Global warming, and the urgent need to take action to combat it, have become news staples.
Former Vice President Al Gore has become a Nobel Peace Prize winner, earning a stature for his crusade to educate the world about the perils of global warming that he never achieved during his previous 30 years in public life.
In An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning documentary that follows Gore as he makes several of the thousands of PowerPoint presentations he has done on the topic, he notes that a scientific consensus has emerged where hundreds of studies agree that global warming is occurring, while zero dispute that fact.
It wasn’t always that way, and Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s classic text about humans’ path of unrelenting environmental destruction, played a major role in the modern environmental movement of which Gore and his work is a current and major part.
Published in 1962, Silent Spring takes as its starting point and overarching metaphor a spring in which no birds sing because none exist anymore. “This town does not really exist, but it might easily have a thousand counterparts in America or elsewhere in the world,” Carson writes in her eerily prophetic first chapter.
What follows is a remarkably accessible and devastating expose of the various ways that human, through their modern way of life, according to Carson, have wreaked havoc on the environment.
Already a National Book Award winner by the time she wrote Silent Spring, Carson makes her way through the levels of environmental wreckage, dedicating chapters to DDT, water, soil and plants, among others. She takes consistent aim both at what she perceives as the arrogance and negligence of companies and the government as well as her insistence that humans are subject to the same environmental and health consequences as other animals. Although Silent Spring deals with nature and ecology, it is fundmentally a moral plea for a more rational and considered approach toward environmental stewardship.
As Pulitzer Prize winning-author Edward O. Wilson writes in the 40th Anniversary Edition of the work, Carson did not so much perform original research as synthesize the widespread effects of pesticides and other toxic pollutants on the environment into “a single image that everyone, scientists and the general public alike, could understand.”
The image was a powerful one, and led to both immediate and long-term results.
Silent Spring, delivered a sharp slap to a somnambulant public provided impetus for the modern environmental movement-many credit the book as contributing mightily to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the banning of domestic production of DDT- and also provoked strong negative reaction from the polluters. In her introductory essay, Linda Lear notes that the industrial chemical industry spent a quarter of a million dollars trying to discredit Carson and her work.
The effort did not succeed.
The book is not without its flaws. The documentation is general rather than specific, Carson’s explanation of alternatives are relatively thin and her position about intelligent spraying seems hard to reconcile with the tale of environmental wreckage she spends the vast majority of the book depicting.
Still, the book is undeniably a classic, both in its content and its impact. Although Carson died of breast cancer shortly after its publication, her work’s power endures and continues to challenges us to consider our own responsibility and the need to take constructive action.
The questions she asks at the end of the chapter, And No Birds Sing, continue to be relevant to us today:
“Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond … Who has decided-who has the right to decide-for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?”
Other books by Rachel Carson: