Thursday, September 20, 2012

Silent Spring: Beacon in the Darkness by Cristina Eisenberg

Discussion topic:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Cristina Eisenberg has a PhD in Forestry and Wildlife from Oregon State University. She is the author of  The Wolf’s Tooth: Trophic Cascades, Keystone Predators, and Biodiversity, and is at work on her second book for Island Press, about carnivore conservation. In her scientific research she focuses on the effects of carnivores, such as wolves, on whole food webs, termed trophic cascades. She lives in a remote part of Montana with her family.

Credit: Steve Hillebrand, USFWS
No single book heralded the beginning of the contemporary conservation era as did Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Its 1962 publication effectively dropped a bombshell on the complacent American public, which was still reveling in the afterglow of post-WWII seemingly unlimited economic growth. Such economic growth was supported by advances in science that had put powerful chemicals, such as the pesticide DDT, on the market.

I consider Silent Spring a classic in the genre of science and environmental literature, a book that has changed the world. In it, Carson, a marine ecologist, had the audacity to suggest that human-caused modification of nature, in the interest of progress, was having disastrous environmental consequences. With the precision of a surgeon and unflinching, lucid prose, she laid out her argument and presented incontrovertible evidence.
Carson alerted the public to the fact that for the first time in the history of humanity, every human being was being exposed to dangerous chemicals, specifically synthetic pesticides. She presented example after example of how in our arrogant attempt to control nature, we were naively unleashing potent toxic biological agents that could cause great harm to all life, including humans. From the silencing of songbirds to the elimination of pollinating insects, Carson’s heartbreaking case studies raised a clarion call to action that has reverberated through the decades since her book’s publication. She concluded her book by urging us to honor life on this earth in all its forms and to acknowledge that we are but one of many species that make up life as we know it.

Additionally, in an era when women often did not have equal stature with men in the sciences, Carson boldly stepped to the forefront of the science of ecology. Considered a rebel and even a pariah in her field when this book was published, today she is widely regarded as one of our most esteemed ecologists. I recall reading her book with a mix of horror and fascination when I was in high school. I read it in one sitting, because I couldn’t stop turning the pages. And by the time I had read the last page, I had decided to become a scientist. Carson inspired me to help find ways to create a more sustainable future.

The world has changed tremendously since Carson wrote her classic. We now know that all things are connected in nature, and that all life is precious. Our government agencies have acknowledged the problems Carson identified. Congress has created powerful laws, including the Endangered Species Act, that have helped recover many species, such as the bald eagle, which almost became extinct due to DDT. And Carson’s work continues to be a beacon in the darkness as we grapple with problems that have no easy solution, like climate change.

Discussion Questions:
What effects do think Silent Spring has on American sensibility about the environment?

What effects do you think Silent Spring has had on our environmental laws?

What about Silent Spring has made it such an effective vehicle of change?

If Rachel Carson were alive today, what conservation topic do you think she would focus on?


Bill Sherwonit said...

I didn't read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring until I was in my forties, so I can't say it greatly influenced my life's path, but I have great appreciation and respect for her work on both this book and, more generally, on behalf of our planet's more-than-human nature. There's no doubt she was a hugely influential -- and courageous -- scientist and author. Though I haven't read her other (less controversial) books, a couple are on my to-read list. I add my voice to the many others who celebrate her legacy.

Mark LaRoux said...

As far as an effective vehicle of change, Silent Spring took away the authoritative 'voice of science' that many governments have used for many years to justify their actions to the population at large. Science became a voice of the people in a away, and anyone...heck even a WOMAN in 1962 could utilize this voice, as long as they presented their ideas in a way that could be easily defended through reason and logic using an agreed upon basis (scientific method).
This is, in a way, much like Rosa Parks refusing to give up a seat on a bus, and watching the whole flow of events that happened afterwards bring to fruition a greater understanding of our place in time. Similarly, Carson's work was a well timed 'shot to the heart' to a corrupted system that needed pointing out. Exposing that system is what both women did, in their own way.

Mark said...

Good questions Cristina. One of Carson's major influences was one your book recognized, popularizing the idea of food chains for the broader American public. As for her ongoing influence it is evident in the large number of anit-Carson sites claiming erroneously that the ban on DDT has killed millions through malaria. Her enemies are still attacking this book 50 years later in a spurious manner, which shows she has had some impact.

Were she alive today she almost certainly would be alarmed by Ocean over-fishing and global warming both of which threaten her beloved birds and marine organisms.