Rachel Carson: The Vanguard of the Natural World

‘Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death.’


Since the first efforts of prehistoric humans in Levant to domesticate both plants and animals approximately twelve thousand years ago, man’s relationship with his environment has been complex. Through numerous agrarian revolutions, man has shaped and influenced the natural world beyond imagination and frequently with little regard for the consequences of his actions. Often viewed as benign cultivation, these first steps in environmental exploitation set a path for man’s exponential growth to become the dominant species on our planet. However, the complexity of our existence within a larger ecosystem began to be perceived during the birth of the industrial revolution. Suddenly man was able to structure his environment according to his needs and whims: through sheer brute force man could change the course of a river, strip forests naked and choke the very air that he breathed. Mankind blithely assumed that somehow the world was so large that his poisons would simply disappear in its immensity. As time progressed and industry spread, the connections that linked our species to the natural world became ever more strained and distant, reaching a zenith of arrogance and ignorance with the detonation of the first atomic weapons. Man believed he was master of all that he surveyed.

The consequences of our actions upon our planet are undeniable. From the shameful monuments to our consumerism, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to the oppressively sterile grasslands of South America, where once ancient rainforests stood testament to nature’s great diversity – humans have continually poisoned, suffocated and butchered the natural world for the sake of progress, caring little for the impact of their wanton vandalism. For Rachel Carson, author of the genre defining Silent Spring, man’s indifference and hubris towards his own ecosystems could only reach one inevitable conclusion – the extermination of man’s existence.

There are very few books that can claim to alter the discourse of a nation, let alone entirely change the framework, including societal attitudes, in which an issue is considered. Conceivably, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which assisted defining the public’s attitudes towards slavery before the onset of the American Civil War, is one such case. Also Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ short thesis The Communist Manifesto is a definite candidate for this exclusive category. It is amongst these culturally defining publications that Carson’s Silent Spring is unquestionably placed, since very few other works have so deeply impacted upon our understanding and perception of the world in which we exist. Like all great works of literature, the premise of Carson’s work is simple: we, as a species, live in an interconnected environment where the indiscriminate use of synthetic chemicals to destroy insects, that invade crops, recreational areas and private residencies, could potentially have the inadvertent effect of killing our natural world, including us. Obviously, this concept of the inter-connectivity of life had been discussed and theorised for the previous century, but the unique aspect of Carson’s Silent Spring was that it exposed both the chemical industrial complex and various government agencies to criticisms of negligence and complicity in the destruct of vast swathes of natural habitat. For the American public of the early 1960s this was revolutionary.

Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson

The basic thesis of Carson’s work was that mankind must fundamentally re-evaluate his relationship with the natural world. Technological progression over the previous century, and more specifically over the period of the two World Wars, had meant that man’s capacity to affect his environment had dramatically altered. Rachel Carson describes in uncompromising detail how man, using tactics and engineering designed for warfare, was able to chemically plough vast tracts of land in order to produce a higher crop yield or eradicate an unwanted pest for aesthetic reasons. One such cited example was that of governmental attempts to control the sagebrush plant, an aromatic shrub, on the bitter upland plains of the Rocky Mountains. The environmental agencies’ logic was simple: by chemically spraying millions of acres of uncultivated grasslands to exterminate the sagebrush; the rancher, the farmer and the cattleman could graze greater numbers of cattle and sheep to satisfy the public’s insatiable demand. However, there seemed to have been little consideration whether the climate or the soil itself could support the types of grass that are conducive to rearing livestock. Eager to use man’s latest, bright new toy – the government agencies, chemical industries and cattlemen successfully sterilised millions upon millions of acres of natural habitat that supported a diverse range of wildlife. Gone are the willows that were poisoned along with the sagebrush; gone are the moose, deer and antelope that relied on these crucial plants for sustenance; gone are the beavers that depended upon the willow to construct their dams and, long with it, the naturally formed lakes that supported many species of fish, insect and bird. A finely balanced ecosystem that had developed over millennia, destroyed in a chemical experiment that was sponsored by man’s greed and naivety. Mankind now truly had ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping animal that creepeth upon the earth.’

