Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is one of the more influential books of the 20th century. It was read by senators, presidents, and industry leaders and influenced environmental policy in the more than fifty years since – a picture of Carson even hung on Al Gore’s wall during his time as vice president. Its publication was the catalyst for the modern environmental movement and likely the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. I had heard of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring over the years but never actually read any of it until now. In today’s political climate just about every environmental issue that comes to the fore is bitterly partisan and contested and reading through these excerpts I can see why.
Similarly to previous readings, the biggest problem I have with Rachel Carson’s excerpts is the unnecessary sensationalism. We’ve had over 50 years since her book was published to review its accuracy and by all accounts she was, to some degree, right about pesticides and DDT in particular. Given that her position was right why does she feel the need to cheapen her argument by writing nonsense like “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.'” (pg 155)? In my opinion, it would be far more persuasive if she had acknowledged the benefits and uses of pesticides and then presented her research on why we should be careful with how much we use. By taking the Luddite-esque position of “if you use pesticides, you’re killing everything” she portrays herself as an unrealistic radical and that perception taints everything else in the book and frames the situation as a black and white issue with no middle ground – either you’re saving the earth or killing it. In the long run I think this approach hurt the environmental movement because it attracted people that agreed with that us-versus-them mentality and put industry on the defensive. After the publication of Silent Spring, chemical companies began mailing monthly newsletters to media outlets detailing the benefits of their chemicals and began a campaign to discredit Carson. Perhaps they would have done that either way, but her uncompromising position and use of language like “grim specter” (pg 152), “chain of evil” (pg 153), and “chemical death rain” (pg 159) took away all other options.
Carson testifying before the Senate.
However, she does bring up good points in spite of her vitriol. “Under primitive agricultural conditions the farmer had few insect problems. These arose with the intensification of agriculture – the devotion of immense acreages to a single crop. Such a system set the stage for explosive increases in specific insect populations.” (pg 157). This is the meat of her argument. She concedes that there is no doubt that farmers face insect and pest problems so saying that they should stop using insecticides and pesticides is unrealistic. Explaining why they have those problems, giving them alternatives to those pesticides, and explaining why they should use them is the way to go, as she does here.
Towards the end of the excerpt she finally reaches more of a civil tone when she states that “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.” (pg 159). That is something that at least could be discussed and debated among reasonable people. Even if you believe, as she clearly does, that any use of insecticides or pesticides is, on balance, bad for society you must take stock of the state of the world and remain in the realm of possibilities – which banning all chemicals is not. Had she used a tone as reasonable as she did in the last few paragraphs of the excerpt throughout her book perhaps instead of having a polarized, partisan split between those who care about the environment and those who care about technological advancement – two positions that are not, despite our current political climate, mutually exclusive – we could have found some middle ground where reasonable businessmen and reasonable environmentalists endeavor to find a balance between the two.