Review: ‘Silent Spring’

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 Silent Spring

By Rachel Carson

  • Date finished: May 25, 2014
  • Genre: Nature, Science, Environmentalism
  • Year: 1962
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Modern Library’s 100 Best Nonfiction Books, Time’s 100 Greatest Nonfiction Books
  • Grade: B+
  • Thoughts upon reading:

You know, now that it finally comes time to actually give Silent Spring a grade, I sorta feel bad about giving it a B. I mean, I consider myself to be highly environmentally conscious, if not a full-fledged environmentalist (I leave that up to my brother). But I care about the Earth! I recycle! I disagree with pollution!

But I have to be honest with myself, and while I certainly don’t disagree with or want to discredit the importance of Silent Spring to our modern world, I will admit: it wasn’t the most enjoyable read. As you can read about elsewhere, I’ve been a little busy so far this spring what with buying a house and all, and Silent Spring didn’t exactly make for easy, down time reading. I definitely appreciate the book and what it signifies to modern U.S. environmental policies, and I am very much impressed by what Rachel Carson achieved. But a fun beach-y read it is not, and eh, I guess that’s what my brain wanted during this time of go-go-go, stress-stress-stress.

But let’s go beyond that for a moment. As you might be aware (due to, you know, history), Silent Spring chronicles the absolutely horrifying abuse of insecticides and pesticides following World War II, both commercially and locally. During the war, scientists had, alongside finding new ways of killing each other, discovered that certain chemicals could be combined to kill both unwanted pests and plants.

While discussing the book with Joel, he pointed out a good point (that Carson fails to connect due): that means in the peacetime years following the war, it was like open season for scientific experimentation with the new super chemicals. Plus, this was before the establishment of the Environmental Protection Act and the EPA – there wasn’t anyone out there looking out for the health of Mother Nature besides the rogue biologist or maybe an ahead-of-their-time ecologist (a branch of science that really hadn’t emerged yet).  During the 1950’s and 1960’s, man (namely, big powerful men in American government and science) thought he could control nature. Mosquitoes bothering you? Let’s dowse you in this new wonder chemical and watch the mosquitoes disappear! The magic of modern science! However, these abuses weren’t just about controlling mosquitoes. We’re talking about government planes flying over Metro Detroit and dumping thousands of gallons of chemicals in order to control a certain kind of beetle, simultaneously wiping out almost every bird in the area. We’re talking about forests being sprayed with chemicals to control for pests that might damage the logging industry, and then those chemicals leaking into nearby streams and killing every single fish.

There was some push back against these policies at the time, but they weren’t organized and didn’t have a theme to unite them. Silent Spring provided the evidence and the manifesto by which to organize and resist. While I wouldn’t say that Carson’s science is top-of-the-line, ready for academia, she writes with a sweeping and graceful voice. More importantly, she was able to synthesize all the various stories and strands of evidence, resulting in an impressive and persuasive work that not only exposes the flagrant abuses of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the chemical industry, but also points out the unity of nature. Man has an important place in this giant ecosystem we call Earth, she says, and if we abuse that ecosystem, we may irrevocably alter the very nature of our home – the only one we’re ever going to have.

All that being said, I knew that was the unifying message behind Silent Spring. And again, I very much appreciate it. I also appreciate Carson, who wrote Silent Spring as a woman scientist working in mid-century America, with no PhD, attached to no academic institution. Her accomplishment is really quite astounding. However, the book is written for an audience in 1962, and it’s mainly concerned with the nuts and bolts of pesticide/insecticide abuse – she’s trying to educate readers who are new to this subject. I, on the other hand, don’t need to be educated on this kind of abuse because it happened more than 50 years ago. Well, OK, I need to be educated on a lot of things, but she really doesn’t need to convince me that this abuse is happening – I believe you, sister! Instead, I was more into her eloquent and graceful comments on nature, ecology, and preservation in general (I would give you quotes, but alas, I already returned the book to the library). There was some of that, but most of it was the nuts and bolts, which unfortunately made the overall reading experience kind of dry. I had a hard time pushing through the first half, mainly because I was so busy with life, and whenever that happens, I have a hard time getting a good vibe on the entire book.

But all in all, a great book, if only for its historical significance. I’m glad I read it. As you can see by all the reading lists it’s on, it’s definitely important. If anything else, it inspires me to continue reading about preservation and nature (I believe John Muir is one of my goal authors), and the continued work being done in the 21st century.

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One thought on “Review: ‘Silent Spring’

  1. Pingback: A look back at spring. A look ahead to summer. | Paperback Fool

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