The Reawakening of Silent Spring


Environment and Society Portal

Ashley Kang , News Editor

   The first time I heard about Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was not even in AP Environmental Science.  It was in my junior year U.S. History class, and, ironically, it only came up because of Reagan’s staunch opposition to the new environmental movement.  Sometimes it is strange how information comes to us.  

  To say the least, I was intrigued.  At the time, we were learning about the pesticide treadmill in environmental science, and the book seemed ideal: the book’s context would help me understand the history of the environmental movement, it could supplement my fascination with the paradoxical concept of all-natural, fresh from the farm pesticide-full fruit at my local grocery store, and the book would count as the nonfiction requirement for my English class.  Perfect.  Talk about killing three birds with one stone. (But not exactly, because a lot more than three birds were killed by pesticides a lot more deadly than stones.)

  In all honesty, the first few pages were strange.  Carson talked of the American people’s reverence towards the scientists, saying, “The public endowed chemists, at work in their starched white coats in remote laboratories, with almost divine wisdom.  The results of their labors were gilded with the presumption of beneficence.  In post war America, science was god” (page 11). This narrative was confusing, because it seemed to contradict the skepticism towards science and climate change we sometimes hear today.  The book was written just over 50 years ago–yet some of the public’s current attitude towards science makes 1962 seem like a whole different eon rather than two generations.  

  I will admit that I got off to a slow start–the stories and statistics of the effects of pesticides on specific animal populations were only slightly less dry than California’s reservoirs–but as the book went on, my interest flourished.  

  I specifically remember the chapter discussing the molecular structures of these deadly pesticides. It was scary to see how such commonplace and well-known elements like carbon and hydrogen and chlorine could be combined into a deadly weapon.  With all seriousness aside, I guess the lesson here is to never underestimate a scientist with a little government funding.

  Silent Spring was also shocking in its parallels to today: the book could have been published in 2017 with alarming applicability.  The common theme of the government’s short-sightedness in Silent Spring–the desire to develop a “quick-fix” for a complex ecologic problem simplified to an “us vs insects” notion–holds true still today, but now in terms of the fight against climate change rather than the use of DDT.  Government today has sacrificed long-term environmental and human health for  short-term economic gain, much in the same way post-war America sacrificed ecological stability for the false hope that a can of DDT brought.

  Thus, Silent Spring has taught me, and now you, one thing: we must look into our past and learn from our mistakes, or our actions might very well be condemned in print by a bold scientist of the next generation.