May 1, 2007

John Elder's Invitation for Week of May 1

Discussions of the controversy surrounding Silent Spring invariably describe the scathing, and often startlingly personal, criticism leveled at Carson. Taking the various quotations, accounts, and personal experiences related in this week's readings as our examples, it's worth speculating about why the response to her book was often so fiery. To what extent did it constitute a backlash by special interests? What do you make of the participation of academic researchers in the attacks on her book? Beyond such individual and defensive reactions, do you believe that Carson's ecological perspective also threatened prevailing scientific and economic worldviews in a more general way? Have our cultural values changed significantly since that time, or are the same conflicting values still being fought over?

Delving into the negative and positive reactions to Silent Spring also presents us with an opportunity to reconstruct the psychology of the first two decades following World War II. Why did that era give rise to the particular, reckless applications of science which she denounced? Have we moved beyond such carelessness today or does it just take different forms? If we incline toward the latter judgment it may also be good to ask what we can learn from Carson's argument, tone, and strategies as we engage with the debates of our own time.

The participants in this blog represent an unusually wide range of scientific, governmental, and academic expertise. Deanne and I look forward to your take on the importance and reception of Silent Spring. Please feel free to be anecdotal and speculative in your own responses. Sometimes a "half-idea" is the most useful prompt for a lively discussion.

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To contribute to the discussion click here or go to "Comments" below. Problems? Email or


David Klinger said...

John, I think the case can be made that the adverse reaction to "Silent Spring" in 1962 may actually have had more grounding in science and scientific thinking than what we see posted online and aired on radio in 2007. It's really astounding the amount of misinformation and disinformation that's been propagated in recent months, chiefly on the conservative talk show circuit and on right-wing blogs, laced with some really vicious commentary about Rachel Carson as a person. Has the discourse that "Silent Spring" first prompted really matured, given our advantage of 45 years of "20/20" hindsight? Or has the new technology of today's Internet simply provided a broader platform for pseudo-science and politically-driven agendas? At least in 1962 the opposition to "Silent Spring" was premised on an understanding of applied science at the time by experts grounded in chemistry, biology, and agriculture. Today, the debate has been coarsened, reduced to the level of cheap political talking points. As a society, has our dialogue really grown in the past four decades?

Herbert L. King said...

Nice blog. Hard questions. Here’s my two cents worth. It often feels like we as a society are heading in two very different directions. Perhaps Silent Spring was the crossroads. That book did more than hit a nerve at that time, it hit THE nerve. In bringing to awareness what was at stake as a result of human interference with nature, it caused a swell of movement toward protecting environmental values. At the same time, interest groups and others who stood to have their assets affected went on the defensive to protect those assets. Now four decades of research, education, and technology later, we appear to still be at the same crossroads. In the two decades after WWII, I don’t think most people could envision or understand how far-reaching the consequences of things like pesticides would be and in that sense I don’t see them as accountable as we are today. But it is amazing that we’re still at the crossroads and in one direction, we are making great strides to maintain a balanced relationship with nature, and in the other direction resistance to keeping the balance grows.

Anonymous said...

Case in point---both sides squared off this week on a vote in the House over whether to name a post office after Rachel Carson. Last I heard it narrowly passed.

Anonymous said...

I am new to this site. I just came upon it a few minutes ago as I was looking for information to read about Ms. Rachel Carson. I am glad I happened upon on it. The legacy that Ms. Carson left for us to preserve the natural environment is such an important one that we owe it to her to continue in this effort. I will make an effort to remember to return to this site periodically to learn more about the impact that Ms. Carson had on the preservation of our environment and to hopefully contribute comments to the postings.

NCTC Librarian said...

I am glad you found us, Rudy and hope to see you back for six more months of good reading and enlightening conversation about Rachel and her writing. We are so fortunate to have such fine moderators that will lead these discussions. Stay tuned.

julie said...

I'm wondering if it would be useful to compare the reaction to Carson with that to other contemporaries with similar ecological perspectives, such as Jacques Cousteau, Paul Ehrlich, and Jane Goodall. Goodall especially began publishing around the time Silent Spring appeared and similarly challenged humanity's place in the universe. Her research and writing argued that chimpanzees are capable of tool use, engaging in warfare, and transmiting learning. Did critics who deny the evolutionary connections between humans and great apes attack her personally and scientifically? Or was there something in her science or writing style that made her message, so similar to Carson's, that humans are part of the natural world and subject to its constraints, more palatable to potential critics and the general public?

