It shames me a little to admit that this is my first time reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, but it is. And what a book it turned out to be. It more or less got the environmental movement off the ground in the United States in the early 1960s while also causing enough of a stir to get DDT banned. It is a remarkable book in its scope, writing, and the thorough exploration that Carson puts together. And, despite being over 50 years old, it’s remarkably relevant and caused me a fair bit of worry and wonder.
Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, angry at the amount of chemicals being sprayed upon the US and the damage that these chemicals were doing to all forms of life. And it is shocking just how much damage an aerial spraying of DDT can do to a forest or farmer’s field. It will kill almost all the insect life, severely hurt the bird life and eventually end up in our water supply, potentially causing sterility, birth defects and a host of other problems. The scale of damage is huge, but Carson maintains a calm and almost dispassionate tone throughout. It would have been really easy to sink into a hysterical or apocalyptic register given the facts and results of human actions. However, when Carson published Silent Spring, she was not a part of the mainstream scientific establishment nor was she the correct gender for scientists. So, she had to make sure that the style of the book would be acceptable to the general reading public if she was to be taken seriously. And she succeeded on all levels as the public response was so great, the American president John F. Kennedy directed his scientific team to read the book immediately and make policy recommendations based on it.
The other great thing about Silent Spring is that it is a very good example of how science can be well-written without sacrificing content. Too often, scientific reports and publications are written in jargon-heavy and obscure language so that readers need at least one graduate degree to penetrate them. Silent Spring requires no such thing as Carson demonstrates an elegance in writing that makes her concern – the overuse of pesticides – accessible and understandable without diluting the science. This is the best form of science writing and one that I personally enjoy reading. Bill Bryson writes in a similar manner and is worth checking out if you enjoyed Silent Spring (it feels weird writing that because, really, you shouldn’t enjoy reading Silent Spring given the destruction it details).
I would highly recommend this book to anyone worried about the overabundance of chemicals in everyday life, or to anyone with an interest in environmentalism generally.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. New York: Mariner Books, 2002. Print.