Reading Rachel Carson

What are legitimate forms of control over nature?
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Those who commend Rachel Carson and those who condemn her agree that it is impossible to conceive of today’s environmental crusade without her bestselling Silent Spring (1962).[1] As her editor and biographer, Paul Brooks, wrote, it is “one of those rare books that change the course of history — not through incitement to war or violent revolution, but by altering the direction of man’s thinking.”[2] But the precise nature of her contribution is not easy to pin down. Was it her literary ability to evoke a sense of wonder at the beautiful complexities of nature? Yet such nature writing was a well-established and popular American genre since long before her bestselling The Sea Around Us (1951),[3] let alone Silent Spring. Was she the first to notice the problematic side of pesticide use? In fact, Silent Spring involved no original research but was a compendium of over ten years of ongoing investigations by scientists and researchers. Was it her fanatical attacks on DDT and modern chemical technology that set the tone for the subsequent excesses of environmental fearmongering? Yet she acknowledged the need for chemical insect control, making her position significantly more moderate than many who came after her. Was it by promoting regulation of pesticides that Carson left her mark? A 1962 government study was prompted by Silent Spring; it acknowledged that until the publication of that work, “people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides.”[4] But government regulation of pesticides was not, in fact, new.

By her own admission, Carson was not a likely crusader: “once in a lifetime, she remarked, was enough.”[5] By all accounts an intensely private person, she was evidently a fine friend to those who got to know her, in whom she inspired intense love and loyalty for her combination of intelligence and reserve with “zest and humor.”[6] Born May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania, she grew up on a farm and showed an early interest in writing. She intended to pursue that career, but while attending what is now Chatham College in Pittsburgh, she developed her interest in biology and graduated in 1928 with a degree in zoology. There followed graduate work at Johns Hopkins, where Carson taught summer school in addition to receiving her M.A. in 1932. She also taught at the University of Maryland and spent several summers at the marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole. But she kept up her writing, doing science features for the Baltimore Sunday Sun.

Discussed in this article
Houghton Mifflin ~ 2002
[Originally pub. 1962]
400 pp. ~ $14.95 (paper)

In 1936 Carson began her work in government that continued until her success as a writer allowed her to resign in 1952. At the Bureau of Fisheries (now the Fish and Wildlife Service) she started out as a scriptwriter and became editor in chief of their publications in 1949. Meanwhile, she continued freelance writing, which led to her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941).[7] Although a critical success, the book sold well only after her reputation was established with her second, and bestselling, book, The Sea Around Us. First serialized in The New Yorker, the book was in first place on the New York Times bestseller list for 39 weeks, and on the list for 86 weeks in all.[8] It was joined by a reissued Under the Sea-Wind.

There followed another bestseller — The Edge of the Sea (1955)[9] — before Silent Spring came out in the fall of 1962, much of it having already been serialized in The New Yorker. From the very first it generated passionate controversy, and the impact of the book’s message, as well as that controversy, continues to this day.

Silent Spring takes its name from the book’s first chapter, in which Carson presents “A Fable for Tomorrow.” An “evil spell” settles over a once beautiful and vibrant rural community; animals and human beings sicken and die, vegetation withers, livestock can no longer reproduce, there is no morning birdsong. We have a mystery — “What has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America? This book is an attempt to explain.” But like any dramatic author, Carson has already foreshadowed the solution to the mystery in the fable. “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”[10]

The central theme of Silent Spring is that the thoughtless use of insecticides and herbicides (Carson called them “biocides,” for she saw them as indiscriminate destroyers of life) at least threatens the health of nature and humanity, and possibly puts life on earth itself in jeopardy. These miracles of modern science are systematically poisoning us, interfering with reproduction, and causing cancer. Even in the unlikely event that we do not come into much direct contact with these dangerous substances, Carson notes, they spread throughout the ecosystem, destroying life as they go and upsetting the balance of nature. While much of the power of the book, for all the facts and footnotes, depends on arousing fear at this threat of being poisoned, it is a two-pronged attack: direct threats to our health, and threats to the environment on which all life depends. Within this context, Carson conveys many of the teachings that have become staples of environmental arguments: about the balance of nature, the interconnections that make up ecosystems, the role of genetics in disease, and the subtle danger of small doses of toxins over a long period of time.

If arousing the fear of being directly poisoned could be called the “low road” taken by Silent Spring, then the vision of ecological fitness and a moral reevaluation of our relationship to nature is the “high road.” But the ease with which Carson’s brilliant writing allows the reader to travel down these paths also conceals pitfalls. Both cases depend on seriously flawed arguments. The result is that what Carson is against turns out to be much clearer than what she is for.

Challenge and Response

Carson admits at the beginning of Silent Spring that there is an “insect problem” in need of “control.” She makes quite clear that it was not her “contention that chemical pesticides must never be used.”[11] Instead, she says, she seeks to provide more knowledge of the harm they can do and spur further research into their effects. She wants their use to be based on “realities” and not “mythical situations.”[12]

Given the insidious effects Carson believes that even small doses of pesticides produce, and the way they spread, and the terrible toll they take on innocent animal life, it is understandable if by the end of the book, the reader has quite forgotten this opening admission. Perhaps she makes it only as the price of being heard, or because of the already “irrecoverable” and “irreversible” “contamination of the air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials.”[13]

Yet Carson is quite enthusiastic about some methods for insect control; she sees great promise in “biological” techniques like the use of natural predators, lures, repellents, or the release of great numbers of sterilized males.[14] However problematic it might be to make any sharp distinction these days between “biological” and “chemical,” it seems that Carson does not believe that nature is in all respects something we must let stand in whatever form it comes to us. She is, for example, against the wholesale application of herbicides to control plant growth at roadsides, but she is not against selective spraying to keep down large, woody plants and trees.[15] She is for the use of radiation to produce sterile male insects as a means of pest control, even though when she wants to foster our fear of poison, she likens the effects of pesticides to the effects of radiation.[16]