Anonymous said...

I am not versed on "Silent Spring" to intelligently comment on it merits, but I do intend to read it to get a better perspective and feel to the fascinating and important dialogue being carried on about this important work on this site. From my personal perspective, it does seem that we are still at the crossroads as Herbert King points out above. Many people are not attuned to preserving our environment and our natural resources. I attribute this "dissension" to people's attitudes and education (or lack thereof) of what really matters in our lives. The mentality that "more is better" is so prevalent in our society that this attitude is being passed on to the younger generations, an attitude which is being exploited by our large industrial enterprises and businesses today. The pesticides that were affecting our natural environment that were the cause of Rachel Carson's concern, perhaps now may be classified as "pesticides" of a different nature, that of: lack of concern for others, lack of concern for the environment, our wasteful nature, and greed. I am so grateful to those people and organizations that are are striving to "maintain a balanced relationship with nature" and to the educational efforts advocating being more economical and less wasteful in our way of life.

Anonymous said...

I believe that the fact our society has not progressed beyond a backlash similar to that following "Silent Spring" is most evident in the current discussion over global warming. There are so-called scientists and professionals on both sides of the discussion defending their work, much like the chemists who were proud of the chemicals they had created to be used a pesticides. There is such an overload of information today that people don't have time to form their own opinions. They just agree with whoever attends the same church they do or believes the same thing they do about some other topic. Actually, in my opinion, the lack of morality in both politics and business has not gotten better since "Silent Spring," it has gotten much, much worse.

Mark Madison said...

What strikes me in this very exciting dialogue about the scientific debate regarding "Silent Spring" is that it was in fact "scientific." Dr. White-Stevens and other opponents of Carson based the majority of their arguments on a different philosophy of science. One could agree or disagree but there were some shared foundational beliefs about evidence, scientific method, etc.

However, many of the contemporary critiques about Carson (e.g., millions of deaths from malaria etc.) are not really scientifically based so the debate is automatically unbalanced. It is like having Stephen Jay Gould debate a Creationist--what is the point. In fact one perhaps chilling cultural change since Carson is a growing acceptance of scientific illiteracy and indifference. I think a culture that confuses science with mysticism or ideology would prove even more chlling to Carson, as a pioneer woman scientist, than any misuse of pesticides.

julie said...

Good point, Mark. The No. 2 book on Amazon right now is The Secret. I think Rachel Carson would be disturbed to learn that in 2007 millions believe in a mystical, "untapped power within us" to solve their problems. But this morning on NPR, I heard that the Catholic Church is fighting against daming and deforestation in the Amazon, because such destruction can be viewed as a sin against God and Creation rather than on ecological grounds. Lately, scientists and religious groups seem to be trying to work together on environmental protection, despite differences in world views, because the stakes are so high.

David Klinger said...

To amplify the comments of "Anonymous," regarding the April 23 legislation to rename the post office in Springdale, Pennsylvania (her home town), in honor of Rachel Carson, the bill actually passed by a wide margin, 334 to 53. The specific vote tally is most interesting, however; of 217 Democrats voting, all 217 voted for the bill. Of Republicans, 117 voted for, 53 against. (Three other Republicans voted "present," and 42 other members of both parties did not vote.) Press coverage of the votes of some of the "nay" members indicated that their negative votes were based on the "malaria" debate, for instance.

I find it curious that many of the Internet's most vocal conservative bloggers -- who have evinced little or no demonstrated record of concern for the problems of sub-Saharan Africa through the decades (vestiges of colonialism, apartheid, the scourge of AIDS, the plight of Rwanda and Darfur) --have now suddenly discovered the deaths of Africans from malaria as their "cause celebre" in the centennial year of Rachel Carson's birth. There's more than a little hypocrisy at work at the moment, and these arguments appear to be too contrived to be coincidental.

I wonder how many latter-day bloggers have even taken the time to re-read Carson's books before they offer their contemporary, revisionist world view?

Robert Michael Pyle said...