The theory of inter-connectivity permeates throughout all of Rachel Carson’s work; she describes a species at war with all other life, though it is fought through ignorance rather than malice. By using synthetic chemical compounds, such as DDT, dieldrin and aldrin, man attempts to control a variety of insects to preserve crops and natural areas. However, this careless approach of blanket spraying has many unintended consequences to the environment; firstly the indiscriminate use of insecticides destroys and contaminates the base of food pyramid, all insects are affected not just those targeted. Secondly, the animals that rely upon insects as a food source die of starvation or poisoning – since the accumulative effect of eating significant amounts of insecticides impacts upon the brain and vital organs of all animals that consume the tainted insects. This tragic domino effect gradually labours itself through the complete food chain, from smallest grub to the largest predator; all are afflicted by man’s desire to control his environment. Ironically, it is the insects that potentially benefit the most from the use of insecticides, since they are quick to re-establish their population through Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Though many insects die every time DDT is applied, there are some that are genetically resistant to this poison and, due to the destruction of its predators, can breed without interference. This often leads to a population boom of insects every two years after the chemical application. Therefore, to treat these resistant insects, mankind develops more potent synthetic chemical compounds, as we undertake a scorched earth policy against this most ancient of foes. The result is a world devoid of life and variety; the inevitable consequence of man’s folly.

There are many profound aspects that contribute to the enduring legacy of Silent Spring. But the concepts that both government and private industry do not always act towards a greater good, resulted in the reaction following the book’s publication that was both immediate and ferocious. For the first time since the Great Depression, an author directly challenged the assumptions that formed the pillars of American society – Linda Lear, Rachel Carson’s biographer, notes that ‘She had toppled America’s blind faith in science and, more damaging still, she initiated public debate over the direction of technological progress.’ Part of this public discussion was the chemical industry’s visceral attack on both Carson’s work and personal life. All Carson’s conclusions concerning the impact of chemicals upon wildlife and humans were discredited. Her gender and sexuality became legitimate targets for ridicule, after all Carson was an unmarried spinster with no children, the industry argued. However it was the contempt that Carson faced from the twin defendants was unprecedented: a former Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, claimed ‘she is probably a communist’ and queried her right to have any interest in genetics. Further to these personal reproaches, the chemical industry’s lobby groups spent in excess of a quarter of a million dollars, approximately two million dollars today, specifically to argue against Carson’s research. These lobby groups claimed that Carson had deliberately falsified results, exaggerated test data and drawn selective conclusions. Nevertheless, Silent Spring had set in motion an ecological juggernaut that was not going to be derailed by the poisonous pronouncements of any vested interest groups.

Soon after publication, a metamorphosis began in American society. Public opinion started to shift away from the traditional perspective that man’s impact on the environment was benign, towards a more pragmatic approach. Society was beginning to comprehend that the use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture and nuclear fallout from atomic weapons testing had the potential to destroy our environment, including man. As a direct consequence of Silent Spring, many grassroots movements formed in many states across America. These ecological organisations began to challenge their local government, environment agencies and chemical companies to provide evidence that the products that they were using to tackle nuisance insects were safe and targeted. Rachel Carson would also have an impact upon the highest echelons of the federal government in the United States. After reading Silent Spring, John F Kennedy was sufficiently moved to order his President’s Science Advisory Committee to investigate all of Carson’s assertions into the misuse of pesticides by the chemical industry. The direct result was a banning of DDT but, possibly more importantly for the larger ecological movement, a complete vindication of Carson’s research and conclusions. Silent Spring helped redefine the terms in which the environment is discussed within the mainstream of political and societal discourse. Even to the present day, it still inspires people to constantly question our impact upon this small blue marble that is our home.