It seems Carson wants to strike some kind of balance on the question of pesticides, and the larger question of our relationship to nature, but the character of that balance, and the elements that enter into it, are not immediately clear. The scientists who developed the pesticides Carson excoriates did not set out to create “biocides.” Indeed, part of the impetus for their creation was a search for more specific poisons for use against pests. Whatever those scientists’ extreme expectations about their ability to eliminate those pests,[17] their aim of providing a safe and secure food supply is not, it would seem, one that Carson objects to. Why did they go wrong — or more to the point, why have they failed to change direction? Carson summarizes the situation as she prepares to solve the mystery of who is poisoning us:

Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond? Who has paced in one pan of the scales the leaves that might have been eaten by the beetles and in the other the pitiful heaps of many-hued features, the lifeless remains of the birds that fell before the unselective bludgeon of insecticidal poisons? Who has decided — who has the right to decide — for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?[18]

The same thing keeps biocides on the market and produces scientists willing to develop and defend them: big business profits. Carson speaks of “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.”[19] Furthermore, “major chemical companies” are deeply involved in supplying funds to universities for pesticide research; “certain outstanding entomologists” support pesticides because they dare not “bite the hand that literally feeds them.”[20] Having thus “poisoned the well” as regards her potential critics, Carson continued to put great weight on this ad hominem argument when they became her actual critics after the book was published.[21]

To deal with such problems, Carson speaks of increased government regulation of pesticide use, establishing zero-tolerances for pesticide residues in food, and substitution of relatively safer for more dangerous pesticides.[22] By implication, she also seems to believe that private funding of scientific research at universities should be limited, but such measures would clearly be only makeshift. Silent Spring provides numerous examples of government regulatory agencies and researchers being part of the problem, not the solution.[23] No merely institutional or legal changes could be assured of providing the safer pest control Carson advocates, so long as the basic outlook of those who hold the offices and do the research does not change.

It is for this reason that Carson ultimately calls for a moral revaluation of our relationship with nature. It is widely and not unreasonably believed that Carson should be credited with bringing the public to understand nature in terms of ecology, food chains, the “web of life,” and the “balance of nature,” thus promoting greater respect for nature and more cautious interventions in it.[24] Indeed, this accomplishment reveals the moral vision that plays so prominent a role in her work, about which more shortly.

Whether they liked it or not, little of Carson’s frightening message was lost on readers of the book. Silent Spring, wrote the noted anthropologist Loren Eiseley in Saturday Review, is Rachel Carson’s “account of those floods of insecticides and well-intentioned protective devices which have indiscriminately slaughtered our wildlife of both forest and stream. Such ill-considered activities break the necessary food chains of nature and destroy the livelihoods of creatures not even directly affected by the pesticides.”[25] Her book, added the New York Times Book Review in an essay aptly titled “There’s Poison All Around Us Now,” “is a cry to the reading public to help curb private and public programs which by use of poisons will end by destroying life on earth.”[26] From the start, sympathetic reviews such as Christian Century’s “Elixirs of Death” have pictured Carson as having made her case on the basis of “impeccable” scientific credentials.[27] “[S]he is no hysterical Cassandra,” noted Commonweal in “Varieties of Poison,”[28] but for all that Christian Century correctly noted that she had produced “a shocking and frightening book.”[29]

Those who praised the book were often quite open about its essentially polemical character: “No one is in a better position than Miss Carson to arouse the indignation of the public,” noted The Nation.[30] While Lamont Cole, writing in Scientific American, was “glad this provocative book has been written,” he admitted that it was not a “fair and impartial appraisal of all the evidence” but “a highly partisan selection of examples and interpretations that support the author’s thesis.” This tactic is apparently justified, to his mind, by the fact that “the extreme opposite has been impressed on the public by skilled professional molders of public opinion.”[31] Such hostility to the existing business, scientific, and governmental establishment, which is only now showing signs of abating among some environmentalists, created a sense that ecological PR needs to fight business PR. That, at least, is what Commonweal might have had in mind with this otherwise cryptic lead for its review: “Silent Spring represents a major breakthrough in the communications industry.”[32]

Praise was not the only thing Carson met with. The book was widely and vociferously criticized as well. Many such responses came more or less directly from the chemical industry she had attacked, and they often matched Carson in the intemperateness of their tone, without her elegance of expression. Monsanto published a parody of the book, called “The Desolate Year,” in its house organ, picturing the poverty and disease of a world without pesticides; 5,000 copies were sent to editors and book reviewers around the country.[33] The Nutrition Foundation, a trade group of food and chemical industries, developed a critical and widely distributed “Fact Kit.”[34] The Velsicol Chemical Corporation is said to have made efforts to have Houghton Mifflin suppress the book, but that claim is debated.[35]

Carson’s critics certainly used some unscientific arguments against her. Chemical and Engineering News claimed that she had ignored “the sound appraisals of such responsible, broadly knowledgeable scientists as the President of the National Academy of Sciences, the members of the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee, the Presidents of the Rockefeller Foundation and Nutrition Foundation,” as if mere arguments from authority would settle the issue.[36] But Carson herself may have invited them by suggesting that scientists who favor present pesticide practices “prostitute their professional work in order to win lucrative research fellowships,” as a review in The American City put it. “This callous smear of the professional integrity of those who disagree with her is ugly. Miss Carson would be indignant if they countered that she based her writings on what would sell the most books rather than on what is fair and impartial analysis. But one suggestion follows another.”[37]

