Monday 6 October 2014

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Silent Spring was my Classic Club Spin #7 book.

I had high hopes for this non-fiction classic - the book that changed a generation's thinking about the environment, chemicals & pesticides.

According to the Daily Telegraph "Carson's books brought ecology into popular consciousness" and Linda Lear said, "Very few books change the course of history. Those that have include...Silent Spring."

Silent Spring was first published in 1962.

Rachel Carson graduated with a biology degree from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) in 1929. She also completed an MA in marine zoology from John Hopkins University. Carson worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service from 1937-1952, until she resigned to take up her writing full-time. She died of cancer in 1964 aged 56.

For the modern reader, there is nothing new or startling in Carson's book.

We now know about the effects that indiscriminate spraying has had on crops, wildlife, the water table, our food supply as well as on us.
We know of the links to our health - how these poisons have built up in our system over time, the rise of certain cancers, the risk of developing resistance and the unknown, unpredictable effects of combinations of poisons.

Carson provided lots of examples, mostly from the US that showed the effects on worms, birds, bees, fish, rivers, roadsides & wildflowers.

The incredibly frustrating thing about reading this book - this 52 year old book - is that almost nothing has changed.

We've had 50 years to come to terms with this information and we still blithely ignore it.

We have the bad habit of  "eradicating any creature that may annoy or inconvenience us."

We continue to use pesticides, gardens sprays & weed killers without regard.

We continue to search for the 'cure' for cancer that will

"fail because it leaves untouched the great reservoirs of carcinogenic agents which would continue to claim new victims faster than the yet elusive 'cure'could allay the disease."

In her afterword, Lear says that Carson

"intended her message to protect and conserve the whole fabric of life, to convince humankind to act with humility rather than arrogance towards the rest of nature, and to see themselves as an integral part of it."

Sadly, humility is lacking from almost every single decision we make about our environment. Interdependence, sharing and caring are merely words to be bandied about as we go about doing exactly what suits us best in 'our' environment.

This article about 'The buzz on keeping bees safe' simply highlights the ongoing problems and shows that nothing has really changed in 50 years. Big business interests come before everything else.

The lessons from Silent Spring have not be learnt. Carson's message still goes unheeded. So much about how we live our lives is underpinned by the alarming philosophy "that nature exists for the convenience of man."


  1. Wow, what an excellent review, Brona, and your comments are bang on. We have learned nothing. It comes down to the individual person, making choices in their lives that reflect a respect and stewardship for the environment. Sometimes it seems overwhelming but just one person can have an influence on the people around them. Congratulations on finishing your Spin book!

    1. I think the really scary thing is how easy it is to ignore or forget. Marketing tells us that the can of spray we buy to kill those pesky cockroaches or ant infestation will do the job. They do. But they are a poison and they can also kill the 'good' bugs - the ones we like and 'need' like ladybirds, bees, butterflies, dragonflies....

      As they sprays can get into our soil and water. Overs the years I've ignored the sinus infections I get every time I use these sprays in my garden or home. I hate to think how much has built up in my system over the years, esp since I was born in a time (post 1950's) when all babies are born with existing levels of man-made chemicals already in their system!
      I can't believe will still debate and wonder why asthma and allergies and intolerances are higher than they've ever been. It's not just better diagnosing tools!!

      Now look what you've done? You've got me on my soapbox ranting again!!
      You're right - one person at a time, one microcosm at a time. I will never scoff at Mr Books efforts to capture house spiders and release them in the garden, alive, again :-)

    2. No, please rant. You're rants are right on, too. A couple of years ago a letter was made public signed by scientists who work for the FDA (or EPA, I can't remember which now) saying that they were not being listened to by the higher-ups and that they were concerned that things were getting approved that were not safe. Unfortunately it's possible that the controls that are in place can be "adjusted" for money. That is really concerning. And often it is the studies that are commissioned by a company that gets their product approved, not third party independent studies. It should be a conflict of interest, but it isn't.

      I think we need more Rachel Carsons. Sadly, it seems that they don't get listened to, but at least they keep the issues at the forefront.

  2. Excellent review. Really scaring that we have not learned anything after all these years.

  3. I also have not read this classic. I did have the impression that this particular book was very outdated.

    However, as you point out, the underlying theme is still very relevant and very important.

    1. Outdated only in the data and examples it uses. The science, technology, the chemicals and our understanding have increased - moved on, if you like.

      But the message is still very relevant.

  4. Anonymous7/10/14

    You've done much better than I did Brona. I read the first chapter and realised it wasn't something I could read late at night which is when I do my reading…..
    I was asking some people I know in Washington who are heavily involved in the environmental space whether her book is still as highly regarded. Surprisingly she said it's not, that while no-one disputes the strength of her feeling and the veracity of what she talked about for the DDT spray there are far more controls now. But then, would those controls have come about if she hadn't published her book???

    1. True. There are no much better controls and regulations thanks to people like Carson, but the big companies and govt still don't want to talk about issues like monocultures, resistance, mutations, what's happening to bees (& therefore pollination)....

  5. Anonymous7/10/14

    I agree with all of the above this book was a slap–in–the–face wake–up call 52 years ago and the message falls yet on deaf ears. I too am from generation 1950´s. How people lived then thinking ´frozen TV dinners´ were nutricious is beyond me. (I had my share of Sailsbury Steak dinners with apple compte. I wonder if it even was ´real food´ or just processed junk?). Bravo for this wonderful review.....and a successful spin #7!


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