in the wake of Silent Spring. But Carson covers a whole range of pesticides with varying strengths, focusing on a group of chemicals called chlorinated hydrocarbons, many far more poisonous than DDT. These include evil-sounding substances like heptachlor, dieldrin, chlordane, and toxaphene. She is a dedicated explainer of the science behind these chemicals and their dangers, and decries the folly of ignoring science for economic gains. She explains in layman’s terms the physiological effects of plant, insect, or human contact with the chemicals. She tells you in what concentration a chemical should be considered dangerous to humans, and then gives one case after another of the chemical being applied in far heavier doses than that. The recklessness of this spraying is then reinforced through the reported effects it had on these environments and communities. These effects range from acres of brown, shriveled foliage to mass deaths of insects, birds, and fish; permanent poisoning of soil; loss of crops and livestock; even the eruption of new pests as important predators are inadvertently annihilated. Inevitably, she also describes the resulting illness and death of innocent people.
This style of argument is rhetorically powerful, which is what makes Silent Spring a masterpiece of polemical journalism. To show how deftly Carson does this, it’s worth looking at a couple of cases she mentions specifically. The first concerns the gypsy moth spraying program of Nassau County, NY in 1957. Carson begins by giving us, ignorant as we may be about the gypsy moth, an introduction to the species. It is a native of Europe, and the American population can be traced back to a French scientist named Leopold Trouvelot, who was breeding some in his Massachusetts laboratory when a few of them escaped. Carson explains how the moth population typically spreads (the wind carries the moth larvae over great distances to colonize other regions; they are also shipped around on commercial plants). We learn that the moth is now found “in all the New England states,” but that the Adirondack Mountains are “forested with species not attractive to it,” and so act as a barrier to the moth’s further Westward migration. She tells us of the “thirteen parasites and predators” that have been imported from Europe that have largely kept the moth under control for the past hundred years. She notes that by 1955, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it had achieved “outstanding restriction of distribution and damage” by the gypsy moth.
Then she describes what we might call institutional stupidity: only one year after it made the above statement, the USDA inexplicably embarks on a scheme to eradicate the gypsy moth entirely by spraying millions of acres per year with DDT, in what Carson calls an “all-out chemical war” against the moth. By 1957, public outcry against the damage to nature and crops was widespread, yet agriculture officials “characteristically shrugged off individual complaints as unimportant.” As Carson’s story reaches its climax, she scorns the bureaucratic ineptitude that allowed for such a poorly justified program to go ahead:
In what seems the height of absurdity, the “threat of infestation of the New York City metropolitan area” has been cited as an important justification of the [gypsy moth eradication] program. The gypsy moth is a forest insect, certainly not an inhabitant of cities. Nor does it live in meadows, cultivated fields, gardens, or marshes. Nevertheless, the planes hired by the United States Department of Agriculture and the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets in 1957 showered down the prescribed DDT-in-fuel-oil with impartiality. They sprayed truck gardens and dairy farms, fish ponds and salt marshes. They sprayed the quarter-acre lots of suburbia, drenching a housewife making a desperate effort to cover her garden before the roaring plane reached her, and showering insecticide over children at play and commuters at railway stations. At Setauket a fine quarter horse drank from a trough in a field which the planes had sprayed; ten hours later it was dead.
This fantastic passage shows the power of Carson’s most effective rhetorical technique: teach us about an animal, plant, or insect, debunking some common myths about it; show the disproportionately insane campaign against it by some industry or government agency; then describe the destruction wrought by this campaign on the people and creatures who live in the area with a few vividly sympathetic images (who could not imagine being the desperate housewife, doused in a mystery chemical while trying to save her garden?).
Another fine example of Carson’s polemical strength is her account of the fire ant. I should say that this one got personal for me. There have never been fire ants in Canada—it’s too cold—but still as a kid I was terrified of them. I had seen sensational TV shows and read sensational books about creatures that sting and bite, and what I heard about fire ants gave me nightmares: they swarm anything in their path, their bites are like a thousand hot knives to the skin, they’ll blanket and kill a thing for pure pleasure. From what I learned, they were the ants from Hell. I studied maps of their habitat to know exactly what parts of the world to avoid (as though I was any kind of traveller at seven), and I dreaded their apparent push northward.
Although I put fire ants out of mind long ago, it took reading Rachel Carson in 2016 to learn I had actually been duped. She takes a sober approach to the fire ant, describing how, since its arrival to the USA after the First World War, it had been a nuisance mainly for the large mounds that it builds for nests. These can cause problems for farm equipment. Their sting is indeed more painful than those of other ants: “one is well advised to avoid being stung,” she writes, “just as one ordinarily avoids the sting of a wasp or bee.” But they are otherwise harmless, and had even been observed feeding on insects that were considered agricultural pests, such as boll weevil larvae.
Yet around the time of the chemical pesticide boom, a massive government PR campaign was launched to cast the fire ant as a public menace. Propaganda was spread depicting the fire ant as a senseless killer, despoiler of humanity and nature. This was the lurid fire ant I had learned about only twenty years ago, so the misinformation of the 1950s has obviously endured. It was, as Carson says, “one of the most remarkable publicity campaigns” ever launched by the USDA. The government had thus opened for themselves an opportunity to save the country from a scourge they had invented. They announced a plan to treat 20,000,000 acres in nine states to eradicate the fire ant. Although she doesn’t provide any explicit evidence of collusion between government and chemical producers in this case, she does note that a pesticide trade journal that year had gleefully written of a DDT “sales bonanza” brought on by the new program. The whole project, writes Carson in another fine passage, was:
…an ill-conceived, badly executed, and thoroughly detrimental experiment in the mass control of insects, an experiment so expensive in dollars, in destruction of animal life, and in loss of public confidence in the Agriculture Department that it is incomprehensible that any funds should still be devoted to it.
A quiet public servant, a marine biologist, a woman in the male-dominated scientific fields of 1950s America, courageously brought about lasting outrage about the destruction of the environment and scorned the powers of industry for their greed and misinformation. This book has been credited for the eventual creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (which the vandals coming to the White House in 2017 appear foolishly set to dismantle). More broadly, it also changed the way people thought about society, industry, and environment. It soon became impossible to think of mass production and consumption without the offsetting thoughts of pollution, waste, and natural destruction. Its influence was helped by the fertile moment at which it was published, early in a new decade of countercultural awareness. I wonder if Bob Dylan would have used the image, in his song A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, of “pellets of poison […] flooding their waters,” had Silent Spring not been published the year he composed it. Certainly it would have been inconceivable for Joni Mitchell, in 1970, to sing “Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT now,” without Carson’s work in the public consciousness. And anyone who today cares whether their produce is organic, or recycles their plastic and cardboard, or worries for the continued hospitality of Earth to humankind, owes something to Rachel Carson.
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You’ll usually spot Silent Spring on lists of the greatest science books of all time, or the best non-fiction books of the 20th century, or the top works of journalism, if you go in for that sort of thing. Rachel Carson, a new hero of mine, was diagnosed with breast cancer as she was completing this book, and died shortly after it was published. She had published two earlier works on marine life which I plan to get and read right away.
This edition doesn’t look like much, but the pages are silky smooth and it reproduces the appealing illustrations from the original run. It also has an afterword by one of the masters of popular science writing and an early champion of Carson, E.O. Wilson.
Other favourite quotes from Silent Spring:
Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds.
Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware alike of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us.
It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster.
As matters stand now, we are in little better position than the guests of the Borgias.
-Sean “From the Skies” McB