Critics typically accused the book of being one-sided, presenting none of the benefits to health and food production that had been wrought by pesticide use. Science argued that the book was not “a judicial review or a balancing of the gains and losses; rather, it is the prosecuting attorney’s impassioned plea for action against the use of these new materials which have received such widespread acceptance, acceptance accorded because of the obvious benefits their use has conferred.”[38] Carson’s attitude toward technology, Chemical and Engineering News noted, would mean “disease, epidemics, starvation, misery and suffering incomparable and intolerable to modern man.”[39]

Most seriously, Carson was accused of misrepresenting or misunderstanding the evidence she cited. A review in Archives of Internal Medicine asserted that Silent Spring “as science, is so much hogwash.”[40] I have not been able to locate any review that attempted to take up her errors in the presentation of scientific material in any great detail. Still, the general points that are mentioned are far from trivial, such as Carson’s assertion that birth-to-death exposure to “dangerous chemicals” is a new phenomenon,[41] or her failure to appreciate that the dose makes the poison.[42] Lamont Cole’s generally favorable review treats this question in a very curious way: “Errors of fact are so infrequent, trivial and irrelevant to the main themes that it would be ungallant to dwell on then.” He mentions one or two, but more to the point he finds two of Carson’s main conceptual foundations highly suspect: her assumption that there is a “balance of nature,” and that insects who exhibit resistance to pesticides will turn into super bugs.[43] Other Carson partisans and critics have pointed to different factual errors.[44]

As is so often the case, the controversy was not exactly bad for sales. Houghton Mifflin printed 100,000 copies, editorials and editorial cartoons on both sides appeared in newspapers across the country, the book was selected by the Book of the Month Club, and Consumer’s Union sponsored a special edition.[45] Within a short time, the book was published in at least 17 countries and 10 languages. Carson, having known since 1960 she was ill with the breast cancer that took her life in 1964, participated selectively but importantly in the intense controversy the book sparked, appearing on TV, testifying before congressional committees, and giving widely reported speeches on the occasion of receiving the awards that showered down on her.

What did this remarkable woman do to inspire such intense emotions and engage the imagination of not only the public at large but of politicians and policymakers? Carson’s admirers have had two important insights into her accomplishments. On the one hand, they note that part of the effectiveness of her case was in overcoming scientific specialization so that she could give an overview of the problem posed by the increasing use of pesticides and herbicides.[46] It could be said that before Carson, scientists studied many problems: insecticide problems and herbicide problems, problems of human health effects and livestock health, impacts on this kind of plant or that kind of insect. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that after Carson, the public began to believe there was only one issue: the environmental problem.

In assessing Carson’s contribution, her supporters are also on target when they admit that there was little new in Silent Spring. Instead, as her friend Shirley A. Biggs put it, “Her role was to put together a diffuse and variable body of data and to shape it into a clear account that would not only educate the public but also reach people in authority.”[47] In other words, Carson was a wildly successful popularizer.[48]

Selecting the Evidence

As capable as she was of making a clear and moving case, was she as capable of fulfilling the demand on a popularizer for accuracy and truthfulness? This question has been debated heatedly ever since the publication of the book. It is central to understanding how she so powerfully aroused our fear of being poisoned — the “low road” of Silent Spring.

Latter-day critics are able to point out that some of Carson’s claims have not held up to subsequent research. For example, it is very unlikely that DDT is a carcinogen.[49] Changes of medical or scientific outlook subsequent to the book’s publication mean that many parts must now be taken with a grain of salt. But it would hardly be Carson’s fault if, having honestly presented the legitimate scientific opinions of her day, those opinions have since been abandoned. Yet was her presentation uniformly accurate? Her advocates have been able to take advantage of a characteristic critical blind spot. The main focus has always been on what Carson did not say, on her failure to admit the usefulness of pesticides in promoting human health and food production. Thus, despite much huffing and puffing about expert opinion disagreeing with Carson, critics rarely give specific or well-documented instances of where Carson was wrong in terms of the evidence available to her at the time. As Shirley Biggs notes, while there is often vague talk of exaggerations and errors, as of 1987 “[w]e at the Rachel Carson Council have yet to be shown a valid example, despite the sketchy state of much of the information available at the time. This accuracy shows the value of her very conservative approach.”[50] The Council justifies calling her “the greatest biologist since Darwin” for the shift in our values and way of understanding the natural world that she helped bring about.[51]

It is beyond the scope of this work to examine all of Carson’s sources and how she used them. But a closer look at her treatment of some of the human health effects of pesticides is in order, given the theme of poisoning. This theme was a “no lose” proposition for Carson, since no honest critic could deny that under some circumstances, the “biocides” she was discussing were indeed poisonous. In addition, we may focus on human health effects because, as Carson noted in a letter to Paul Brooks, “As I look over my reference material now, I am impressed by the fact that the evidence on this particular point outweighs by far, in sheer bulk and also significance, any other aspect of the problem.”[52]

If the Rachel Carson Council had not yet seen a “valid” case of something not unreasonably called an “error,” it is not for want of such examples. It is indeed possible to document material that is misrepresented or used out of context. The result is to make the harm of pesticides seem greater, more certain, or more unprecedented than the original source indicates.

A major theme of Carson’s book is that one reason for the “silent spring” of the future is that pesticides obstruct reproduction. The culmination of a lengthy discussion of how DDT interferes with the ability of cells to produce energy is the remark, “Some indication of the possible effect on human beings is seen in medical reports of oligospermia, or reduced production of spermatozoa, among aviation crop dusters applying DDT.”[53] Her citation (at the back of the book) is to a 1949 “letter to the Editor” of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).[54]

