On Mankind’s Hubris and Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’

When promises of draining proverbial swamps have only blurred the distinction between legislation and capitalism, it is now the responsibility of individuals to advocate for Rachel Carson's environmental vision.

Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment
Rachel Carson
Library of America
March 2018

“We stand now where two roads diverged. But unlike roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one ‘less traveled by’ — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that ensures the preservation of our earth” (241) – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

When first published in 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had a powerful impact on how individuals understood their connection to the environment and their place in the biological chain of life. Throughout Silent Spring and revised in the new edition by Library of America and edited by Sandra Steingraber, Carson unpacks the interconnection between all biological creatures. From the soil, air, and water to the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and products we buy, chemicals are prevalent and insidious. To this day, Carson’s advocacy is foundational to environmental justice and global human rights. But as the opening quote from Carson makes clear, society is at a crossroads where we can curb the environmental destruction we’ve caused or blindly maintain the path that will undoubtedly cause our demise.

Silent Spring‘s legacy is Carson’s documentation and explanation of chemicals’ harm. Throughout her treatise, she carefully establishes how pesticides and insecticides damage all organic life and not just the pests. She changes her language to call chemical compounds biocides, as their targets are not fully defined and it’s at the microscopic level where environmental destruction begins. Whereas the creators of biocides wrongly believed they were targeting insects, mold, and pests, once applied the chemicals do not discriminate against those they infect. Carson is methodical with her explanation of life’s cycle and connections, starting from the “communities of bacteria” (56) leading to the impact on humans and earth’s structure, respectively. As she reminds readers, despite the perceived and mistaken disconnect, we are all interconnected.

In doing so, Carson demonstrates the importance of interconnection and draws across international boundaries to describe the global need for her advocacy. Towards the end of Silent Spring she examines Italy, Denmark, and Kuala Lumpur’s use of DDT. Here she masterfully reveals the global impact of the biocide. But Carter, probably centered by her humility, understood her audience and as she builds her argument, she emphasizes the local. She uses examples of suburban families, crop farmers, and landscapers who knowingly use the chemicals to curtail pests. But humans who accidentally came into contact with the chemicals or were the unsuspecting victims of careless sprays are also impacted. For example, hunters and fisherman, unaware of the sprayed chemicals, consume their game and absorb the toxins. She expertly argues “the most sinister features of DDT and related chemicals is the way they are passed on from one organism to another through all the links of the food chains” (27).

Indeed, she begins her analysis at the chemical level and with accessible language demonstrates the chemical compounds’ linkage to toxicity. Carson predominantly utilizes case studies of affected areas and systematically exhibits the impact of the chemicals over the course of generations. Yet her research doesn’t end with DDT. She adds discussion of the ubiquity and severity of other chemicals used as insecticide including chlordane, aldrin, endrin, and dieldrin. Dieldrin is a chemical that “is about 5 times as toxic as DDT when swallowed but 40 times as toxic when absorbed through the skin in solution” (29). She turns to malaria-ridden parts of Africa, where the mosquitoes became immune to DDT so sprayers began using dieldrin. The effects were dire as those “affected went into convulsions and several died” (30). The insect’s immunity, she claims, is the environment’s ultimate superpower over society: the environment will adapt to the chemicals and humans will be left to suffer the consequences.

Carson’s aim is not to solely hold agencies and corporations accountable for distributing and normalizing chemicals, although this is undeniably important to her argument. Rather, her intent is to inform the public of the dangers of living “so intimately with these chemicals — eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones — we had better know something about their nature and power” (23). She understands the power of corporatization, but she also sees value in informing citizens. Essentially it’s the individual’s responsibility to act conscientiously and be informed of the products they utilize. Without a doubt, society is much more aware about the ubiquity of chemicals and the dangers of carcinogens, these days. But with policies and marketing that mask more than they reveal, consumers are still unaware of the true effect of their consumption and exposure to harmful chemicals.

Carson contends that man’s hubris and misbegotten desire to manipulate the environment will cause a disastrous impact. As such, Silent Spring problematizes accepted fallacy and warns against arrogance. In one poignant example, she uses the words of the doctor, philosopher, and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, who famously said “man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation” (14). Since Silent Spring‘s publication, society, for the most part, realizes we don’t always immediately recognize the chaos and violence that innovation can cause. Warning signs are frequently ignored because ignorance and capitalism are the driving factors, and cynically speaking, probably the most imperative. Carson identified “the rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man” (15) but then later lays blame on industry “in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged” (20). Carson would have wholly objected to the corporatization of the environment and the regulations prioritizing bottom lines instead of individuals’ wellness. Especially with the capitalists holding current governmental office who only want to deregulate proven and necessary policies. Yet when her voice is unable to speak up, at least Silent Spring remains as a crystalline call to see through the hubris and illuminate citizens’ well being.

The Library of America reprints several primary sources illuminating Carson’s research process while documenting the reception and impact of Silent Spring. Included are letters, speeches, and written responses Carson prepared for individuals such as Marjorie Spock, E.B. White, and Dorothy Freeman, Carson’s closest friend, confidant, and soulmate. The letters to Freeman shed light on Carson’s insecurities about publishing such a conscientious advocacy piece but also her everlasting belief in its urgency.

The US Environmental Protection Agency was established by the Nixon administration in 1970. Many environmental activists claim this was a direct result of Silent Spring‘s popular impact. But what has happened to the agency since the Trump administration took over? It seems likely that the EPA has returned to the pre-Silent Spring era where a capitalistic paradigm normalizes deregulation and the global compacts curtailing the environment’s damage are rescinded. Carson’s vision for a clean and healthy environment is undoubtedly compromised. Yet change can still occur. Carson urges her readers to be critical of their consumption and to question the companies producing and marketing the biocides. This extends to voting and ensuring our representatives are promoting environmentalism over profit. Carson’s Silent Spring is as pertinent and necessary now as it ever was.

Returning to Carson’s quote opening this review, we find ourselves again at the crossroads of inequality. Environmentalism is paramount, if not central, when we determine our direction. When promises of draining proverbial swamps have only blurred the distinction between legislation and capitalism, it is now the responsibility of individuals to advocate for Carson’s vision. As a collective we can protect the environment from calamitous insolence.

RATING 10 / 10