Book Review: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

A while back I set myself the task of reading what are possibly the two most influential books on the modern environmental movement. The first of these was Gaia which I read a couple of years ago. I may be a slow reader, but I do get round to reading as much as I can on my reading list. So it is that I finally got round Silent Spring.

This particular edition (Penguin Modern Classics, published in 2000) includes several introductions/prefaces. What quickly becomes clear from these is that the introductions were written for a British audience as it draws contrasts between the British environmental movement and the account that Carson presents in the main text. The other thing that is pointed out is that Carson found biochemistry as her secondary calling, having initially aimed to be a writer earlier in life. Therefore, it was a great delight for her to be able to write a book and I would say that in terms of the quality of writing, she is a lot more skilled than some novelists I have read.

The focus is on certain classes of chemicals (mostly chlorinated hydrocarbons) that have been used as insecticides, pesticides and herbicides. Though Carson notes that a more generic term is that is more appropriate is that they are biocides, or poisons. The fact is that if they are sprayed with the intention of killing a particular species, they are indiscriminate and affect the entire environment in which they are spread and the areas which are ecologically and geographically linked.

She begins with a short story. It is a scenario which acts as an executive summary of all the outcomes that have been observed and which are documented throughout the book. Only here, she brings them all together and envisions a town beset by every ill effect brought about by the use of such poisons. This serves as an executive summary, with the scene of death reminding me of The Andromeda Strain.

With this as her starting point, Carson then details a litany of ecological disasters that have been brought about by the use of the poisons she highlights. In the crosshairs of her criticism is DDT. Its effects are laid out in shocking detail. When talking of other poisons, she often compares them to DDT, even if they are more toxic. If a criticism can be made here, it is that Carson occasionally slips into the more generic use of the word ‘chemical’, even though she mostly remains specific. The danger this gives rise to is that a casual reader might just pick up on the generalities and become inclined to an opposition to ‘chemicals’.

Carson details how these poisons permeate the biosphere, extending their influence far beyond the areas they are intended for, including travelling through the food chain to ultimately poison some carnivores which have eaten creatures which ate leaves that were contaminated.

In her writing, Carson wanted to avoid littering the text with footnotes (contrast this with N.T. Wright!) so while she quotes some studies, the detailed references are left for the appendix. The main text then reads less like a scientific treatise and more like polemic. Yet the strength of the writing is not baseless invective; it is referenced, but the choice to keep the main text uncluttered and clear came at the price of having the evidence scientific evidence slightly off to the side, with the rhetorical power of the anecdote more prominent.

As I read through the first half of the book, one thought went through my mind. It was that the effects of the chlorinated hydrocarbons, though poisonous, were as much due to the method of distribution. Carson then addresses this issue with her criticism of indiscriminate spraying. Indeed, before reading the book, aware of its legacy, I was aware of some criticisms that it got DDT banned when it was really the broad-brush nature of its dissemination which was the cause of the poisoning that followed it. Every time I could myself thinking “what about this…” then Carson soon addresses the point.

An example of this would be that during her exposition of the effects of poisons on people and animals, one might wonder how the poisons actually act to produce the effects described. After all, without knowing how the environment is poisoned, there remains reasonable doubt over the cause of the effects noted. Yet Carson does go into some of the biochemistry to convey to the reader an outline of the science behind poisoning.

The book is not wholly pessimistic, though. Carson highlights alternative pest control methods, with specific emphasis on the introduction of natural predators. I think a fair criticism could be made here in that while she points to examples of successes, there is inadequate consideration of the wider ecological issues of introducing non-native species to a given area.

The afterword (written in 1998) looks at Carson’s legacy and the criticism the book received at the time by those who would lose out financially if her proposals were taken up. The most obvious example we see to today is the absence of DDT, now subject to a ban in over 26 countries. It may well be worth following up with a later volume, Silent Spring Revisited, by Conor Mark Jameson. For in concluding, it has to be noted that Silent Spring was a book for its time. As a result of the impact the book made, the 50+ years since it was written have not followed the trajectory Carson feared it might had her warnings not been heeded.

It will continue to be a book that divides opinion. In writing for a wider audience, some of the scientific detail has been sacrificed. But in the opinion of this reviewer, the weaknesses in precision should not detract from the direction in which the argument goes, which is sound.

4 responses to “Book Review: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

  1. I’m sorry to post this here: please delete this comment affterwards.

    I meant to post something to you in one of your pieces from November 2013, where we discussed the notion of meaning, symbols, etc. but I can’t seem to leave a reply in that thread anymore? In any case, in that thread of conversation, you posed a question to me directly but I urged you to read the work yourself through worry of misrepresenting the original author’s views. A few months ago, I started jotting down thoughts on that question on a particularly quiet day at work. If you still have any interest in this, or the subject matter in general, these are those thoughts, which I posted back in April this year:

    Again, sorry to post this here; I feel bad about clogging your post with inappropriate comments but couldn’t comment on the original post, as I mentioned. It seemed a shame not to alert you to it, in any case, since it addressed your question directly. Forgive the writing style; I think strangely when I jot down my thoughts; posing lots of questions to myself, etc., but hope it’s of some interest.

    • Comments on the blog automatically close after 60 days. Most discussions shouldn’t drag on for more than 2 months.

      I am currently going through Philosophical Investigations, albeit very slowly (averaging 2.5 pages per day, to be precise) and you may expect a review on this blog towards the end of September or early October.

      • Drag on! What if someone only discovers the post after a few months?(!) Thank you for explaining in any case– I thought it might have been due to my technical incompetence.

        I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  2. Sounds excellent, it is still on my list to read.