This short sentence reveals a great deal about Carson’s rhetorical skill. While Carson says “reports,” the citation is to a single report; because that report cites more than one case, the use of the plural is technically justified even if misleading to someone who does not check her references. Note also that “possible effect” is ambiguous; does it mean an effect that might be caused by DDT or a known effect of DDT (as in “it is possible to contract a cold from a handshake”)? Finally, there is an ambiguity about how widespread the observation of oligospermia is. The sentence could imply the results of a large-scale study of crop dusters, but the source is nothing of the sort. It is a letter in the Queries and Minor Notes section of JAMA, where doctors sent in questions for referral to “competent authorities.” In this case, a doctor from Phoenix writes to ask whether oligospermia he has noted in three crop dusters could be caused by DDT or its xylene solvent. The answer begins, “Neither xylene nor DDT is known specifically to impair spermatogenesis.” It goes on to suggest that “real exposure to xylene” would produce symptoms sure to provoke “medical comment” and that the doctor investigate repeated low-dose exposure to carbon monoxide or pituitary gland malfunction. The answer notes in conclusion that an “adequate exploration” of this case might be “an outstanding contribution,” since there is not much clinical data in the area.[55] In other words, the source cited denies the very connection Carson suggests, although with proper scientific caution it would not affirm that DDT could not be the cause. But that caution is quite different from Carson’s attempt to represent this source as supporting her position that DDT is a “possible” cause of low sperm production.

Carson also discusses neurological effects of DDT exposure on human beings, citing reports by three British scientists who dosed themselves by exposure through the skin. The list of symptoms they experienced included aching limbs and joint pain that was “quite violent at times.” Carson goes on parenthetically, “Despite this evidence, several American investigators conducting an experiment with DDT on volunteer subjects dismissed the complaint of headache and ‘pain in every bone’ as ‘obviously of psychoneurotic origin.’ ”[56] American investigators are thus presented as incompetent and heartless. Note also that “the complaint” is grammatically ambiguous; it could refer to a single complaint that many subjects reported or to a single complaint from one subject. The immediate reference to “volunteer subjects” clearly suggests the former.

The source in this case is a report whose publication in JAMA was authorized by the Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry of the American Medical Association.[57] It studied relatively low doses of DDT given to prisoners over an extended period of time. One of its conclusions was that “During the entire study, no volunteer complained of any symptom or showed, by the tests used, any sign of illness that did not have an easily recognized cause clearly unrelated to exposure to DDT.” Further, “The results indicate that a large safety factor is associated with DDT as it now occurs in the general diet.”[58] These are two propositions that Carson is entitled to dispute, but she does not so much as mention them. What about the bone and joint pain? Do the researchers draw their conclusions having ignored it? It is worth quoting the source of “the complaint” at length, for it comes from a single individual:

He had participated for 155 days and had received 138 doses of DDT. He had several complaints, including pain every day in every bone, occasional headache, and tearing of the right eye. He submitted to complete physical and laboratory examination, and all findings were normal. His complaints obviously were of psychoneurotic origin, and even the man himself did not seem to take them seriously.[59]

Thus does Carson manage to misrepresent, and by implication discredit, a report whose conclusions decisively undercut her own.

In other instances, Carson places her sources in a context that radically changes their original meaning. One case can be found in connection with another major example of how we are being poisoned, the carcinogenic properties of pesticides. She argues that pesticides act like radiation in impairing cell division. Leukemia, she notes, is “one of the most common diseases to result from exposure to radiation or to chemicals that imitate radiation.” She then discusses how benzene, a common insecticide solvent, “has been recognized in the medical literature for many years as a cause of leukemia.”[60] Immediately following, she points out how the “rapidly growing tissues of a child would also afford conditions most suitable for the development of malignant cells.” Indeed, Sir Macfarlane Burnet has shown an increasing incidence of early childhood leukemia. “According to this authority, ‘The peak between three and four years of age can hardly have any other interpretation than exposure of the young organism to mutagenic stimulus around the time of birth.’”[61] She then continues to discuss the carcinogenic effects of urethane, neither an insecticide nor a solvent but a chemical related to certain herbicides. One would be forgiven for believing, then, that Burnet and Carson have the same kinds of things in mind when they speak of “mutagenic stimulus.”

The source here is an essay Burnet published in the New England Journal of Medicine, first delivered as a speech at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1958.[62] He documents a rising incidence of leukemia, particularly among children. While he does not doubt radiation can cause leukemia, he also suggests that in the United States, among urban whites, “Only an insignificant portion of the increase is due to ionizing radiation.”[63] Hence, he believes, some other mutagenic stimulus must be found, just as Carson quotes him as saying.

Burnet admits he can only speculate about what that stimulus is. What is interesting is just how different his speculations are from Carson’s. He argues that since the increase is not seen “in colored persons” in the United States, it seems unlikely that the stimulus is “some all-pervading element associated with advancing civilization such as traces of carcinogens in the air from combustion processes of various types.”[64]

It is the point of Silent Spring that “biocides” are precisely all-pervading elements of advancing civilization. Did this passage, then, give Carson any pause? What did she make of the fact that when Burnet discusses possible sources of “mutagenic chemicals,” he talks about increased coffee and tea drinking, cigarette smoking, pharmaceuticals prescribed during pregnancy, and some hitherto unknown byproduct from the production of artificial infant formula?[65] None of these sources is fully satisfactory for him; all of them are speculative. But he does not mention pesticides and herbicides at all.

We know what Carson made of this part of Burnet’s argument. She suppressed it. She bracketed his point with observations that made it clear that his thinking in the article cited moved in the same direction as her own. Furthermore, Carson claims to know what Burnet only speculates about and attributes that certainty to him as well. But Burnet’s open-mindedness is precisely what characterizes the “meticulous” scientists among whose ranks Carson’s defenders would like to place her.[66]

Sometimes Carson neglects to tell the whole story in other ways. In making the case for the neurotoxic effects of organic phosphate insecticides, she notes that the “severe damage” they cause to the nervous system would make one expect them to be implicated in “mental disease.”[67] A study from Australia supplies her that link, documenting mental illness in 16 individuals with “prolonged exposure” to such insecticides.[68] But Carson neglects to note some important qualifications on this study. The author admits he performed no statistical analysis showing that the apparent correlation between exposure and mental illness was not due to chance. When the author investigated two fruit-growing districts to see if an increase in “mental ill-health” could be found in the field, only 3 of 16 physicians surveyed reported any such increase. Of these, two could support their impression with case records.[69] In short, the study Carson uses to “nail down” her speculations is more speculative than she admits.

