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Environmentalism, Green literature

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was an American marine biologist and author. Most of her books published in the 1940s and 1950s were short non-fiction works on wildlife in aquatic habits such as rivers and the sea, and these were published by prestigious scientific publishers such as the United States Government Printing Office, testifying to her acknowledged expertise on these topics.

However, she also wrote a novel based on her interest in wildlife, Under the Sea Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life (1941). This is written from the imagined first-person perspectives of a sanderling, a mackerel and an eel, tracking their annual migratory habits, and has a poetic quality to its prose.

A second major book of hers was a work of non-fiction published by the Oxford University Press, The Sea Around Us (1950). With over 250,000 copies sold, his was such a success that the royalties she earned from it allowed her to move to the seashore for the rest of her life.

From the mid-1940s onwards, Carson became increasingly concerned about damage caused to the natural environment by chemicals resulting from human activities, with a particular focus on synthetic pesticides.

In the late 1950s, she turned her attention to promoting the cause of conservation. She was particularly appalled by a programme of aerial spraying of DDT and other pesticides undertaken by the United States Department of Agriculture on both public and private land starting in 1957, with the aim of eradicating the populations of fire ants and mosquitoes.

A friend of Carson, Olga Huckins, reported in a letter to the Boston Herald in January 1958 that the DDT-spraying programme targeting mosquitoes around her home had been killing birds. This prompted Carson to study the environmental impact of artificial pesticides more intensively for herself. She was further approached by the Audubon Naturalist Society to help publicise the government’s pesticide-spraying programme, which it strongly opposed. These prompts induced her to write her book Silent Spring, which was initially planned to be a joint project with a science journalist for Newsweek called Edwin Diamond, before she decided to work on it alone after being approached by The New Yorker to write a lengthy article on the same topic.

Over the next four years, Carson researched cases of damage to the environment suspected of being caused by the use of DDT, and interviewed many government scientists, some of whom supplied her with confidential information from research that had not officially been made public. She used this source material to guide her article for the New Yorker, which eventually appeared in lengthy instalments in three successive issues starting in June 1962, before being reissued as the standalone book Silent Spring published by Houghton Miffin later the same year.

Before she could complete the book, Carson was diagnosed with cancer in 1960; and she was still undergoing treatment at the time of its publication.

Reaction to the book among the academic scientific community was generally approving, but the chemical industry was hostile and one chemical company, Velsicol, threatened to sue both The New Yorker and Houghton Miffin unless they withdrew the text, but they were undeterred. Other chemical companies turned to creating their own propaganda in favour of pesticides to counter the impact of Carson’s book. In the event, much of the American public became more suspicious of the use of pesticides, and Silent Spring became a rallying call for the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and closely embedded in the consciousness of the counterculture of those decades.

The campaign against DDT gained traction through the 1970s, with an Environmental Defense Fund formed in 1967 taking an especially prominent role.

One of Carson’s arguments in her book was that the US Department of Agriculture, in both promoting the United States agriculture industry and regulating pesticide use, suffered from a conflict of interest. This was meaningfully addressed at Federal government level by the Nixon administration in 1970 when it created the separate Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 1972, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) introduced for the first time a statutory system of pesticide regulation to be overseen by the EPA in the United States. Moreover, the EPA resolved in the same year to require the use of DDT to be phased out for all uses except emergencies in the USA. Within ten years of its publication, Carson’s book had secured a major impact at central government level.

Sadly, the author herself did not live to see this progress. Her death from a heart attack at the age of just 56 in April 1964 resulted from her body having been systematically weakened by her cancer and related radiation treatment, as well as a respiratory infection from which she had suffered that January. Shortly before her death, the cancer was found to have metastasized to her liver, leaving her no realistic hope of survival.

In 2012, it was reported by the New York Times Magazine that Silent Spring had cumulatively sold more than two million copies, making it one of the best-selling books related to environmentalism on record.