April 2, 2007

Opening Remarks by Moderator Mark Madison

Welcome to Silent Spring in a very noisy blogosphere! First of all thank you so much for taking the time to (re)read Silent Spring and this blog.

I first read Silent Spring in the 8th grade at the appropriately named John Muir Middle School in Central Wisconsin. At the time I was most intrigued by the apocalyptic opening—imagine a silent town with all wildlife removed! Subsequently I read it as an undergraduate and have completed the circle by assigning it to undergraduates over the last 12 years. Now as the Fish and Wildlife Service Historian (Carson’s agency home for nearly 16 years) I spend a great deal of time talking about Carson to current federal conservationists to inspire them to think outside the box.

Oddly enough Silent Spring is not my most beloved environmental book--Leopold’s Sand County Almanac and Thoreau’s Walden I re-read yearly for pleasure. But it remains the pivot point in many ways for the distinction between the older conservation movement and a new species of environmental movement. It also retains its power to be controversial. While no one is debating Thoreau, Muir, or Leopold these days in the public media, on February 21 of this year the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion column blaming Silent Spring for a large number of malarial deaths in Sri Lanka: http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pdupont/?id=110009693. So we all live in a post-Silent Spring world with the controversy and debate ongoing.

Welcome to the ongoing 45-year-old discussion about how we make the world an amenable place for both humans and their myriad neighbors.


Lisa said...

Hi Mark,

I was recently at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia, and I truly enjoyed the FWS museum that they have on the grounds. I especially liked the exhibit they had on Rachel Carson. I don't know if you were involved in the creation of the museum's displays, but it was a first-class production.

You mentioned the ongoing argument from the Right that Rachel Carson is supposedly "responsible" for so many malaria deaths -- a claim they repeat often.

How do you respond to that when talking about Carson's legacy? What is your take on the impact of banning DDT and the battle to fight malaria?

Mark Madison said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments. We do have a Rachel Carson display at NCTC and a lodge named after her where we display artifacts from her years in the Fish and Wildlife Service (1936-1952). For those who don't live near Shepherdstown, WV we have placed some of our Carson collection online at the NCTC Digital Repository:

The malaria question is a serious one and here I can only speak from personal experience--not as an entomologist or epidemiologist. I lived in the Philippines for several years with malaria and other mosquito borne diseases and saw the ravages on the population and even suffered an illness or two. However, Carson and every evolutionary biologist knows that DDT is no panacea. As early as 1949 in Greece DDT-resistant mosquitoes had arisen in response to repeated spraying of DDT. In the 1950s mosquitoes in India became largely DDT resistant. Ironically resistance to DDT is acquired so quickly that it has become something of a test case for evolutionary studies (an example of evolution occurring quickly enough to be viewed in one person's lifetime). Carson knew this and described it near the end of her book in a chapter called "The Rumblings of an Avalanche." So by the publication of Silent Spring in 1962 there were serious ecological and even economic qualms about the efficacy of DDT. Carson suggested a more thoughtful use of chemical pesticides and more investment in biological controls would provide a long-term solution. So to blame Carson for hundreds of thousands of malaria deaths seems a misreading of science and history.

Anonymous said...

The timing of this review of Rachel Carson's life and legacy is perfect. Last week there was a story on National Public Radio about the mysterious disappearance of bees from their hives
- the story corresponded with a congressional hearing on the issue. Although the cause is unknown, one of the suspected culprits may be an insecticide which disrupts the social activity of the bees. After my 11 year old son and I listened to this story we discussed the lessons learned (and forgotten) from Rachel Carson.

You can access the NPR story at

Mark Madison said...

This comment reminds me of a real need for a good young person’s introduction to Rachel Carson. “Silent Spring” seems best suited for high school and older students, but I wonder if any of you out there have come across good books for younger readers that introduce them to Carson and her ideas about the environment? I am sure a list of those books would be much appreciated by educators, librarians, and folks like myself—a parent with three children under the age 10.

julie dunlap said...

Hi Mark & everyone,

I have four kids and have read lots of Rachel Carson children's books, so here's a short list of ones we like.

For picture books, try Thomas Locker's 2004 "Rachel Carson: Preserving a Sense of Wonder" or Amy Ehrlich's 2003 "Rachel: The Story of Rachel Carson."