Carson does not misrepresent all her sources. Furthermore, there is no question that pesticides and herbicides can be extremely dangerous to human beings if misused or used carelessly. There would certainly be nothing wrong if Carson wished to disagree with or reinterpret her sources in light of her own understanding of the nature of the “biocide” problem. What is wrong is for her to have failed to do so openly. Of course, there would have been a cost to this kind of honesty. The book would be far less rhetorically powerful if Carson were frequently saying, “So-and-so reports his results that way, but I think they should be interpreted this way.” As matters stand, her citations of authorities lead the reader to believe that scientific opinion is consistently on her side. As we have seen, that is not necessarily so. There are indeed “valid” examples of inaccuracies or mistakes to be found in Silent Spring and, further, these lapses do not occur at random but fit within a pattern that is necessary for Carson’s case to be presented in the most effective and affecting way.

Exit Humanity?

It is evident from Carson’s obviously one-sided treatment of the topic — omitting any serious discussion of the benefits of pesticides — and by the less obvious pattern of distortion of her sources that she herself did not think that the facts of the matter spoke entirely for themselves. Since most people do not have to worry about acute pesticide poisoning, the “low road” fear had to be aroused by the presentation of threats whose subtlety makes them seem all the more insidious. That means her information had to be carefully selected and filtered. But there is another filter, the high road of her call for a moral revaluation of our relationship to nature, that Carson’s supporters not only do not deny but celebrate. We turn now to that vision.

The idea of a “balance of nature,” which Carson is often credited with popularizing, has had great persistence among the general public. Ironically, already in 1962 Lamont Cole could assert that the balance of nature “is an obsolete concept among ecologists.”[70] Nevertheless, one sees in Carson some of the reasoning that makes so many people think there is a delicate and static balance of nature, and that “upsetting” it is a particularly reckless thing to do. At the same time, a look at Carson’s own metaphors and examples suggests some of the difficulties and ambiguities of this concept and that Carson herself may not have been clear on just how she wanted human beings to act in relationship to nature.[71]

Following the implications of the concern that we are both poisoners and poisoned, Carson suggests that the balance of nature can no more be ignored than a “man perched on the edge of a cliff” can defy the “law of gravity.”[72] In other words, we face a dangerous situation in which the slightest misstep will bring final disaster. After all, it took “eons of time” for life to reach “a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings” that we see around us.[73] In a moment, it would seem, humanity can disturb this delicate balance. And because “in nature nothing exists alone,” such disturbance may be expected to have the most far-reaching consequences.[74]

If everything is connected to everything else in a finely tuned balance, then physically problematic and temporally remote consequences of pesticide use, on which Carson places a good deal of stress, become a plausible substitute for looking at positive immediate consequences such as prevention of epidemics or increased crop yields. The argument that small, repeated doses eventually can have widespread and dangerous consequences also becomes more plausible. Carson must develop this argument because however tragic the acute cases of pesticide poisoning she cites, they were relatively rare and often linked to flagrant misuse.

When nature comes to be seen as a seamless web and a delicate balance, human activity is more easily painted as the violation or destruction of that balance. Instead of a variety of potentially distinct human/nature relationships, each to be judged on its own merits, all interactions come to be viewed in light of the manifold impacts of the most intrusive and disruptive. Thus diverse situations come to be simplified into one “environmental crisis.” Looking at the destruction we have shown ourselves capable of causing, we find it hard to see that there is any place for human beings within nature, leading some to wonder whether Carson has created an ideal of nature in which human beings have no place.[75]

Yet this notion of a natural balance of nature is precisely the one that has least ecological support. To her credit, it is not Carson’s final word on the topic, however much the emotional force of some of her arguments depends on it. For she also likens the present interaction between humans and nature to the “rumblings of an avalanche.”[76] While this image retains the idea that small beginnings can have disastrous and unstoppable consequences, it makes human interventions seem less “unnatural.” We are not the only cause of avalanches. Furthermore, nature recovers from avalanches; they are an ongoing aspect of ecosystem change.

Despite her sometime use of static imagery, at other times Carson recognizes that, if we are to speak of a “balance” at all, it is better understood in dynamic terms: “The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever shifting, in a constant state of adjustment. Man, too, is part of this balance.”[77] Over time, changes, even vast changes, are normal. Species and habitats disappear. Life adjusts to hostile or dangerous situations and takes advantage of favorable conditions.[78]

Might it not be argued, then, that human beings, as participants in this ongoing, dynamic balance, are simply promoting the same kind of changes that are always going on in nature? Why any special concern about our modifications? Carson tries to explain the peculiar danger human actions pose even to the dynamic balance of nature. Human-induced changes, she argues, work much faster than nature normally works on its own.[79] Such speedy changes mean that ecosystems may not have time to adjust to them, and that in turn raises the specter of a domino-like collapse of the system as a whole.

This argument from collapse due to rapid change has proven increasingly popular. It is a staple, for example, with those concerned about the greenhouse effect. They admit that life on earth has flourished during periods even warmer than those they are projecting. But if we were to make a transition to such a warmer world in a mere hundred years, as opposed to hundreds of thousands, there would be no chance for various biota to adjust to the change, with terrible consequences.

Still, we know that natural ecosystems can undergo vast and rapid changes due to things like volcanoes, earthquakes, fires, floods, and hurricanes, any of which can produce destruction on a scale that dwarfs just about anything humans can do at any speed. The question is, is the effect even of such great changes amplified over time and through space, as the avalanche metaphor suggests? Or does the balance of nature dampen the effects of such disturbances?

