Silent Spring and Modern Environmentalism: The Other Road 

by Hannah Harrison

In Part 1, we explored the context and content of Silent Spring, investigating the relevance of the post-war period in the history of environmentalism. We also considered the threat agricultural DDT poses to ecosystems as well as Carson’s gentle scholarship. Today, we discuss the fallout from the chemical industry, see how it mirrors the persisting climate denial of today, as well as Carson’s enduring legacy in the field of environmentalism.

Carson versus the Chemical Industry

Before Silent Spring’s publication in 1962, there had been no publication quite as radical and clear in its purpose to call out an entire industry. Consequently, there was no clear idea about what the response to Silent Spring might be like. Indeed, it wouldn’t be until the 1970s when Big Oil would knowingly begin its crusade to obfuscate and deny the growing climate emergency using its own research [1]. Nevertheless, Carson prepared a 55-page reference list supporting Silent Spring’s content as a contingency measure of any blowback [2].

The response from Carson’s opponents was swift and ferocious [3]. She received a wealth of abuse from the chemical industry, popular press and US congress. Threatened with libel, she was called radical, disloyal, unscientific, and hysterical [3]. Indeed, Monsanto, an American agrochemical and biotechnology corporation, responded with a publication of their own: a five-page parody entitled ‘The Desolate Year’ [4]. ‘The Desolate Year’ described – using a writing style chosen deliberately to mirror Carson’s – the environmental apocalypse they suggested would ensue if pesticides were banned. They wrote of insects multiplying exponentially in number, mutating in shape and size, and unleashing a wealth of painful diseases and famines across America, portraying an almost dystopian new world [3,4]. By flipping Carson’s writing style on its head, Monsanto attempted to undermine Silent Spring, specifically that which gave – and continues to give –  it much of its power: its poetic and factually backed prose [5].

In spite of Carson’s untimely death from cancer two years after Silent Spring’s publication, criticism continued into the 1990s and early 2000s. This time from the tobacco industry whose aim was to cast doubt on science-backed policy, and to make this doubt commonplace. Capitalising on the fact that DDT is effective as an antimalarial treatment, as we acknowledged in Part 1, Carson was described as being responsible for millions of malaria deaths as the industry aimed to conceal the fact that DDT was never banned for anti-malaria usage after Silent Spring, only agricultural usage [6].

The legacy of Silent Spring in environmental protection

It is believed that the publication of Silent Spring helped found the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which took the place of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The EPA is an independent agency whose underlying mission is to protect human health and the environment through a mixture of regulation development, grant-giving and research, founded upon the understanding that we are all dependent on the health of our surroundings. As we discussed in Part 1, this is a sentiment present throughout Silent Spring. The EPA banned DDT specifically for agricultural uses, thought of as a direct consequence of Silent Spring.

Further to this, in 1970, protests successfully prevented the construction of an airport near Everglades National Park. That same year, 20 million Americans gathered on the first Earth Day, a landmark moment in environmental history that now involves 1 billion people in more than 193 countries [8].

Summing up

In all, Silent Spring represents the opening up of conservation and environmental ethics to the public, and the start of a democratic activist movement [7,10]. Not only this but the start of more stringent regulation and public advocacy for environmental care. The lengths those profiting from environmental degradation are able to go to maintain the status quo can also be begun to be understood when looking at Silent Spring.

While the proliferation of Silent Spring into the mainstream does provide many environmentalists with hope, there is still a way to go [9]. The banning of agricultural DDT in the US did amount to improved environmental protection, however, this led to its exportation to the Global South in the early 2000s, where regulation was less strict regarding agricultural workers’ safety. Moreover, the EPA has come under criticism over its approval of a Monsanto herbicide made with a chemical called dicamba [12]. Nevertheless, at the centre of Silent Spring remains the importance of democratising access to environmental education in order to best protect global biodiversity [8].

***

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less travelled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.” [11]

[1] Hall, 2015. ‘Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago’. Scientific American. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exxon-knew-about-climate-change-almost-40-years-ago/ Accessed: 04.08.2021
[2] Waddell, C., 2000. ‘The reception of Silent Spring: An introduction. And no birds sing: Rhetorical analyses of Rachel Carson’s Silent spring’, pp.1-16. Accessed 04.08.2021
[3] Stoll, 2020. Available at: http://www.environmentandsociety.org/exhibitions/rachel-carsons-silent-spring/personal-attacks-rachel-carson-woman-scientist Accessed 04.08.2021
[4] https://archive.org/details/monsanto-magazine-1962-the-desolate-year/page/n3/mode/2up Accessed 04.08.2021
[5] Lilly, I.E., Murphy, K.J. and Schedtler, J.J., 2016. ‘The Planet’s Apocalypse: The Rhetoric of Climate Change’. Apocalypses in Context: Apocalyptic Currents through History. Minneapolis: Fortress, pp.359-379. Accessed 04.08.2021
[6] https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/rehabilitatingcarson Accessed 04.08.2021
[7] Epstein, S.S. and Briggs, S., 1987. ‘If Rachel Carson Were Writing Today: Silent Spring in Retrospect’. Envtl. L. Rep. News & Analysis, 17, p.10180.
[8] n.d. “Why Silent Spring still matters” https://www.earthday.org/why-silent-spring-still-matters/ Accessed 04.08.2021
[10] Philpott, 2009. “Decades after Silent Spring, pesticides remain a menace — especially to farmworkers” https://grist.org/article/pesticides1/ Accessed 04.08.2021
[11]Carson, R., 2002. Silent spring. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Accessed 04.08.2021[12] Gillam, 2020. ‘EPA faces court over backing of Monsanto’s controversial crop system’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/20/epa-faces-court-over-backing-of-monsantos-controversial-crop-system Accessed 05.08.2021
Categories Biodiversity

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