John, I thought yours was the strongest, most interesting essay in the book. I am proud to be in there with it.
I am currently at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV, to address the 9th annual reunion of Fish & Wildlife Service retirees. There was a ceremony today in honor of Rachel at Patuxent NWR, and it is just a week until her 100th birthday. I am staying in the Rachel Carson Lodge, and this afternoon I got to handle and peer through Rachel's magnifying glass, in the archive, thanks to Mark. That gave me chills and tingles.
I have recently come from the banquet. I sat on the floor of the museum upstairs and watched the film about RC that plays continuously in the display about her, drinking Beringer Merlot that I swiped from the banquet hall. Tomorrow I will bird around the voluptuous NCTC grounds all day, enveloping myself among the wood thrushes, cardinals, and others that, thanks to Rachel, make this anything but a silent spring.
But last week I attended a meeting of my local Grange in my little village of Gray's River, Washington. Much of the talk was about an effort to encourage small, organic farmers to grow local foods and sell them at the Wahkiakum County Farmers' Market. Another subject was our effort to reduce or eliminate the spraying of herbicides along the roadsides of our county. And then I learned that one member had prevailed (in my absence) to have the Grange Hall bug-bombed for flies that in any case were about to disperse after their hibernal period.The irony seemed lost on some members. (This brought to mind my battle to prevent the insecticidal extermination of box elder bugs in the English Dept. at Utah State University when I was teachig environemental writing there in 2002, in the spring, just before their dispersal; two mwmbers of that department died of pancreatic cancer last year.)
Then last week I watched as helicopters coursed back and forth over a clear-cut across the alley from my SW Washington home, spraying aerial herbicides to prevent regrowth of shrubs that might compete with the short-rotation pulp plantation of conifers; meanwhile obliterating the understory and herbal diversity of the forest floor.
The eagles, peregrines, pelicans, and song thrushes are back, thanks largly to Saint Rachel. But how far have we actually come, in terms of egregious and cavalier broadcast of biocides in our environs? Backwards, I fear.
Where are you today, Rachel?

Bob Pyle

Robert Michael Pyle said...

That's meant to be "across the Valley," not "alley."

Robert Michael Pyle said...

Next evening: and various other typos above...blame it on the Merlot. Today I birded for nine hours, 47 species, and I've just removed the seventeenth tick. There weren't many warblers, mostly Louisiana waterthrush and northern parula--we hear of the decline of the warbler waves--but the song thrushes and eastern bluebirds were more abundant than I had any reason to expect. I doubt this would be the case were DDT still abroad on the land.

I have to agree with some other posters that the modern ease of disseminating mis-, dis-, or just plain information makes it that much easier to renounce Carson's work today out of sheer ignorance and vile agenda. John Fowles said in "Daniel Martin" that one should never justify contempt out of ignorance, which is just what so often seems to happen. Will Rachel still continue to be read, actually read, so that those who wish to know the truths of the beauty of the world and the perfidy of unfettered corporate profiteering at the expense of the birds and all the rest of us, will actually KNOW? Or will short cuts, shock jocks, and instant messages by unread yammerers finally take the field?

Surprise me with a response as welcome and refreshing as the sight of a mother cardinal feeding her buttless, tiny-crested young, which I saw at the end of a great day outdoors today.


Lisa said...

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is now blocking two bills in the Senate -- one that would honor Rachel Carson and one that would name a post office after her.

He claims she used "junk science" to scare people away from using pesticides.

I guess all those bird species were just faking their demise under the onslaught of massive amounts of DDT.

Not to mention that the Centers for Disease Control reported in 2001 that heavy use of DDT may have produced a previously undetected epidemic of premature births in the US before 1966.

Good thing we have "doctor" Coburn to protect us from this "junk science."

Moses said...

What would Rachel Carson have thought about the following?:

Effort in DC poses threat to wind development

A new effort in Washington DC poses a serious threat to wind development - both future and existing. It threatens not only any federal RPS, but also state RPS requirements would be affected if Chairman Nick Rahall, D-WV, has his way.


His provision makes new wind development illegal until new federal rules (Fish & Wildlife Service) are established. We know from Management Service experience this can take a while - MMS expects theirs to take 2 years, way over the original 270 days prescribed.

Existing facilities must shut down within 6 months of new rules, until certified.

Any violation is a criminal offense with a $50,000 fine or a year in prison. Small residential wind turbines, as well as large, are required to cease operating or face criminal penalties.

Once new rules are passed, every single wind turbine will require certification - government staff would have to evaluate each turbine application.

This Bill is moving with Lightning Speed. Although it was made available only last week, a House Committee on Natural Resources mark-up session where the bill will be formally considered has been scheduled for June 6. A hearing is scheduled for this Wednesday (May 23).

Anonymous said...

Case in point

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