Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962): Pesticides Are Killing Birds and Mammals

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin, 27 September 1962. Elizabeth Kolbert: “As much as any book can, “Silent Spring” changed the world by describing it. An immediate best-seller, the book launched the modern environmental movement, which, in turn, led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the passage of the Clean Air, the Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts, and the banning of a long list of pesticides, including dieldrin.” Silent Spring was first serialized in The New Yorker in June 1962.

Part I of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in The New Yorker, 16 June 1962, can be read here.

Part II of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in The New Yorker, 23 June 1962, can be read here.

Part III of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in The New Yorker, 30 June 1962, can be read here.

Excerpts from book:

Since the mid-1940s over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described in the modern vernacular as ‘pests’; and they are sold under several thousand different brand names.

These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes–nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in the soil–all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides,’ but ‘biocides.’…

It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray. All this has been risked–for what? Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the whole environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind? Yet this is precisely what we have done….

What is the legacy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring? Leo Hickman in The Guardian on 27 September 2012:

There are many ways to judge the influence of a book – the number of copies it sells; how long it spends on the bestseller lists; how many languages it is translated into; whether it is included on set reading lists by schools and universities – but one measure that applies in particular to Silent Spring is the number of laws or regulations it helped to change. It took years, decades even, but over time the book directly influenced how legislators viewed the first wave of post-war agricultural pesticides. Public debate about the role of such inputs was changed forever.
The fact that the book stills riles the agrochemical industry to this day is another sign of its influence. As, too, is the fact that Carson is such a figure of hate for those, particularly in the US, who wallow in anti-environmental ideology. The somewhat desperate claims from such quarters that her book led to millions of malarial deaths only acts to expose the folly of such a hardline stance.
Fifty years on, Carson’s seminal book speaks as loudly now as it did when it was first published. It taught its readers to be suspicious of grand claims made by vested commercial interests, something that has been a foundation of the environmental movement ever since. It also greatly helped to shape the idea that the modern world is, somehow, “against nature”. This particular notion has, in my view, become too simplistic and regressive over time, but that’s no fault of Carson. I believe her book’s legacy cuts deep and is overwhelmingly positive.

How ‘Silent Spring’ Ignited the Environmental Movement. Eliza Griswold in The New York Times on 21 September 2012:

If anything, environmental issues have grown larger — and more urgent — since Carson’s day. Yet no single work has had the impact of “Silent Spring.” It is not that we lack eloquent and impassioned environmental advocates with the capacity to reach a broad audience on issues like climate change. Bill McKibben was the first to make a compelling case, in 1989, for the crisis of global warming in “The End of Nature.” Elizabeth Kolbert followed with “Field Notes From a Catastrophe.” Al Gore sounded the alarm with “An Inconvenient Truth,” and was awarded the Nobel Prize. They are widely considered responsible for shaping our view of global warming, but none was able to galvanize a nation into demanding concrete change in quite the way that Carson did….

The Bravery of Rachel Carson. Karin Kamp, Bill Moyers & Company, 15 May 2014. “Environmentalist David Suzuki recently spoke with Bill about the lasting influence of the late biologist Rachel Carson.”