William Souder, author of On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (2012)
Here’s a question I often get: Can there ever be another book like Silent Spring?
What the questioner wants to know, of course, is whether any book will ever produce an upheaval comparable to the change in public attitudes and government policies that followed the publication of Rachel Carson’s biting polemic on the indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides. This usually comes up at readings or other appearances when I have just finished talking about the importance of Silent Spring, and when it does I sense a mood of hope in the audience.
Times have changed, and so have we. The odds are against another book ever having the impact and lasting influence of Silent Spring.
For starters, we don’t have a Rachel Carson among us. Before she turned her attention to pesticides Carson was one of America’s most celebrated and beloved writers—the author of three lovely, lyrical books about the sea that had captivated readers for a decade. The Sea Around Us, published in 1951, stood atop the bestseller list for thirty-nine weeks, won the National Book Award, and made Carson’s reputation as a writer to be reckoned with. When she published Silent Spring eleven years later—first in installments in the New Yorker in June of 1962 and then in September as a book already engulfed in controversy—it, too, became a bestseller.
But what a shock it was. Leaving behind the celebratory mood of her earlier works—so joyful and besotted with life—Carson’s mood in Silent Spring was dark and foreboding. Though in places every bit as elegantly written as her sea books, Silent Spring was a bleak and often dismal read. And I think this contributed immeasurably to its impact. If a writer so enraptured with the natural world could suddenly take such a hard stance against what we were doing to it the message surely had to be an important one.
I don’t think any writer or body of work today quite fits that model.
Then there is the profound shift in the media landscape that has occurred over the past half century. Rachel Carson lived and worked in the age of print, when every city had several newspapers, and the great national magazines—Life, Look, Colliers, Coronet, Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post—exerted a powerful influence over public discourse. The world of print reflected back on itself, and Silent Spring reverberated among writers and journalists who shaped the national agenda.
Today, most of those publications are gone; many that remain are on life support. The media landscape is fragmented—an atomized and diffuse galaxy of mostly broadcast or digital platforms that include cable news outlets, blogs, Twitter, and talk radio. It is a noisy, fractious scene in which it’s hard to imagine any single idea—or book—taking hold in the way Silent Spring did. There were really only two ways people thought about Silent Spring in 1962: they loved it or hated it. Since then we’ve done a good job of discrediting the media, arguing so thoroughly that they are biased in one direction or another that we don’t trust any of them. Nowadays, everybody is a consensus of one—we think what we think for our own reasons, and rarely because of what we see or hear or read. And here is what we think: Nothing is clear.
I recently moderated a panel discussion at a conference of environmental journalists, where two of the women who joined me—Florence Williams and Cynthia Barnett—made the case for a new approach to writing about environmental issues. Williams and Barnett argue that the angry tone taken in Silent Spring and its mountains of dismaying data are things that no longer work with readers. People shut down, they argue, when confronted with too much negative information—and feel helpless when faced with problems that are not accompanied by solutions.
Rachel Carson did offer ideas about alternatives to synthetic pesticides. But the problems we confront today—notably climate change—are more complex and harder to address. Williams and Barnett both feel that we need to shift arguments about environmental matters out of the “now” and extend them forward into the next and succeeding generations. If people can dismiss climate change as a problem that directly confronts them, they may be less willing to turn away if they can be persuaded it will affect their children and grandchildren.
Rachel Carson worried about future generations, too. But she went straight at her readers in real time. And they responded, both for and against her. As any environmental writer can tell you today, it’s hard now to get a reaction—period. The legacy of Silent Spring is with us still—but the age of the polemic would seem to be over.
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