Carson is well aware that in fact the avalanche likeness is not entirely appropriate for what human beings are doing to nature. In yet another metaphor, she suggests how the consequences of our actions expand “like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond.”[80] But the ripples, even as they widen, have less and less of an impact on the still pond. What may be a tidal wave to the water strider next to the pebble’s point of impact is hardly felt by the tadpole near shore. The sudden collapse of the ecosystem surrounding Mount St. Helens did not cause a domino-like fall of surrounding and dependent systems, in turn spreading out an avalanche of destruction.

Is there any reason to believe that the way humans interact with nature is likely to weaken nature’s ability to dampen the impact of our changes to it? Carson believes so, despite her use of the pebble metaphor: “Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it.”[81] This argument is also now well established in environmental thinking. Carson associates what has come to be called “biodiversity” with ecosystem stability. The consequences of human-induced changes become more severe rather than less over time if the net result of those changes is to destabilize ecosystems by simplifying them.

Now, as we will see shortly, Carson is well aware that human activity can also create richer and more complex ecosystems. However, as plausible as the association of diversity and stability might seem, within the discipline of ecology it is not taken quite as a matter of course.[82] If diversity uniformly bred stability, it would be hard to understand how tropical rain forests, widely regarded as the greatest reservoirs of biological diversity, would be as fragile as they are said to be.

Thus, while the fear of poisoning that is the “low road” of Silent Spring is perfectly clear, the “high road,” or Carson’s attempt to popularize the significance of ecology and the “balance of nature,” is less coherent. We began this examination by noting that Carson’s advocates celebrate the existence of an informing moral vision in her work. It was not enough for her merely to catalogue the various potential or actual dangers posed by the use of pesticides and herbicides. She also sought to provide an over-arching lesson that could be learned from those particulars. But if that vision is clouded, how are we to know what to do or refrain from doing?

Doing the Right Thing

Early in the book Carson notes that for the most part, the environment has shaped life on earth, and not vice versa. Over “the whole span of earthly time” the ability of life to modify its surroundings has been “relatively slight” — until humans came along.[83] And only in the last century have human beings gained “significant power” to “alter the nature of [their] world.”[84] From this outlook, modern humans appear as a kind of rogue species, an unnatural product of nature. We are back to the edge of the cliff. But later in the book, when Carson discusses soils, we get a different picture. Without soils, neither land plants nor land animals could survive. Yet soils are “in part a creation of life, born of a marvelous interaction of life and nonlife long eons ago.”[85] This modification by life of its surroundings hardly seems “relatively slight,” since it makes possible the natural world as we know it today. Compared with this accomplishment, it is human intervention that, so far, seems “relatively slight.”

Still, Carson might say, it is human beings whose impact has been dangerous to life, rather than creative. For in “less than two decades,” synthetic pesticides have become “so thoroughly distributed” that “for the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.”[86] The implication is that there was a time when the “balance of nature” meant that human beings were not routinely exposed to potentially dangerous substances. Critics have pointed out what nonsense this statement is, since there have always been chemicals in the environment that, in some dose, are dangerous.[87] But more to the point, even Carson herself provides evidence that nature was not simply benign prior to the last two decades, when she talks about pesticides “derived” from naturally occurring substances — some of which she knows to be extremely dangerous.[88] Nature was not a safe place that human actions made dangerous.

Perhaps human beings have used their ingenuity in such a way as to introduce entirely new kinds of dangers into nature. That seems to be the suggestion when Carson talks about “systemic insecticides,” chemicals that kill insects by converting “plants or animals into a sort of Medea’s robe by making them actually poisonous.”[89] Such insecticides produce “a weird world, surpassing the imaginings of the Brothers Grimm … where the enchanted forest of the fairy tales has become the poisonous forest where an insect that chews a leaf or sucks the sap of a plant is doomed.”[90] Yet in the very next paragraph, Carson admits that the “hint” for such pesticides came from nature itself, where plans defend themselves by the synthesis of substances poisonous to their predators![91] The vision of nature as an “enchanted forest” where such things do not happen is, as Carson says, a “fairy tale” — but this fairy tale forms the basis for her excoriation of systemic insecticides.

Even if the human ability to modify nature is not as radically new as Carson sometimes makes out, even if nature is not “by nature” as safe as Carson sometimes suggests, it might still be true that “nature knows best,” and that human beings should therefore impose minimally on natural processes, lest the balance of nature be disturbed. Clearly, this lesson is one Carson wants to get across, as the book’s epigraph by E. B. White suggests. White laments that the human race “is too ingenious for its own good” in its efforts to “beat” nature “into submission.” He hopes that we could accommodate ourselves “to this planet” and view it “appreciatively.”[92] Yet we have seen how Carson admits that there is an “insect problem” in need of “control,” and that there is a legitimate use of herbicides to control plant growth along highways. Control is very different from the accommodation White calls for.

The highway-spraying case is quite telling. Here, nature is being controlled not for some essential purpose like food but for creating marginal increases in safety and aesthetics by keeping large plants well back from the road. Such efforts may be important for many reasons, but they hardly represent an “accommodation” to planet earth.

Carson’s stand on roadside spraying suggests in another way that nature does not always know best. Wholesale spraying is wrong in part because it destroys wildflowers that make the road beautiful.[93] But surely Carson knew two things about those roadside wildflowers: most of them are there because the road exists; many wildflowers do best on disturbed ground, which they take over and colonize. And that in turn is true because a great many North American wildflowers are aliens brought from Europe; they do well in disturbed ground because there they have less competition from native species. Finally, left to itself, the roadside would tend to exhibit ecological succession; the larger, woody plants that she is willing to see sprayed would force out many of the wildflowers that do well on open ground. In other words, in defending roadside wildflowers, Carson is defending a “natural” state that is in three ways a result of human intervention: the importation (accidental or otherwise) of the wildflowers, the building of the road, and the maintenance of conditions suitable for wildflower growth. It thus appears that human beings, while conquering nature, can at the same time increase biological diversity.

