28 Sep 2012

The Anniversary of Silent Spring

By Claire Eamer

Rachel Carson in 1944.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo
This week marks an important anniversary. Fifty years ago yesterday - September 27, 1962 - was the official publication date of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. It was a ground-breaking, impeccably researched, and lyrically written chronicle of the damage being done to the environment by excessive use of synthetic chemicals, especially DDT. And it’s generally credited with launching the environmental movement.

Even before Silent Spring reached bookstore shelves, its friends and foes were lining up to do battle. The book had been serialized in the New Yorker magazine over the previous summer, so its contents were no secret. One of the big chemical companies threatened a lawsuit in an attempt to block publication, but Carson’s publishers went ahead anyway. With thousands of pre-orders and a spot on the Book of the Month Club roster, Silent Spring was heading for the best-seller list.

And Rachel Carson was heading into battle. She was an unlikely environmental warrior. Born in 1907, Carson was a biologist who had worked for the United States government until her successful books about the ocean made it possible for her to quit and write full-time. She was a quiet, private person who had worked hard all her life, supporting her parents, sisters, nieces, and an adopted son. Walks along the seashore and peaceful hours of writing were what she wanted – not a public platform.

Rachel Carson and Bob Hines conduct marine biology
research in Florida, 1952.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife photo
But the public platform is what she got. As soon as the book appeared, it was attacked by spokesmen for the big, powerful chemical companies, by agriculture departments, by scientists who had tied their reputations to the chemical revolution of the 40s and 50s, and by a lot of politicians who knew where their campaign funds came from. The problem facing her opponents, however, was that Carson had done her homework. Her research was solid, and she had consulted the leading experts in the United States and beyond. She had facts on her side.

Stymied in their attempts to attack the book’s content, Carson’s opponents turned to attacking its author. She was called a hysterical woman, a fanatic devotee of bird-huggers and organic gardeners, even a tool of subversive (read Communist) forces that were threatening America’s food supply by trying to ban all pesticides (a position Carson never took). It was the kind of firestorm of personal attacks that American climate scientists face today.

Through it all, Carson remained calm, polite, and eminently rational – all the more remarkable because she was desperately ill. In fact, she was dying of breast cancer, although very few people knew it. Her words, both written and spoken, won her plenty of supporters, including the American President, John Kennedy. By the time she died, just 18 months after the publication of Silent Spring, Carson knew she had made a difference and that the first steps were being taken to control the use of pesticides and other chemicals and limit their environmental impact.

For more about Rachel Carson and Silent Spring:

http://www.rachelcarson.org/

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/09/rachel-carsons-natural-histories.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/blog/2012/sep/27/rachel-carson-silent-spring-legacy

1 comment:

Playing by the book said...

Thanks for reminding us of this anniversary.