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


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:

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

  1. [...] At Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, a commentary on the good deeds wrought from Silent Spring. [...]

    Like

  2. [...] Silent Spring’s 50th anniversary: Birds sing, air is cleaner, water is cleaner (timpanogos.wordpress.com) [...]

    Like

  3. [...] Silent Spring’s 50th anniversary: Birds sing, air is cleaner, water is cleaner (timpanogos.wordpress.com) [...]

    Like

  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Paul Craig Roberts, a former colleague from the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch (a few terms ago), runs off the rails of scientific accuracy, and so, too, off the rails of economic and historical accuracy, in his anti-environmentalist article at Information Clearing House.

    My response there is repeated here:

    Mr. Roberts, you’ve been misled:

    [Roberts wrote:] Mann points out that the lowly mosquito had a large impact on American history. The Mason-Dixon Line roughly splits the East Coast into two zones, the South in which disease carrying mosquitoes were an endemic threat, and the north in which malaria was not a threat. In the South, a person who survived childhood and grew into an adult had acquired immunity. Northerners had no such protection.

    Does Mann seriously fail to understand how malaria works? The northern U.S. has always had the species of mosquito capable of transmitting malaria. In the north, however, malaria had been cured in the human population (helped, no doubt, by the respite from the mosquitoes offered by winters, but that’s beside the point).

    When malaria is cured in humans, there is no pool of disease from which the mosquitoes may draw it, to transmit it.

    Does Mann not know malaria? Good thing malaria fighting is not up to Mann, if he thinks mosquitoes respect borders and are the source of the disease.

    Rachel Carson caught Monsanto “off-guard?” Hardly. They knew what she was doing, and when the book was serialized in New Yorker they responded with a half-million dollar smear campaign against Carson. Why didn’t they spend the money promoting DDT? Carson had the facts right, and Monsanto knew it. The President’s Science Advisory Council was charged with checking the accuracy of Carson’s book by President Kennedy. Their report, on May 15, 1963, vindicated Carson on all the science, but suggested she was too lenient on the timetable for moving against DDT.

    I suppose economics could be regarded as a religion, too, when its practitioners sing the right songs, put the right pencils to the right papers, and take as holy writ things that are completely undemonstratable, or in this case, completely contrary to reality.

    Mr. Roberts’s article is repeated at Spirit and Animal, with the same errors, of course. This is how untruths, inaccuracies and outright hoaxes spread.

    Like

  5. [...] Silent Spring’s 50th anniversary: Birds sing, air is cleaner, water is cleaner (timpanogos.wordpress.com) [...]

    Like

  6. [...] Silent Spring’s 50th anniversary: Birds sing, air is cleaner, water is cleaner (timpanogos.wordpress.com) [...]

    Like

Play nice in the Bathtub -- splash no soap in anyone's eyes.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,150 other followers

%d bloggers like this: