Listening 50 years after ‘Silent Spring'

Thursday October 4, 2012

This semester, first-year students enrolled in the Stock bridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst will read Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" -- a book that 50 years ago launched a national debate about the ill effects of chemical pesticides.

"Society experienced a paradigm shift in thinking with regard to the environment," when the book was published, said Robert Childs, UMass-Amherst professor of entomology and extension specialist. "The issues in ‘Silent Spring,' and especially what developed from the lessons of that, for entomologists in particular -- integrated pest management -- are at the core of everything I teach."

"Silent Spring" began a national debate about the use of chemical pesticides and led to the formation of what is now known as the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the 1972 ban on DDT, the first modern insecticide, which was developed during World War II.

But Carson's book met with tremendous criticism.

"In post-war America, science was god, and science was male," Linda Lear wrote in an introduction to the 40th-anniversary re-release of the book in 2002.

"It is hard to remember the cultural climate that greeted ‘Silent Spring' and to understand the fury that was launched against its quietly determined author," Lear said. "Carson's thesis -- that we were subjecting ourselves to slow poisoning by the misuse of chemical pesticides that polluted the environment -- may seem like common currency now, but in 1962, ‘Spring Spring' contained the kernel of social revolution."

Carson died of breast cancer at the age of 56, less than 18 months after the book was published.

Sarah Gardner, associate direc tor and lecturer at Wil liams College Center for Envi ron mental Studies, said Carson's legacy lives on in several women, including environmental activist Lois Gibbs and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert.

"Silent Spring" appeared in serialized stories in The New Yorker in the summer of 1961, and it was published as a book the following summer. Kolbert's coverage of climate change has had a similar pattern. "The Climate of Man," a 2006 series on global warming that ran in The New Yorker, contributed to Kolbert's book, "Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change," published that same year.

Carson, a biologist, had written three books before "Silent Spring," and she deliberately wrote for the general public.

Gardner recalled her family discussing the book when she was growing up.

"It made me aware that the food we were eating wasn't necessarily safe, which now many people take for granted. At the time it was a very new concept," Gardner said.

Carson raised examples in "Silent Spring," among them a fire-ant eradication program and the federal government's ill-fated attempt to control the invasive pest.

"We have learned that we cannot be so two-dimensional in our thinking, and that we must be learned and holistic when it comes to protecting plants and managing -- as opposed to controlling --insects," Childs said.

Earlier this summer, a monitoring program identified an Em erald Ash Borer beetle in Dalton, marking the first time the beetle, a native of Asia first found in the United States a decade ago, was spotted in Massachusetts.

The "Emerald Ash Borer will be with us until [natural controls like parasites] catch up to it and reduce the numbers naturally," Childs said. "The USDA has found one wasp parasite that may ultimately work well."

By comparison, Childs ex plained, the Gypsy moth was a pest for more than 100 years in Massachusetts -- and is now controlled naturally by an insect-killing fungus.

The publishing of "Silent Spring," Gardner said, has yielded some significant protections and change.

But "we still have so far to go," she said.

"Industrial lobbies are still strong, and much stronger than the voice of regular people who are trying to advocate for the environment. Environmental battles are never really won. You just have to keep going and can't give up."

Carrie Saldo can be reached via her web site

  • Rachel Carson first published ‘Silent Spring' as a book 50 years ago this month.
  • She argued that pesticides were destroying animals, people and environments.
  • Her book led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and a ban on the pesticide DDT.
  • The 1973 Endangered Species Act, which Carson's initiated, has saved the American alligator, gray whale and bald eagle, among other species.
  • In the 40th-anniversary
    edition of ‘Silent Spring,' Edward O. Wilson's afterward recorded 1,254 endangered species. Today, according
    to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, there are 1,990.


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