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The Lessons (and Echoes) of Silent Spring

By Keith Kloor
Jun 22, 2012 10:12 PMNov 19, 2019 9:11 PM


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It's hard to overstate the legacy of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which was published in June of 1962. Carson's monumental book drew widespread attention to the overuse of pesticides and their lethal effects on wildlife and the environment. But Silent Spring accomplished much more than that. As Robert Gottlieb observed in his own seminal history on environmentalism,

Carson argued that public health and the environment, human and natural environments, were inseparable...Carson's powerful writing style wedded a dispassionate presentation of the research with an evocative description of natural and human environments under siege from a science and a technology that had "armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons." This technology, she declared, was being turned "not just against the insects [but] against the earth" itself. Such writing aimed not simply to present but to convince. The mission of Silent Spring became nothing less than an attempt to create a new environmental consciousness.

In that, Carson was hugely successful. Contemporary environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s, with its dual focus on pollution and ecology, sprang from Carson's manifesto. Silent Spring has since become one of the environmental movement's most sacrosanct texts. But in a provocative essay this week, David Ropeik has challenged the conventional view of Silent Spring. He writes:

As much as Rachel Carson's inspiring work deserves significant credit for our cleaner air and water and progress on so many other environmental issues, it also deserves some of the blame for having helped foster a set of accepted truths and common beliefs that have caused enormous damage to human and environmental health.

Anticipating the blowback, Ropeik tweeted a link to his piece this way:

Don't hate me! "Silent Spring is 50. The Credit, and the Blame, It Deserves" Big Think blog, Risk: Reason and Reality.

To my mind, Ropeik makes a sound case for a fuller reckoning of Carson's legacy. But you might expect that, since I've recently argued, in a series of posts and essays, that environmentalism needs to shed some of its anachronistic tenets if it is to regain its former influence and relevance. In his essay, Ropeik asserts that Carson's book--and the environmentalism it spawned--gave rise to powerful phobias of radiation and chemicals that have led greens to embrace an absolutist (and often irrational) version of the precautionary principle. That has manifested itself in various counterproductive ways. For example, Ropeik says:

Fear of anything synthetic/human-made/unnatural is the foundation of resistance to genetically modified food, which has phenomenal potential not only to feed a growing global population but to do so in a more environmentally sustainable way than agriculture can currently accomplish.

Ropeik is not the only one to question some of environmentalism's core assumptions on the occasion of Silent Spring's 50-year anniversary. Frank Graham Jr., the veteran conservation writer, and author of the 1970 book, Since Silent Spring, has recently written in Audubon magazine:

I think one of Carson's legacies to the future is the recognition that it is better to come to conservation through love, rather than fear. Over the years, I have seen men and women rush to the environmental movement as a response to the threat of cancer from chemical misuse, or various other diseases through air and water pollution. But they lose interest when some other public crusade comes to the front. I have seen the strongest bonds forged when we bring to the fight, as Rachel Carson did, a determination to preserve what we love.

On a separate (but related) note, it should be acknowledged that no retrospective of Carson and Silent Spring can ignore the concerted and ugly industry campaign that was waged against her and the book after its publication. Graham discusses this in his short Audubon essay and elaborates on it in a new piece at Yale Environment 360, drawing parallels to the current "assault on climate science." He writes:

The personal, vitriolic attacks that were leveled at Carson are echoed today in the organized assault on the scientists who bring us uncontroverted evidence that greenhouse gases are rapidly warming the planet.

No doubt, some climate skeptics are going to growl at this comparison in Graham's Yale 360 piece, just as environmentalists are going to growl at Ropeik's unflattering reassessment of Carson's legacy. That's unfortunate. The world's complex environmental issues demand open minds, fresh perspectives, and less growling.

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