Potentially the most significant factor that lets Rachel Carson’s magnum opus resonant through the generations is that it was specifically written for general consumption, and it is because of Carson’s skill as an author that Silent Spring still endures as a high watermark in the non-fiction genre. In lesser hands the topics discussed could easily have been ignored; another dry academic paper concerning man’s impact upon his planet that becomes almost indecipherable to all but the select élite. Carson certainly was not the first author to warn of the hazards of pesticides or attempted to alert the public to the dangers of highly toxic chemicals. However, it is because of the beauty of the prose and the eloquence of the arguments, Silent Spring reached an unprecedented audience – within the first six months of its release over half a million people had purchased a copy and many more had read its serialisation in The New Yorker magazine that initially commissioned the piece. There are very few authors that can match Rachel Carson’s finesse when describing the natural and physical world; Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath both contain elements that would not appear out of place in Carson’s literary style. Even the chapter titles threw away the rigours of scientific orthodoxy in favour of a more populist tone: ‘Needless Havoc’ and ‘Rivers of Death’ leave the reader in little doubt over Carson’s opinions. It is with the accessibility of a novel that Silent Spring was able to achieve such popularity – anyone who has attempted to discover the forbidden truths of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species can attest to the fact that academic candour does not necessarily equate to an enjoyable experience. It is this mixture, of the scientific and the literary, that combined to establish Silent Spring as the masterpiece that re-imagined the fundamental relationship between man and his environment.

The legacy of Silent Spring is beyond dispute. It has been widely credited as the birth of the environmental movement; both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth owe their existence to the wider public consciousness created by the polemic Rachel Carson. American Presidents and Vice Presidents have mentioned that Carson’s work has profoundly altered their attitudes towards the natural world and, consequently, many of the policies of their administrations.

However, the story of Silent Spring is not a story of success. Man has always attempted to challenge and alter his environment – from the birth of the first agrarian society; man has sought to mould the world to his advantage. Worryingly, man has still to learn the lesson that all life, from the smallest single celled amoeba to the largest blue whale, exist in a finely balanced and symbiotic relationship. After fifty years since its release, it is possible, with the benefit of hindsight, to review Carson’s analysis concerning whether our impact on the natural world is undertaken maliciously or ignorantly. The answer is simple: it is certainly malicious; it is just perpetuated under a veneer of uncertainty and feigned innocence. We allow libertarian think tanks and political lobby groups to cloud the discussion with inexactitudes and falsehoods concerning our impact on the most precious of our resources. Continually they undermine the scientific consensus with spurious arguments, which are often to the profit of their powerful benefactors – time and again, legislation is delayed, disrupted, watered down and doomed to failure because of the coordination of interest groups who profit handsomely from the malaise.

As the honorary figurehead of the environmental movement, Rachel Carson is still targeted by these free market libertarians who believe that government intervention in the environment is negatively impacting on their ability to create wealth and prosperity. Nearly fifty years after her death (Carson was suffering from terminal breast cancer while writing Silent Spring), the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, launched a concerted campaign to discredit her legacy –  the main accusations focus on the banning of DDT as having caused millions of deaths due to malaria. The continual assertion of these claims is intended to deliberately misrepresent Carson’s position on the use of chemical pesticides and distort her arguments concerning the spread of malaria. Her thesis was simple: indiscriminate spraying of pesticides is counterproductive and a more nuanced approach is required, where targeted use of DDT, along with other control methods, would produce better results to manage insect populations. Furthermore, it was because the insects were becoming genetically resistant to DDT that many governments ordered its withdrawal, not as many have claimed through pressure from environmentalists. It is pragmatism that dictates Carson’s Silent Spring, not the romanticism of James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory – ‘Sometimes we have no choice but to disturb these relationships, but we should do so thoughtfully, with full awareness that what we do may have consequences remote in time and place.’ If these warnings are not heeded, any future research into the natural world will be a post mortem rather than an observational study.