Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing, and she is a copy editor and published writer. In this essay, she examines Carson's references to potential human suffering as a result of the overuse of chemicals as presented in her book Silent Spring.
Given time, states Carson in her book Silent Spring, nature will heal itself. "Life adjusts." At least this was true through the previous millennia. But in the modern world, humans are quickly running out of time. Carson even says that "there is no time" left, because modern-day humans are creating havoc at a pace too fast for nature to heal. Modern civilizations are not only quick in creating devastation, they are also broad-ranged, as they are creating synthetic substances that have "no counterparts in nature." Nature will need generations of time to cleanse herself from the toxic pollutants. Carson wrote her book in...
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Rachel Carson educated a planet: her book The Sea Around Us was a runaway bestseller from 1951, and I remember it affectionately as the beginning of my science instruction. You wouldn't consult it now: for her the planet was only 2.5bn years old and the moon was made of granite from the floor of what is now the Pacific Ocean, torn away from the molten, nascent Earth in some early tidal cataclysm.
At the time, exploration of the deep ocean had hardly begun. Scuba technology was in its infancy, the remotely operated submersible not even a fantasy. Space exploration was still a daydream; continental drift and sea-floor spreading a preposterous heresy. So her book was one of the goads that spurred on the next generation of oceanographers and marine biologists. In 1962, already dying of cancer, she published Silent Spring.
If you had to choose one text by one person as the cornerstone of the conservation movement, the signal for politically savvy environmental activism, and the beacon of worldwide lay awareness of ecological systems, Silent Spring would be most people's clear choice. Its impact was immediate, far-reaching and ultimately life-enhancing: it earned her a posthumous presidential medal and put her face on the 17 cent US postage stamp. It also earned her sustained vitriolic assault from the chemical industry and a claim from a former US Secretary of Agriculture that (because she was unmarried) she was "probably a communist": this, in a McCarthyite world, was almost the ultimate in character assassination.
But how does it read now?
It is brilliantly written: clear, controlled and authoritative; with confident poetical flourishes that suddenly illuminate pages of cool exposition. The pesticide residues in US drainage systems are unexpectedly counterpointed with "the sight and sound of drifting ribbons of waterfowl across an evening sky." Soil bacteria and fungi become a "horde of minute but ceaselessly toiling creatures".
Analysis of the incidental damage attendant upon agribusiness spraying gives way to an impassioned question: "Who has placed in one pan of the scales the leaves that might have been eaten by insects, and in the other, the pitiful heaps of many-hued feathers, the lifeless remains of the birds that fell before the unselective bludgeon of insecticidal poison?"
Her use of imagery and emotion is almost perfectly judged. She keeps her anger under control and simply marshals the tragedy that requires no comment. "In Florida, two children found an empty bag and used it to repair a swing. Shortly thereafter both of them died and three of their playmates became ill. The bag had once contained an insecticide called parathion, one of the organic phosphates; tests established death by parathion poisoning."
Most of the time, she lets the information do the work, and confines her poetic urges to chapter headings and the odd, throwaway conclusion. The book is a study in how to put an argument and win it.
It was, in its time, and to some extent is still, a terrific teaching text. It must have been one of the first truly popular books to introduce the ideas of the food chain, and of the amplification of enduring chemical residues; of ecological interdependence and the web of life on Earth; of the intricate workings of the cell and the potential for catastrophic intrusion at the level of the molecule; of the balance of predator-prey relationships and the folly of blundering interference.
It is also – although this can hardly have been what she intended – a brilliant critique of free-market capitalism, in which chemical companies concerned only with the balance sheet could persuade government and big business to dust and spray the US mainland with costly, persistent and highly toxic products that bore minimal, and sometimes barely visible, warnings of risk to health; in which research into the consequences of chemical overkill was barely funded, if at all; and in which alternative approaches – among them, biological control – were dismissed because nobody (except perhaps the misinformed farmer and the trusting consumer) would profit from them.
Finally, of course, it must be on its own terms one of the most effective books ever written. Many of the organochlorines and organophosphates at the heart of her story are now banned, difficult to find or used only under tightly controlled circumstances; there are now networks of amateur and professional naturalists monitoring the state of the wild things in every developed country; trout and salmon have returned to once devastated rivers; there are vociferous citizens' groups and environmental awareness campaigners; industry in the rich world has been held to account and forced to clean up its act; and most governments have environmental legislation and inspectorates.
There are now even voices that argue that the world overreacted, and that DDT – the most notorious of the sprays, although perhaps not the most dangerous - in its way, was a useful chemical under the right circumstances.
But – because it was so successful – Silent Spring can now be read without cold anger, fear or horror: three emotions that must have worked so powerfully for this success. The impact is, in all senses, stunning: someone now reading this chronicle of selected devastation (most of the evidence is from mainland America) is likely to feel dulled insensible by the repeated bludgeon blows of bleak observation, grim anecdote and sickening illustration.
In Rachel Carson's late fifties America, eggs grow cold in the nest, songbirds are silent, raptors lie dead in the meadows; fish float dead in their thousands downstream; roadside foliage turns brown and withers; cattle sicken; fruitpickers collapse with shock after a day in the orchards; physicians, householders, mothers and children fall mysteriously ill, experience partial paralysis, and slowly waste away.
Paradoxically, this was also the America of Walt Disney and Fred Astaire; of Norman Rockwell covers for the Saturday Evening Post; of homespun decency, rock'n'roll and the music of Aaron Copeland; of the Beat poets and the Kennedy campaign for the presidency and a new Camelot in Washington; a happy, confident place – although you might not know it from reading Silent Spring.
This was a profoundly important book. It remains an example of a very good book. It has earned a sure place in history and is a reminder that complacency is a dangerous state; that all human commerce has consequences that must be considered carefully; and that watchfulness is democracy's surest defence. It has been on my shelves for decades. But to be honest, although I began rereading with delight, I was relieved to get to the end of it: awful warnings have a way of making you feel awfully low-spirited.
Tim Radford's geographical reflection, The Address Book: Our Place in the Scheme of Things is published by Fourth Estate
Next up: Starting on 7 November we will review all the shortlisted titles for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books in the runup to the announcement of a winner on 17 November. There will be a Guardian competition to win all six shortlisted titles – details to follow.
Alex's Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos
Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World by Guy Deutscher
The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
The Wavewatcher's Companion by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science by Ian Sample
The Rough Guide to the Future by Jon Turney