by Hannah Harrison
Published in 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is credited as being one of the first books that took the chemical industry head-on, critiquing the environmental orthodoxy of its time. Its poetic use of language sought to properly engage the general public in environmentalism for the first time. For this, Silent Spring received raucous applause from environmentalists and has since never been out of print . But what made its content so compelling? And, as we reflect on the six decades that have passed since its publication, what impact has Silent Spring had on how we think about conservation today? Over the next 2 articles, we will begin to answer these questions. However, to properly understand Silent Spring, we first need to understand the period in which it emerged.
Placing Silent Spring in Context
The year was 1962: the world was in the midst of the Cold War and still recovering from the effects of the second world war. But what does any of this have to do with environmentalism?
This period also happened to be a transformational time for the scientific community; millions of pounds began to be invested in different scientific fields. However, some fields of science were more equal than others, particularly in terms of the strategic advantages they could provide countries that were at war. These fields included physical geoscience and meteorology which received huge amounts of military funding. Officials recognised how the weather could influence a battle’s success so invested a great deal of money in understanding geophysical processes. Though ultimately unsuccessful, understanding the jetstream aided Japanese bombing campaigns over the US, campaigns which failed for the Americans in return. Through this, we can see that, for those at war, the Earth itself was becoming a playground to fight enemies -its intrinsic value forgotten by those fighting .
With the threat of nuclear annihilation casting a shadow over the world, Carson made an incredibly radical proposition within Silent Spring. For her, it was incorrect to think that synthetic poison could target a single class of organisms and do no harm to others. She proposed that this was because the entire world shares a common biochemical evolutionary history, one which should be at the forefront of the public consciousness.
Carson’s Gentle Scholarship
Throughout her work, Carson was cognisant of the need to appeal to the general population. In her first chapter, she wrote not of science, but of a myth: of an idyllic town in the USA that her readers could recognise, not necessarily because they had been there, but because they longed to be there. She wrote poetically so as to engage readers with the issues of unregulated agricultural chemicals, and to democratise access to environmentalism.
However, despite its lyrical and expressive language, Silent Spring is science-based and focuses on the issue of Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) in particular. DDT was originally used throughout the second world war to shield crops from insects and to protect soldiers from insect-borne diseases such as malaria . After the war, it was commonplace for DDT to be sprayed in large swaths to fight any animals viewed as pests.
However, largely unbeknownst to consumers at the time, was that DDT is characterised by two features: its long-lasting nature, and its ability to aggregate in apex predators. In oviparous animals, in particular, DDT deforms eggshells and makes them thinner . When chicks are incubated by their mothers, their eggs are at risk of being crushed, killing the chick inside. This is the case for species including the Bald Eagle who breed only once per year and, therefore, are especially endangered by DDT. Aggregation of DDT along the food chain occurs through the consumption of prey by predators. Species that are prey to those at the top of the food chain affected by DDT, have the opportunity to increase in number from lack of predation. They then hunt their prey excessively and are at risk of over-hunting and declining in numbers themselves. This process is called a trophic cascade and can wipe out entire ecosystems.
By highlighting this, Carson’s work acutely challenged the belief that humans should and could control nature ; it aimed to assert that everything is connected, using the Earth’s common biogeochemical history and declining Bald Eagle numbers as examples. In the next article, we will discuss the fallout of Silent Spring on the chemical industry, how their attempts to discredit Carson and her work are reflected by climate change deniers today. We will also discuss her work’s lasting impact on modern environmental policy.
Hannah is an incoming geography finalist at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and will be conducting her dissertation on whether a ‘Francis effect’ was stimulated by the publication of Laudato Si. In her spare time, she co-leads the Sustainable Development working group at Generation Climate Europe and enjoys engaging with climate advocacy groups within her university. Hannah has been ClimaTalk’s publications coordinator since January 2021.
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