Review of Silent Spring (1962)


Rachel Carson (writer).

Read in 2021.

Read with a group at the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.

Excessive use of insecticides like DDT, particularly from the 1940s through to the time of writing.

Our attitude towards poisons has undergone a subtle change. Once they were kept in containers marked with skull and crossbones; the infrequent occasions of their use were marked with utmost care that they should come in contact with the target and with nothing else. With the development of the new organic insecticides and the abundance of surplus planes after the Second World War, all this was forgotten.

A seminal work, Silent Spring broadened and consolidated environmental movements everywhere. In the development of those movements, it is far more significant than Walden (1854), and more engaging. By marshaling an array of hitherto disconnected facts and popularizing scientific findings, Carson demonstrated how a popular behaviour—spraying for bugs, “an accepted part of our economy and our way of life”—was primarily harmful and had to be curtailed. The sheer depth of harm amazed readers. The thrust of the narrative is to demonstrate, in some detail, the surprising complexities of ecology.

The purpose of insecticides is, of course, to do harm. Carson does not emphasize that point. I suppose it must have been important. For example, when the Nazis began to use Zyklon B at scale in Poland in 1942, I don’t think they conducted any trials to see how it would affect the native Polish population in the long term, because the Nazis wanted to harm their immediate victims and did not care about indirect damage to local residents or workers, whom they despised. Similarly, post-war campaigns to kill bugs were apparently conducted with a mixture of malice (against pests) and indifference (to the rest of nature) for the purpose of extinction. Incidentally, the active ingredient in Zyklon B was hydrogen cyanide, used as a pesticide since the 1880s. Carson is never so morbid as to mention this, but does call the industry “a child of the Second World War”.

Some assessments of collateral damage from spraying were conducted, but usually by non-experts who failed to notice the effects. Most likely, they were guided by their intentions, and ignorant of the counterintuitive mechanisms Carson describes. She made bioaccumulation famous. She writes about food webs and life cycles, showing in one chapter how spraying for spruce budworm in Canadian forests caused stocks of salmon in the ocean to drop, because of interactions the engineers and authorities had not anticipated: The migration of salmon to upstream brooks along “unseen and intangible” paths beneath the sea, and the diet of their young. Much of the power of Silent Spring lies in the author illuminating these hidden connections in careful and elegant language.

In fact-focused description, the project to poison and exterminate all nuisances in “the chemical war” reads between the lines like a nightmarish combination of disparate themes: Optimism about scientific progress; a strong belief in chemistry as an ultimate weapon (cf. the SF of the 1930s, e.g. Last and First Men, Under meteorernas trumeld); the marketability of disposable chemicals as a product unlike self-perpetuating biological controls; fear from previous backlashes against failed biological controls like the cane toad; the resurgence of government-industry collaboration and Keynesian public spending in the Great Depression after two prior decades of trust-busting; the increased mobility of pests with globalization; a desire for action over planning; elitist callousness about the lack of public knowledge and consent; and what the author calls “man’s search for a better and easier way of life”. The causes are as complex as the results. The deadly combination is almost Lovecraftian, showing how human self-harm comes out of confident ignorance rather than evil.

The author does not condemn the intention to kill pests and does not propose to ban pesticides or the free market. She acknowledges that poisons are still useful in some circumstances and recommends their use. She also recommends and generally prefers biological methods that are, in a manner of speaking, more cruel than chemicals, including deadly parasites and sterilization by radiation, something Knipling pulled off at scale on Curaçao to control the screw-worm; an extraordinary project I had not heard about elsewhere. Ionizing radiation recurs throughout the book as a hazard parallel to chemicals, being similarly invisible, counterintuitive and persistent in its effects.

The book opens with a “fable for tomorrow” where real events are transposed to a fictional context. This is a risky tactic, particularly because it uses the literary trope of contagion. In a few passages throughout the book, this contagion resembles not only radiation but Frazerian superstition, like the taint of a lizard in Leviticus 11:33. In other passages, Carson demonstrates beyond any doubt that she understands chemical contamination as a purely material phenomenon. It is distinct from magic and morality, inherently finite and unable to spread indefinitely. Still she continues to employ the trope, looking ahead to what Lawrence Buell would term “toxic discourse”.