For 3rd grade & older, my kids have liked "Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology" by Kathleen Kudlinski (1989) and "Rachel Carson: Voice for the Earth" by Ginger Wadsworth (1992).

There are lots of Carson books out there for children, which makes it even more surprising that so many kids (and former kids) have never heard of her.

Jacob said...

I see Rachel Carson as an exceptional writer, scientist, and environmentalist. I believe Carson was very influential in starting the modern environmental movement and helped create a more environmentally aware public. Silent Spring persuaded the government to ban DDT in 1972, which I believe prevented countless amounts of further destruction. Even today, on the 100th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s birth, Silent Spring is still creating a fair amount of controversy. Regardless of the arguments, I feel Rachel Carson was a great leader and has left behind many lasting benefits on the environmental community.

Phillip said...

After reading these posts I was recalled of a book called Last Child in the Woods - saving our children from nature deficit disorder by Richard Louv. I would recommend this book to anyone especially those with children or those planning on having children in the future. This book really makes you aware of the fact that children now are growing up more alienated from nature than they ever have before in the past. This alienation from nature that children are experiencing may lead to silent future like that presented by Carson in Chapter 1: A Fable for Tomorrow from nature if change does not occur. Children could grow up with a misunderstanding of nature and try to escape the real world by altering nature to make it more beneficial to them by promoting man’s war to conquer nature. Nature used to be something people could escape in now its being something people want to escape. I think this all relates to Carson because I feel the future is in the minds of our children and if they are grown up with false reality of nature not much thought will be put into protecting it and they will reject the warning people such as Carson give us about the dangerous of anthropocentric practices such as pesticides.

Jennifer said...

As a scientist, Carson is wonderful; as a writer, Carson is magnificent! She is brazen and unrepenting and backs her doomsday prophecies with solid research. She is appropriately appalled by "man's war against nature" and is convincing in her dissent. Yet, despite her opposition, she still feels there are real benefits to pesticides (with proper use).

Oddly enough, it appears humans are already bracing for the silence Carson forewarned of. Today, we can purchase soundtracks of Nature's music - whale songs, insect symphonies, and avian operas - to fill the void we are creating with our chemical warfare. The question is, how do we reach a balance between the entertainment nature provides and the "pest factor" we strive so hard to annihilate?

Anonymous said...

Diane said,
I thought the opening to Silent Spring was exceptional. She grabbed your attention immediately to a environment no one wants to witness. I think Rachel Carson's research and recommendations for the rational use of pesticides is correct.
She started an awareness that to this day is so important. Rachel Carson was a prolific writer for her time and her book still creates controversy today.

julie dunlap said...

Reading Silent Spring 45 years later unfortunately is making me think of a much more recent book, Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed . Diamond points out many factors both environmental (deforestation, population growth, soil loss, etc) and otherwise (hostile neighbors, loss of trading partners) that have doomed civilizations in the past. Rachel Carson, I think, would have added another factor. She argues, for example, that government-backed fire ant eradication programs were more expensive, more damaging, and less effective than available alternatives. Such illogical actions, which sadly persist despite Carson's warnings, reveal another force behind our civilization's precarious state: lack of common sense.

Ashlee said...

I believe that Rachel Carson was a gift to both the scientific community as well as the environmental. She provided the literary voice that both circles at the time were in great need of. It was this voice that became the driving factor that lead to the public awareness on pesticide use.

A good writer has the ability to convey a message to the reader.
For me, Carson brought to light an industry that only had sights on the dollar at whatever the cost.

Her message not only had relevancy towards the context of the time but also in future applications. Today, it is the public that still needs to be aware and question the practices that are so quickly accepted into the norm.

patrick said...

I think the most amazing thing about Carson did not reside in her research, which in itself is a feat, but instead was in her courage. She stood up against Robert White-Stevens, and the companies he was doing experiments for. To have the strength to endure such attacks against your character and education and still accomplish your message is admirable.

Mark Madison said...

Hi Shepherd University Students.

Some very thoughtful comments above from the Shepherd University undergradutates who recently read excerpts from Silent Spring and are currently studying enviromental ethics. I am impressed and inspired by Carson's ongoing ability to inspire a new generation of readers and appreciate the perspective of "new eyes" reading Silent Spring!

Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

I'm a little late to respond to this one, but "Girls who looked under rocks" is a wonderful collective biography of Carson and many other woman who impacted the environmental sciences.

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