Listening to Rachel Carson

A few weeks ago I watched a documentary on PBS about Rachel Carson. Like most people, I’d heard about her and knew she’d written Silent Spring. But (also like most people, I presume) I hadn’t actually read it, and I knew next to nothing about either any of the other books she’d written, or her life.

The documentary was a fascinating look inside the life of a science writer: a woman in a postwar world where, as Linda Lear writes in the foreword to my copy of Silent Spring, “science was god, and science was male.” (Note Lear has also written a biography of Carson, which is sitting in my to-read pile.)

In watching the documentary I felt a sense of kinship with Carson. How she used her MSc (rare for a woman in that time period) to be a staff writer and science communicator for 15 years at the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Her solitary life—with the exception of one particularly good friend she met on the Maine coast. Her commitment to writing: four books in the span of 20 years, three of them about the sea, and two written after she’d left the USFWS to write full time. How she synthesized many papers and studies across research fields to pull together Silent Spring. Her dedication to the environment, and to understanding the pressures humans were putting on it. With Silent Spring in particular, she risked taking on the multi-million dollar pesticide and herbicide industry just because she felt it was a story that had to be told.

Of course, after watching the documentary I had no excuse to avoid reading Silent Spring. In fact, it felt like the universe was telling me it was well past time that I read it. Turns out the universe was right.

Carson writes in an accessible but intelligent manner about a range of sciences, from chemistry to ecology to human health. She doesn’t talk down to her audience, but neither does she presume that they have prior knowledge of many of the complex concepts she covers. She walks the fine line between explaining key issues in a way that the reading public can understand, without snowing them with facts or suggesting she’s somehow superior given her understanding of these topics. She takes the reader with her on a voyage of discovery—only the discoveries she makes are fairly grim.

As an example, here Carson writes about natural cancer-causing agents in the environment:

“The environment contained…hostile elements even before there was life; yet life arose, and over the millions of years it came to exist in infinite numbers and endless variety. Over the eons of unhurried time that is nature’s, life reached an adjustment with destructive forces as selection weeded out the less adaptable and only the most resistant survived. These natural cancer-causing agents are still a factor in producing malignancy; however, they are few in number and they belong to that ancient array of forces to which life has been accustomed from the beginning.”

Carson clearly describes a world where heavy duty insecticides and herbicides, an outgrowth of the war effort to develop weapons of mass destruction, are applied indiscriminately and excessively across much of the landscape. And it’s not just in the US—she cites studies from Canada and Europe as well. Whether it’s a chemical fog or a rain of chemical pellets, Carson describes widespread contact between humans and chemicals—both directly (using gas to get rid of lice) and indirectly (spraying crops, with the residue being ingested by humans). Her book explores the impacts on flora and fauna, water, soil, people, and public health—including impacts on human organs, and changes in chromosomes and cellular oxidation reactions.

Two things make Carson’s approach particularly effective. The first is that she continually reminds the reader that all of these environmental systems are interconnected—both with each other and with humans. Thus any impacts of these chemicals on one component of the earth system will necessarily impact other components (and people). The second is that she grounds the science in the everyday. For example, she talks at length about mass die-offs of birds and fish, but keeps the reader engaged by reproducing peoples’ observations of these die-offs. In this way they become more immediate, and it’s harder to dismiss them as scientific mumbo jumbo.

““The place is like a battlefield,” a landowner in Norfolk wrote. “My keeper has found innumerable corpses, including masses of small birds—Chaffinches, Green-finches, Linnets, Hedge Sparrows, also House Sparrows…the destruction of wild life is quite pitiful.””

However, Carson’s book is far from a hysterical anti-chemical rant, though the pesticide companies may have wanted to portray it as such. Rather than despair at the volume and number of chemicals applied to the landscape in an (often) futile effort to contain insect and/or week populations, Carson provides potential solutions. Many of these are based on biological approaches (i.e., bringing in natural predators to kill invasive species), but she doesn’t suggest doing away with chemicals entirely—just finding ways in which chemicals can be used more sparingly and more effectively than they had been in the past.

While Silent Spring is a good read (I’m ashamed at how long it took me to figure that out), it is also a sobering read—particularly in today’s world. Carson covers a range of pesticides and herbicides that, once applied, can stay in the environment (soil, vegetation, water) for extended periods of time. Carson’s book generated a storm of political controversy and led to a federal review of pesticide policy. Carson testified before a Congressional committee, and ultimately, DDT was banned. However, given the volume of chemicals she reports were applied in the 1950-60s, I suspect our environment remains contaminated by the remnants of these chemicals. (If you know more about this, please let me know in the comments.)

As Elizabeth Kolbert notes in an essay linked to the PBS documentary, our use of pesticides and herbicides has actually increased since Silent Spring was published. While we may no longer apply them as indiscriminately as we used to, they are still in widespread use. Though Carson’s book was instrumental in getting people thinking about the chemicals we were subjecting ourselves to, it seems that her main message—that we need to reduce those chemicals—has remained unaddressed.

The current political climate in the US doesn’t bode well for the future of chemical use in agriculture and other industries. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whose mandate “is to protect human health and the environment,” has a new head who wants to reduce red tape for business, and has even mused that the EPA itself be dissolved.

I think of the images I saw in the PBS documentary. Crop dusting planes flying over agricultural fields spraying chemicals, the pilots not wearing any protective gear. Trucks driving through suburban streets misting with DDT to kill mosquitoes while kids played on the streets and lawns. Housewives putting chemical-infused liners on their kitchen shelves to prevent pests. Lineups of people getting their heads dusted with chemicals to kill lice.

Will the weakening—and potential dismantling—of the EPA mean a return to increasingly indiscriminate chemicals use? Will our waterways become more contaminated? Will our birds no longer sing? Have we learned nothing from the past?

“There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example – where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. 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.”

I hope that is not our fate, that we can learn from the lessons—and voices—of the past to avoid making the same mistakes.


4 thoughts on “Listening to Rachel Carson

  1. I recently found a first edition of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us and I realized how she wrote with so much eloquence and beauty. The science she revealed changed our history her language inspired.

  2. I knew about the book the same way you did, and I may even have had a copy, but it never made it to the top of the pile, The fact that it created quite a storm and became a famous book probably made me think that I knew what was in the book anyway so I could postpone reading it till tomorrow.

    • That’s an interesting perspective – the idea that a book has become so well-known that we already have a sense of what’s in it and so put off reading it. Hmmm, I’d never thought of it that way before.

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