This year is a good time to reread Silent Spring

Written in 1962, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, was and still is nothing short of revolutionary in its importance. The first piece of writing that clearly collected and synthesized the existing work of environmental scientists and ecologists on the harmful effects of pesticides and insecticides in the environment, Silent Spring was a profound wake up call, an alarm bell, a highly effective call to arms for a new environmental conservation movement. Today, it is an essential document of the beginning of that movement and an education in basic ecology for the student looking to better understand our planet.

Should you ever feel in need of proof that one dedicated person can seriously change the world, this book may be it. Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist who began her career at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries writing humble educational radio scripts, used a combination of poetic prose and relentlessly damning evidence from the study of the natural world to do two things in Silent Spring: First, to illustrate the beauty, preciousness and incomprehensible wonders of nature. And second, to condemn and tear apart, beyond any shadow of doubt, the cavalier use of toxic chemicals for “control” of insects, pests and unwanted plants on farms, in gardens, along roadsides and elsewhere.

As readers, we follow along with Carson as a careless agricultural aircraft pilot neglects to shut off his chemical duster while flying over a stream, allowing pesticide dust to pour into the water. We watch as the surrounding areas are covered in poison, the insects die, the fish that feed on them die, and the flesh of fish downstream becomes concentrated with poison. We trace the circle outward, everywhere the streams flow, to all the plants, birds, and other animals that are interconnected and tainted or destroyed. Again and again, cycles like this play out with each application of pesticide or defoliant sowing its unintended ever-widening ripples of death.

Once we are sufficiently horrified by the willful destruction of the land, Carson explains its needlessness and ineffectiveness. Silent Spring also details how several major insect “eradication” campaigns, heavily hyped by the chemical manufacturers and companies that stood to benefit financially, utterly failed to eradicate the target insects. In later chapters, we learn about biological controls, such as introducing different plants and insects into an area to shift the local ecology, and how they can be more effective than chemical controls without sowing toxic death to humans and animals alike. Though Carson did not advocate a total ban on all chemical controls, she did advocate treating them with extreme caution, scarcity and care. Perhaps needless to say, the chemical industry attacked her viciously, and she was called every name imaginable, including that favorite of men when attacking women: “hysterical.”

No matter what they called her, she did her damage. The American public was shaken by the revelation that our war against “pests” had become a damaging, unintended war against all life. More than ever before, regular people started to discuss and understand how the pollution in the air and water could damage the natural world, as well as build up invisibly in their bodies and cause fatal harm.

Children playing in the yard of a Ruston, Washington, home while a Tacoma smelter stack showers the area with arsenic and lead residue, August 1972. Image source: Gene Daniels/U.S. National Archives. Via NRDC.

Carson’s Impact

In the 1960’s, there was no widespread appreciation of the interconnectedness of all life; “ecology” as a field was young, not well understood, respected, or funded. Millions of readers learned, for the first time, how intricately woven was the natural tapestry around them, and how fragile, from this book.

Though Carson was not the first to write about the dangers of indiscriminate pesticide use, she was the first to collect the literature to such a thorough extent, and to translate it into a grippingly readable popular work. It was her combination of scientific rigor and eloquent, passionate writing that spurred the grassroots environment movement and, ultimately, a complete reversal of United States national policy on pesticide use, and the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The importance of the EPA is also hard to overstate. The Agency employs thousands of scientists, engineers, environmental specialists. It exists to study, set, clarify and enforce national environmental guidelines. When it was created by President Nixon in 1970, the EPA had a budget of just over $1 billion. In 2010, it got a $10 billion budget, a high point for the Agency, and in 2016, its budget had shrunk to $8 billion.

The future of the movement

Scott Pruitt undermines the EPA with anti-scientific ignorance. Source: David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

This year, the Trump administration named Scott Pruitt, a lawyer and politician, to head the Agency, and proposed a 31% cut to the EPA’s budget to $5.7 billion from $8.1 billion and to eliminate a quarter of the agency jobs. Pruitt, a former Oklahoma minor league baseball team manager who has no background in environmental science, has publicly rejected established findings on climate change and has previously called for massive reduction in environmental regulations.

Sadly, the Agency is often used as a political football, symbolic of a rapacious, short-sighted far-Right politician’s “pro-business” credentials, as though there could possibly be any business left to do on a planet where we can’t breathe the air, drink the water, eat the fish, or generally go about our lives without a nonconsensual dusting of poison. The NY Times neatly summarized what would be at stake, if the current administration had its way.

Given the current political climate, this is a fantastic time to read, or reread, this vital work and brush up on the history of the grassroots movement to protect the environment.

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