The Legacy of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’

Janine Kitson, Vice President Colong Foundation for Wilderness
Rachel Carson (1907-1964) is famed for her ground breaking ecological warnings on the long-term dangers of pesticides – particularly DDT – for birds, wildlife, and humans. Her brilliance was her calm scientific eloquence that described the beauty of the natural world and her reverence for its complex ecological interrelationships. She loved the sea and understood its rhythms stretching back into millennia.

Rachel Carson was deeply concerned about the post WW2 nuclear and chemical age. She advocated for more responsible, safer biological controls. This led to the banning of DDT in the USA.

Today’s science of climate change confirms Rachel Carson’s warnings that the planet’s fragile life support systems can be easily be destabilised by human activity. These warnings become more significant when one considers the historical context that Rachel Carson lived through. Between 1941 and just before her death in 1962, Rachel Carson wrote four books.

Rachel Carson grew up in Springdale on Allegheny River, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on a small farm backing onto forested woods not far from the Pittsburgh steel mills. There she witnessed the expansion of the steel mills and how they progressively increased pollution and environmental degradation. Ironically, US President Donald Trump claimed Pittsburgh as the reason for pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017.

Rachel Carson’s first book Under the Sea Wind (1941), was published the year Pearl Harbour was bombed which brought the US into WW2.

Her prize-winning books about the oceanThe Sea Around Us (1952) and The Edge of the Sea (1955) were published at a time when the world was still reeling from the horrors and atrocities of global warfare, with the use of nuclear weapons devastating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only five years after the end of WW2 the Korean War began. This marked the beginnings of the Cold War with the build-up of nuclear weapons, proliferation of nuclear testing and the real fears of a nuclear Armageddon. Rachel Carson understood that humans had acquired the power to degrade and even destroy the planet.

Life dramatically changed after 1950. Industrial technology began to influence every aspect of human life in the western world – television, the car – accompanied by a culture of mass advertising. The US rapidly transformed from a ‘conservator’ to a consumer society. The age of plastic, freeways, waste and pollution became the new ‘norm’. Silent Spring (1962) was published on the cusp of massive societal changes. Chemical warfare was about to be used in the Vietnam War.

After WW2, the US embraced industrial agriculture that required highly toxic and dangerous chemicals to control the insects and weeds that came with monoculture crops. Rachel Carson raised the alarm that pesticides poisoned the waterways, air and soil and intensified up the food chain harming insects, birdlife, wildlife, marine life and ultimately human health.

Will Steffen, a senior fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and adjunct professor at the Australian National University argues that 1950 was a ‘turning point’ in world history and refers to it as the ‘The Great Acceleration’. He argues that 1950 was when the ‘human’ geological age began, known as the Anthropocene. His research is based on a series of graphs, describing the consequences of the industrial revolution since 1750. He identifies 1950 as being the year that indicates sudden and dramatic increases in population, greenhouse gases, global temperatures, deforestation, biodiversity extinction and pollution.

This ‘Great Acceleration’ highlights the massive increases in global economic activity with industrialization, infrastructure (dams, freeways, urbanisation, shopping centres, high rise), energy consumption, global trade, fossil fuel extraction, electricity, coal exports, transport, telecommunication, and international travel. The graphs reveal how global economic growth moved lock-step with global environmental degradation.

Today it is hard to imagine that people living in the 1950s were so deeply concerned about the environment. That generation grew up in a world far richer in nature and wildlife. However, many began to understand the science showing the environmental dangers that came with the industrial-military, chemical and nuclear expansion. Rachel Carson was not alone in her concerns. Others joined her such as Paul Ehrlich’s ‘The Population Bomb’ (1968), Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ (1970) and the Club of Rome’s report ‘Limits to Growth’ (1972).

Carson’s book called for intelligent regulation of the chemical industry. For this she was voraciously attacked by the chemical industry as a ‘hysterical woman’. Courageously she testified before the US Congress in 1963 calling for new laws to protect human health and the environment. However, ‘consent’ was ‘manufactured’ to sideline, dismiss, mock and/or attack these environmental and health concerns. The ‘promise’ of consumerism, convenience and affluence proved too addictive.

Rachel Carson set out to alert her generation to the horrors of awakening to a ‘silent spring’. Tragically this is now true as the world awakens to the reality of biodiversity extinction and catastrophe with extreme heat waves, wildfires, cyclones and floods. Rachel Carson’s warnings are more relevant than ever.

Further Reading

  • Rachel L. Carson, Silent Spring, Hamish Hamilton, London 1962
  • Rachel L. Carson, The Sea Around Us, Staples Press Limited, London, 1953
  • Mark Hamilton Lytle, The Gentle Subversive, Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environment Movement, Oxford University Press, New York, 2007
  • Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

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