Carson’s case shows how love of nature, which by all accounts she felt deeply, by no means guarantees that one has a clear view of the beloved. Careful writers about Carson have already recognized that her thinking about nature is more complex than at first meets the eye. Her failure to tease out the various strands of that complexity is probably a net rhetorical gain. It makes it possible for there to be “man” and “destruction” on one side of the ledger, and “nature” and “danger” on the other side. Because there is no clear picture of when humans intervene properly in nature, Carson can maintain both her pessimism about a future “where no birds sing” and her optimism that the right science and the right agricultural technology can provide many of the benefits of existing pesticides without their grave costs.

Carson’s lack of clarity about humans’ relationship to nature is summed up in her view of modern natural science. As much as she must rely on science for the better methods of pest control she wants to see put to work, she condemns its arrogance and seeks a new humility. She says that science must waken to the fact that in dealing with living beings, it is dealing with a world of “pressures and counterpressures … surges and recessions.”[94] Only by taking this complexity into account will science be able “cautiously” to “guide” such “life forces” into “channels favorable to ourselves.”[95]

The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.[96]

Carson’s last book is widely seen as an attempt to describe the kind of education children should have to produce the right relationship to nature. The title, A Sense of Wonder, already describes the essentials of that outlook.[97] Wonder, as she suggests, is indeed a good thing. But wonder and humility do not have to spring from the same sources as caution, nor would they necessarily have the same outcomes. Wonder is not consistent with a contemplative stance toward nature, a stance Carson clearly had an affinity for. Caution suggests an active stance. To channel nature cautiously is not to give up on control of nature; it is to control it better than we do now, as the slighting references to the stone age of philosophy and science suggest. Yet that age might have had a clearer picture than Carson of the difficulty of reconciling the activist and contemplative requirements she places on a more “modern” perspective.

By now, nothing can detract from Silent Spring’s immense contribution to the rise of the green crusade. But as our discussion suggests, it is not a fully coherent or completely worked out line of argument. While critical of the impact of the profit motive on government and science, it presents no complete critique of the American economic and political arrangements that produce such a result. While advocating humility toward nature, it maintains the necessity for human intervention, without fully articulating what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate intervention. While critical of one instantiation of modern science and technology, it relies on another. These tensions are not unique to Carson; they can be found in the work of other writers who have paid more attention to them and attempted to explain them. But they have not yet been fully resolved, even five decades after the publication of Silent Spring.

