April 1, 2007

Opening Remarks by Moderator Tom Dunlap

Forty years has made Silent Spring into two books—a technical discussion of an old problem and a very timely plea for a new relationship between humans and the world, one that global warning, extinctions, and other environmental problems have made more relevant as the years pass.

In reading (and commenting) keep in mind Carson’s narrative structure. The first three chapters described our situation, the next eight gave the evidence about environmental problems, three more told what the chemicals do and might do to us and our children, and a final three laid out other, better ways to control insects and a better way to think about humans’ relation to nature.

In this week’s reading Carson argued that our massive, careless use of new chemicals involved not just public health but the health of the systems that supported all life on earth. The chapters drew on a range of knowledge and ideas, from science to American values. This post can only point to some of the more important ideas and themes.

By setting the frightening tale of a “silent spring” that made up the first chapter in a small town, she appealed to American dreams of the small town as the ideal place to raise children, but the setting also allowed her to show damages to humans, plants, animal, and farms not as separate things but elements of the “web of life” and society. It also made pesticides, “men’s issues” of science and public policy, part of home and community life and so “women’s issues” as well.

In the next chapter she moved from the familiar ground of home and family to ecology, evolution, and the development of earth’s life in deep time, “intellectual” subjects she explored with poetic prose. (Even her harshest critics acknowledged her literary skill) One major accomplishment here, done very quickly, was to show how our short-term perspective created problems we did not easily see because nature’s processes worked over very long times. She put the relation between humans and the land in moral terms and made the survival of ecosystems and the processes of evolutionary change important moral values. These have become familiar, and now environmentalists plant trees to offset their use of carbon on vacation and eat locally and use public transportation to reduce their impact on the earth, but in 1962 these views were strange—even revolutionary.

In “Elixirs of Death,” she described the chemical properties of the new insecticides and herbicides, showing their immediate dangers with incidents of death and injury but also raising a deeper concern, that long-term damage might not appear until it was too late. She would return to that theme of deferred consequences often through the book.

The Age of Environmentalism that followed Silent Spring made Carson’s views seem normal, but we ought to remember just how startling they were in 1962.

Comments? Click here or go to "comments discussion thread" directly below this posting.


Michaela said...

Thanks for the summary of each chapter. I am really looking forward to re-reading this after 35 years. It is startling how we have lived with these realities for so many years. What would Rachel think of our world and the extent of our global warming issues? Would she be surprised by the cancer rate? The loss of habitat for all creatures and especially our migratory birds? Would she be surprised by how near or far the silent spring hovers on the horizon?

Anonymous said...

I picked up my copy of Silent Spring today. I have read Linda Lear's biography of Rachel Carson and although I think I know the message of Silent Spring, I am looking forward to reading Carson's own words.

Tom Dunlap said...

You two seem to be the extremes--re-reading after many years and reading for the first time--and I hope you will address each other as the month goes along.

Asking what Carson would have thought about current events is one of those questions historians rule out automatically as "not an historical question" because we cannot know what "might have been." However, the club reading is not about history, so go to it. This book endures because it speaks of enduring values, and asking what Carson would have thought about global warming or some other problem that developed since her death is one (often good) way to think about the values at the core of her case. Her argument about "The Obligation to Endure" may be the most useful place to start, but the "Fable" has many values lying below its surface.

Gwen said...

One thing I’d like to call attention to is how language can be powerful. In the case of Silent Spring, for example, the two words in this book’s title seem simple and plain, and they are, and just the stark simplicity makes them powerful. There is genius in the two-word title of Rachel Carson’s book. These two words, when put together, are capable of evoking a startling image – a seemingly impossible vision because it’s something so foreign to our experience. Silence in and of itself is a powerful thing. It captures our attention.

Tom Dunlap said...

Thanks for the important comment about the power of Carson's language. It did indeed contribute to her case, and even her worst enemies admitted she wrote very well. That skill developed over a career and al life. She wrote for magazines literally from the time she was a child; learned an entirely different vocabulary as a practicing scientist; gained a lot of practice in translating science into plain English and attracive stories while working for the Fish and Wildlife Service, and then had a decade as a full-time professional writer before "Silent Spring." To get a better idea of her range, compare the "Fable," with its evocation of an imagined landscape of rural America, with a chapter from the next two weeks' readings discussing chlorinated hydrocarbons or bioconcentration or some other very technical subject.

Anonymous said...

On reading the opening paragraph of chapter 2, I was struck by the dead-on pertinence to today's situation. The first thing that came to mind when I read the words "...man--acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world," was global warming. I don't know how far Rachel Carson's vision of a world changed by humans' interaction with the environment went, but it seems to me that this current situation fits right in with her prediction.

Angela Wynne said...

i have written an undergraduate essay on why environmentalists believe silent spring to be one of the most important books of the twentieth century and i thoroughly enjoyed reading about her. the Linda Lear biography is very good as it shows her dedication and perseverance despite her terminal cancer and her heroic battles against the evils of big agro-chemical business.

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