Moving the Silence: Rachel Carson’s Groundbreaking Work

Moving the Silence: Rachel Carson’s Groundbreaking Work

by Theresa Noll

It has been nearly 50 years since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring and exposed the harmful effects of DDT, but the lessons of her story remain as important as they were half a century ago.

A marine biologist in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson had written several successful books about ocean life by the time me she published Silent Spring in 1962. Recognized as a gifted writer, she was poised to give voice to an environmental movement.

Rachel Carson

Carson used her talent for bringing dry scientific data to life as means to a political end, conjuring an image of a hypothetical town in which birds no longer sang and bees no longer droned, its citizens witness to a “spring without voices.” She argued that uninhibited pesticide use, a policy relied upon to serve the agriculture industry, was poisoning ecosystems, including animals, plants and humans. “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death,” she wrote. “(Synthetic insecticides) have immense power not merely to poison but to enter into the most vital processes of the body and change them in sinister and often deadly ways.”

Though the effects of pesticides had been documented by scientists, Silent Spring’s publication made DDT, the chemical on which Carson’s research primarily focused, a household word. Carson did not live to see it, but ten years after Silent Spring hit the market, a law banning DDT was passed in Congress; it was subsequently banned for agricultural use worldwide under the Stockholm convention. A swell of environmental activism led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

An Artist’s Lens

Carson enhanced scientific data with emotional appeal to draw supporters to her perspective. From the 1960s to this day, her detractors have suggested that she was not a “real” scientist, and that the success of her book rode on rhetoric instead of reason. Assertions that she exaggerated the negative effects of DDT in order to promote her agenda continue to circulate even now, as evidenced by conservative columnist John Tierney’s 2007 article in The New York Times, in which he argues in favor of legalizing DDT, claiming the chemical’s effectiveness in combating malaria outweighs whatever harm it might cause a few birds when used as a pesticide.

“A Fable For Tomorrow”
is becoming reality

In fact, further research on DDT since the ‘60s has shown that its damage to wildlife and humans is on par with Carson’s claims. And DDT was not actually banned for use as a vector control against malaria — just for agricultural use — but as mosquitoes have developed resistance against the chemical, researchers have had to turn to other solutions anyway. So let’s get to the real issue Tierney and other critics have with the author of Silent Spring: As biographer Mark Hamilton Lytle wrote, Carson “quite self-consciously decided to write a book calling into question the paradigm of scientific progress that defined postwar American culture.” Transcending claims that she was a hysterical woman, and thus, unqualified to write a book questioning the expertise of “real” scientists, Carson denounced the status quo endorsement of uninhibited innovation for the sake of profit, whatever the environmental costs.

Carson held that if there were even a chance that a chemical contributed to dead zones, harmful mutations or infertility in animals, and increased rates of cancer and birth defects in humans, it warranted serious scrutiny.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

In spite of its critics, Silent Spring is widely recognized as one of the best nonfiction books of the 20th century. But Carson’s simple proposition that chemicals should be used as sparingly as possible has not been heeded. Consider the chemical-related environmental disasters we face today: only ten percent of all large fish are left in the world’s oceans, which are riddled with chemical fertilizer-related “dead zones.” Pollinating bee populations have rapidly crashed around the world for the last decade, a problem that is thought to have been exacerbated by the use of certain pesticides. The herbicide atrazine, which kills aquatic life and may be related to prostate and other cancers, is still in wide use in the U.S., in spite of numerous studies citing its dangers. And according to the UN Environment Programme, 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours due, in large part, to industrial practices.

Incentive to Activism

Decades of industrial expansion, chemical and oil runoff and spills, deforestation, and global warming have left fewer birds singing, fewer fish swimming in our streams, and fewer frogs ushering us into spring than ever before in human history. “A Fable For Tomorrow,” as Carson titled her first chapter, is on its way to becoming reality. While many assuage their longing for a connection to the natural world with quick trips to the country, community gardens and nature films, the challenge of asking people to care about environmental health so deeply that they devote real time to the movement is trickier now that ties to the “land” are distant for many. How does one miss the sound of salmon splashing through a stream or the smell of a virgin forest when one’s life is spent in a city or suburb? How does one fight for the health of the land without ever having directly depended upon it for sustenance? Just how vivid is the fight against corporate practices that harm the ecosystem, but provide people with conveniences, computers and air conditioners?

Our society is up against situations that turn tragic before they even come into question. People stood numbly by as mass fish and bird deaths inexplicably rang in the new year; a few weeks later, Obama neglected to mention the word “climate” in his State of the Union address. It seems the correlation between human-produced carbon dioxide and global warming must be proved beyond all doubt before the government will take serious steps to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. It can be easier to click away from these stories rather than pause to feel the brunt of the profound environmental crises we face.

Calling into question
the paradigm of
scientific progress

The part Silent Spring played in launching the environmental movement contains clues to what tools will be required to penetrate our collective sense of hopelessness. Carson converted her readers into environmentalists before the term had even been coined. She did this by engaging citizens, encouraging them to recognize that it shouldn’t be up to scientists and the government to decide which lives are worth saving. And she gave voice to subconscious fears that people already fostered. Her soul-sickening forecast of a spring without birds tapped into people’s passions, taking data that scientists didn’t bother explaining to people and bringing it to life.

If Silent Spring had been published in 2011 it would not have become a bestseller. Carson evoked the death of beauty in an age of limited awareness to inspire allegiance to her cause, but the concept of a truly devastated natural environment is no longer shocking. What, then, are the new toeholds with which we can imbue the soulless reports on oil spills, animal extinctions, and melting ice caps with meaning sufficient to incite people to action? Having witnessed acts of violence against the earth and human health, and burdened with more information than we can possibly process, it is up to a new generation to find a way to help people feel the losses that affect us all. To find a way to make them personal. The rest will come from there.

Theresa Noll is a writer and book editor in Brooklyn.

Also see: Acting As If Future Generations Matter by Carolyn Raffensperger in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Swamped: Trying to Save Fragile Bodies by Molly M. Ginty in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

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