The Relevance of Silent Spring
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
Since the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962, much has changed.
The environmental science book, which lays out a study of pesticide use and its effects on various forms of life and ecosystems, came from a place of deep concern for the natural world and our place within it. This book was met with fierce opposition, primarily from those who had the most to lose from decreased demand for chemical products. This dialogue has continued to the present day and has shifted to fit the new lingo and issues. The argument over DDT has faded, but the argument over climate change and environmental responsibility is ongoing. Yet, beneath the fray of specific accusations, criticisms, and counter-criticisms resides the conflicting attitudes from which these opinions and perspectives arise. We lob the details of our worldview like darts and arrows which are returned in the cross-fire.
These opposing views concern the roles, responsibilities, and relationships which exist between human beings and our environment. There exists the view that we are an advanced species, observing our environment as something separate to control, systematize, and exploit through technological progress so as to achieve an ever higher quality of life. Rachel Carson sought to counter this perspective and share the recognition that we, as human beings, are intimately woven into the natural world. Far from being separate entities, we are made of the tomatoes and the rain water. We are made of the cows’ milk and the fruit tree. We breathe the same air as the singing birds. In our tissues and bones reside the same minerals and molecules from which this earth is composed.
However, she did not often rely upon such gestures of poetic unity in order to convince her audience to abandon a firm perspective, namely a strong attachment to pesticides. Though, when she did, there was often a practical purpose, as in the chapter entitled, “And No Birds Sing,” when she urged her reader to ponder the question:
“Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond?” She continues, “Who has decided – who has the right to decide – for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.”
Though sometimes she abandons this language of frustration and allows the poetry to simply speak for itself, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
While reading Silent Spring, it became clear that Carson is writing to a culture of people. She is writing to a worldview which places distinctions between humans and nature. Though much has changed since 1962, these distinctions still exist within our own perspectives. Through Silent Spring, Rachel Carson invites us to see with more intimate clarity that we are among the tenants who reside upon this planet and we are affected by our actions just as much as the next species.
Daniel serves as the education coordinator for the Energy & Community team in Des Moines, IA. In this capacity, he is interested in the history of our relationship with the natural world and how our perceptions change over time. He is one of the hosts of the Green Iowa Pod, which is Green Iowa AmeriCorps' platform for environmental education material. Previously, he studied biomedical engineering and served in the Peace Corps as a high school teacher in Cameroon.