Carson herself refrains from any cultural analysis. In chapter 11, she writes simply that “to establish tolerances is to authorize contamination”. This is true, but is not merely a statement of fact. The implication is that contamination should be categorically unacceptable, hence that the environment should be absolutely pure as a long-term goal. This idealism or purism is never stated more clearly in the book and seems to be an ill chosen philosophy. To my mind, biological pest controls are an alternative form of contamination: Ecological rather than chemical, but similarly intimate because it is often permanent and wide-ranging in its side effects, turning nature into cultural landscape.

Narrowly self-interested readers missed the point about ecology. They focused on the eeriness of contagion and on the way that drifting sprays and bioaccumulation would sometimes sicken and kill human beings. Such things certainly happened, but the book does not use direct harm as a scare tactic. Harm to people is correctly contextualized as an extension of larger and more important unintended consequences. Consider that insect-borne diseases killed tens of thousands of people in the building of the Panama Canal; many must have thought of some direct harm to humans as the price to pay to reduce overall harm to humans.

In many cases, Carson can only speculate about the risks, and does so honestly. “While it is admittedly difficult,” she writes, “in dealing with human beings rather than laboratory animals, to ‘prove’ that cause A produces effect B, plain common sense suggests that the relation between a soaring rate of liver disease and the prevalence of liver poisons in the environment is no coincidence.” Wherever possible, she quotes numerous experts who did the basic research and proved harm. One of the most interesting details is how these experts were marginalized and ignored, rather than vilified as Carson herself would be.

Requests for money for wildlife-insecticide research were included in annual budgets submitted to the Illinois legislature by the Natural History Survey, but were invariably among the first items to be eliminated. It was not until 1960 that money was somehow found to pay the expenses of one field assistant — to do work that could easily have occupied the time of four men. The desolate picture of wildlife loss had changed little when the biologists resumed the studies broken off in 1955. In the meantime, the chemical had been changed to the even more toxic aldrin, 100 to 300 times as toxic as DDT in tests on quail. By 1960, every species of wild mammal known to inhabit the area had suffered losses. It was even worse with the birds. In the small town of Donovan the robins had been wiped out, [---]

If the research program had been adequately financed to permit full coverage, the destruction revealed would have been even more appalling. But in the eight years of the program, only about $6000 was provided for biological field studies. Meanwhile the federal government had spent about $375,000 for control work and additional thousands had been provided by the state. The amount spent for research was therefore a small fraction of 1 per cent of the outlay for the chemical program.

The Illinois legislature did not wish to know what the consequences would be, and so it did not find out. Carson does not refer to this as criminal negligence, but in another passage, she more clearly places the blame with political leaders:

Who has placed in one pan of the scales the leaves that might have been eaten by the beetles and in the other the pitiful heaps of many-hued feathers, the lifeless remains of the birds that fell before the unselective bludgeon of insecticidal poisons? 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? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.

A moment of inattention! A failure of democracy, corrected by this book. Carson implies collective guilt in the grand enterprise, as well as political incompetence, corruption and profit-seeking, among all the other causes. Throughout, she deals effectively with the complexity of the 20th century, and communicates the beauty of a living, natural world. Some sections are speculative, and some have aged poorly. You will see reports on the state of Rhodesia, Tanganyika and Yugoslavia. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic look into a USA sleepwalking into the Love Canal disaster and the Cuban Missile Crisis; a near bottleneck of delusion.

In her previous books, Rachel Carson had written about the tiny lives in tide pools. In 1962, herself trapped in a web of complexity, she devoted a chapter of her greatest book to cancer, though not her own. She had received her diagnosis in December 1960. After publication, she suffered perhaps more abuse and vitriol than anyone before her, because she hurt an industry that had to be hurt. Cancer killed her in 1964.

References here: Kes (1969), The End of Nature (1989), “Toxic Discourse” (1998), Factfulness (2018).

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