The Friends of the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) WILDREAD Book Club met Thursday, September 20, 2012, at the NCTC library in Shepherdstown, WV to discuss Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, just one week short of the 50th anniversary of its initial publication on September 27, 1962. Six members (one of them new to the group) met and shared earlier experiences of this book and then compared and contrasted these to our responses while re-reading it. About the first edition we learned that it cost $5.00 and Ms. Carson dedicated her book "To Albert Schweitzer who said 'Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth'. "
Some of us had not realized that Ms. Carson was already a well-established author when she wrote Silent Spring. Fortunately, her financial success from The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea allowed her devote herself to full time writing. Douglas Brinkley, in a May-June 2012 Audubon Magazine ("Carson and Camelot") article, stated "Carson had three aims in writing Silent Spring: creating an enduring work of literature on par with The Sea Around US; alerting the public to the health dangers of pesticides; and forcing the U.S. government to regulate the chemical industry. Fortunately, she achieved these aims and more.
Controversy surrounded Ms. Carson and her book from the time "The New Yorker" published an excerpt on June 16, 1962. Indeed, she and her book are still targets of serious attacks. Laura E. Huggins, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University..., published a short paper entitled "'Silent Spring' turns 50, and birds are still singing" on April 19, 2012. Among her numerous criticisms, Ms Huggins notes "there were major oversights in her work - errors that have played a role in shaping environmental policies that have cost millions of lives and dollars." She was referring, in part, to the on-going problem of malaria and restricted use of DDT. Douglas Brinkley notes "Experts estimate that somewhere around 3/4 of a million people die of malaria each year." In 2004, Michael Crichton declared "Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler." Our book club members agreed that the gist of Ms. Carson's message was not that these chemicals be eliminated but that they must be used judiciously.
Some of us did not fully appreciate the fortuitous coincident of the publication of RC's book and John F. Kennedy's nomination for and successful campaign to become our 35th President. Though he did not endorse all her research, JFK and his administration took this book seriously and Carson eventually joined the "Women's Committee for New Frontiers." During the upheaval following its publication, Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas declared Silent Spring "the most revolutionary book since Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Our discussion generated many questions. In particular, we wondered what environmental issue would Ms. Carson embrace were she able to peek into our 21st century world. "Global warming" came to mind immediately but some of us felt she just might want to pick up her research where she left off. What meticulous scientist wouldn't relish the opportunity to do a follow up study 50 years later. Surely, she would want to know more about where, how and to what extent pesticides are now being used...what new chemicals or alternative methods are in use...what has happened to the bird populations that were declining...how are the oceans faring, etc....
Since our meeting, I've read an essay by Roger Tory Peterson who noted the 'DDT problem' was known in the scientific world by 1954. That raises more questions about how much of this data had been published and who was reading it? What was being done about 'the problem'? One wonders whether we might have lost the Bald Eagle had Rachel Carson not done the laborious research that revealed that their situation was dire. We'll never know whether she 'saved' them but, without question, she would be thrilled to know these beautiful creatures are doing well. It is likely this brilliant lady would be dumbfounded if she were able to tune into NCTC's Eagle Cam and follow the drama of the life cycle of these majestic raptors.
While not everyone agreed with Justice Douglas' statement comparing Silent Spring to Uncle Tom's Cabin we generally agreed with his later statement: "This book is the most important chronicle of this century for the human race."