should you read Silent Spring?

Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring as she was battling cancer.  It would become a seminal book on humanity’s misguided propensity to undermine its own well-being through the widespread use of chemical poisons.  It would also become recognized as the starting point of the modern environmental movement.  It’s no small irony that I had never read it despite having introduced it to countless audiences of introductory environmental science students.

In the calm before Hurricane Irma sent us running from the Caribbean, I found myself finally taking the time to wade through the pages.  It’s dense and scientific.  The good news is that there were not really any surprises.  In other words, I have been vindicated; I’ve given countless valid synopses of the book that were pretty much right on.  Which really just means that the book has had that much of an impact in the environmental fields.  It’s a story that we know all too well.  It essentially reads much like the environmental toxicology chapter of a modern environmental science textbook.  We haven’t come very far; we are still grappling with the same issues we were in the early 1960s.  Take home message:  We still have a long way to go.

Have the issues changed much?  No, we are still confronted with pesticide resistance in insects, unintended consequences on non-target organisms, and devastating effects on human health.  So, it is important to know that this alarm bell is not just now sounding for your generation.  For perspective, it’s useful to establish a historical context and understand that the alarm was sounded to my parent’s generation, maybe your grandparent’s generation, as well.  And that they didn’t do anything to stop it.  Like climate change, it begs us to consider whether they should be taken to task for putting their greed and affluence ahead of the well-being of future generations.

Silent Spring is more than a treatise on the effects of chemicals spread wantonly throughout our environment.  There is a story in the book as well, though it is masked.  The real story is that the book appears to have been a cry in the dark as Rachel Carson built a case for the connection between the pervasive chemicals that were being broadcast in our environment and human diseases like cancer.  It’s a swan song, a beautiful lonely lament sung at the end of life.  Rachel Carson was succumbing to cancer, she knew it, and perhaps had a deep suspicion that her life was cut short by society’s short-sightedness.

What followed the book’s publication was an attack on a dying woman’s character.  Considering the historical context, the lowest blow the industry and her detractors could deal was to try to establish her and her agenda as communist.  And maybe as a crazy unhinged cat lady.  Sounds inhumane to attack a woman battling the disease that would take her life, but these tactics are still the norm as today industries and political think tanks seek to defame climate scientists for the work they do.  Nevermind that Rachel Carson was right on throughout her book.  Nevermind that it was articulate and meticulously referenced.  Still the chemical industry tore apart her character.  And all she was doing was trying to alert humanity to a then unheard of reality that humans were creating things we could not see that could indeed kill us.

Perhaps you should read the book if only to put it in the historic context of Carson drawing conjectures linking chemicals to cancer in humans and knowing that as she was writing the book, she was coming to terms with her own battle with cancer, and that she learned that it had metastasized.  Within a couple of years of its publication while she was being slandered and attacked, she would succumb to her disease and die a very young woman, a hero to all, age 57.

You can read more about Rachel’s legacy here.