[1] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962). (The hyperlink is to the 50th Anniversary Edition [Mariner, 2012], but all citations in this essay are to the 25th [Houghton Mifflin, 1987].)
[2] Paul Brooks, The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972): 227.
[3] Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951).
[4] Frank Graham, Jr., Since Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970): 78-79.
[5] Brooks, House, xi.
[6] Ibid., 77.
[7] Rachel Carson, Under the Sea-Wind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1952).
[8] John A. Garraty, Dictionary of American Biography Supplement Seven (New York: Scribner’s, 1981): 109.
[9] Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955).
[10] Carson, Silent Spring, 1-3. The book is said to have a “detective-story flavor” in Donald Fleming, “Roots of the New Conservation Movement,” Perspectives in American History, vol. 6 (Cambridge University Press, 1972): 32.
[11] Carson, Silent Spring, 12.
[12] Ibid., 9.
[13] Ibid., 6. Fleming suggests that since the book was written to “persuade and arouse,” Carson had to “calculate her effects as never before, trim her sails to catch the prevailing winds” (Fleming, “New Conservation Movement,” 29).
[14] Carson, Silent Spring, 278-88.
[15] Ibid., 75.
[16] Ibid., 208-9.
[17] Fleming, “New Conservation Movement,” 29.
[18] Carson, Silent Spring, 127.
[19] Ibid., 13.
[20] Ibid., 259.
[21] Rachel Carson, “Rachel Carson Answers Her Critics,” Audubon Magazine (September/October 1963): 313, 315.
[22] Carson, Silent Spring, 183-84.
[23] See her accounts of the Agriculture Department’s gypsy moth and fire ant programs, Silent Spring, 157-68.
[24] See, for example, Fleming, “New Conservation Movement,” 30; Samuel P. Hays, Beauty, Health and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985 (Cambridge University Press, 1987): 6, 28; Robert C. Paehlke, Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989): 29.
[25] Loren Eiseley, “Using a Plague to Fight a Plague,” Saturday Review 45 (September 29, 1962): 18-19.
[26] Lorus Milne and Margery Milne, “There’s Poison All Around Us Now,” New York Times Book Review (September 23, 1962): 1.
[27]Elixirs of Death,” Christian Century 79 (December 19, 1962): 1564.
[28] James Rorty, “Varieties of Poison,” Commonweal 77 (December 14, 1962): 320.
[29] “Elixirs,” Christian Century: 1564.
[30] Marston Bates, “Man and Other Pests,” The Nation 195 (October 6, 1962): 202.
[31] Lamont C. Cole, “Rachel Carson’s Indictment of the Wide Use of Pesticides,” Scientific American (December 1962): 173. Contemporary writers, anxious to maintain Carson’s reputation, have a hard time on this point. Her book is “calm and reasoned” but “Carson consciously wrote a polemic intended to stir people to political action.” (Philip Shabecoff, A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement [New York: Hill and Wang, 1993]: 109.) It is both an example of a “‘most profound sort of propaganda’” and “scientific evidence” that is “documented in impeccable detail” (Paehlke, Progressive Politics, 28).
[32] Rorty, “Varieties of Poison,” 320.
[33] Graham, Since Silent Spring, 64-65.
[34] Ibid., 58-59.
[35] Compare Graham, Since Silent Spring, 49, with Elizabeth Whelan, Toxic Terror: The Truth About the Cancer Scare (Ottawa, Ill.: Jameson Books, 1985): 64.
[36] William J. Darby, “Silence, Miss Carson,” Chemical and Engineering News (October 1, 1962): 60.
[37] “Rachel Carson vs. Pest Control,” The American City (March 1963): 7.
[38] I. L. Baldwin, “Chemicals and Pests,” Science 137 (September 1962): 1042.
[39] Darby, “Silence,” 60.
[40] Graham, Since Silent Spring, 56.
[41] Ibid., 56-57.
[42] Darby, “Silence,” 62.
[43] Cole, “Rachel Carson’s Indictment,” 173.
[44] Frank Graham admits that Carson’s claim that arsenic is the carcinogenic element in chimney soot is wrong, that she overstated the threat DDT posed to robins, and that she was wrong to think that insect pathogens do not cause disease in higher animals (Graham, Since Silent Spring, 67). Far more damagingly, Fleming points out that the whole idea that pesticides are concentrated as one moves up the food chain, which is crucial to Carson’s arguments about distant and delayed effects, has “become increasingly dubious in the years that followed” (Fleming, New Conservation Movement, 31). There remains an unfortunate tendency to present vague criticisms of the book (e.g., the multi-point indictment in George Claus and Karen Bolander, Ecological Sanity [New York: David McKay, 1977]: 10). Unlike most of their impressively documented book, the charges in this instance are left completely unsubstantiated. On the other side, there is an equally unfortunate tendency simply to take her science for granted, as indicated in note 31, above.
[45] Graham, Since Silent Spring, 69.
[46] Gino J. Marco et al., Silent Spring Revisited (Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1987): 9.
[47] Ibid., 5.
[48] Paehlke’s assessment seems just when he notes that one of her contributions “was her articulation of these vital sciences in language accessible to the educated public. Her style, a blend of scientific, political, and moral arguments … became the hallmark of popular environmentalism” (Paehlke, Progressive Politics, 28). The importance of popularization is also picked up by Claus and Bolander, Sanity, 9. Hays exhibits a stunning ability to miss the social forces he wants to describe when he claims that “even more influential” than Carson was a “widely reported administrative hearing about DDT in Wisconsin in 1968 and 1969” (Hays, Beauty, Health, 28).
[49] Whelan, Toxic Terror, 78-85; Edith Efron, The Apocalyptics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984): 267-70.
[50] Marco, Silent Spring Revisited, 8. The Rachel Carson Council is an organization that seeks to further Carson’s work by the study of pesticides and chemical contaminants.
[51] Ibid., 8.
[52] Brooks, House of Life, 244.
[53] Carson, Silent Spring, 207-8.
[54] Ibid., 336.
[55]Occupational Oligospermia,” Journal of the American Medical Association 140 (August 13, 1949): 1249.
[56] Carson, Silent Spring, 193.
[57] W. J. Hayes, Jr., W. F. Durham, and C. Cueto, Jr., “The Effect of Known Repeated Oral Doses of Chlorophenothane (DDT) in Man,” Journal of the American Medical Association 162 (October 27, 1956): 890.
[58] Ibid., 897.
[59] Ibid., 893.
[60] Carson, Silent Spring, 234.
[61] Ibid., 234-35.
[62] Sir Macfarlane Burnet, “Leukemia as a Problem of Preventive Medicine,” New England Journal of Medicine 259 (August 28, 1958): 423-31.
[63] Ibid., 427.
[64] Ibid., 427.
[65] Ibid., 429.
[66] Marco, Silent Spring Revisited, 4.
[67] Carson, Silent Spring, 197-98.
[68] Ibid., 198.
[69] S. Gershon and F. H. Shaw, “Psychiatric Sequelæ of Chronic Exposure to Organophosphorus Insecticides,” Lancet (June 24, 1961): 1372.
[70] Cole, “Rachel Carson’s Indictment,” 176.
[71] Vera L. Norwood, “The Nature of Knowing: Rachel Carson and the American Environment,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12 (Summer 1987): 740-60.
[72] Carson, Silent Spring, 5.
[73] Ibid., 6.
[74] Ibid., 51.
[75] Norwood, “Nature of Knowing,” 748.
[76] Carson, Silent Spring, 262.
[77] Ibid., 246.
[78] Ibid., 6.
[79] Ibid., 6-7.
[80] Ibid., 127.
[81] Ibid., 10.
[82] Paul Colinvaux, Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist’s Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978): 123, 209. In general, Colinvaux’s book is a highly readable presentation of how a professional ecologist looks at nature, and it is striking how different his view often is from the environmental popularizers who claim to be inspired by ecology. As Colinvaux himself puts it in his Preface, “Ecology is not the science of pollution, nor is it environmental science. Still less is it a science of doom. There is, however, an overwhelming mass of writings claiming that ecology is all of these things. I wrote this book in some anger to retort to this literature with an account of what one practicing ecologist thinks his subject is all about…. I take the opportunity to brand as nonsense tales of destroying the atmosphere, killing lakes, and hazarding the world by making it simple” (vii). See also Mark Sagoff, “Fact and Value in Ecological Science,” Environmental Ethics 7 (Summer 1985): 107-10.
[83] Carson, Silent Spring, 5.
[84] Ibid., 5.
[85] Ibid., 53.
[86] Ibid., 15.
[87] Specifically on the issue of carcinogenicity, see Efron, Apocalyptics, 123-83.
[88] Carson, Silent Spring, 17-18, 223.
[89] Ibid., 32.
[90] Ibid., 32-33.
[91] Ibid., 33.
[92] Ibid., vi.
[93] Ibid., 69-70.
[94] Ibid., 296.
[95] Ibid., 296.
[96] Ibid., 297.
[97] Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (Berkeley: Nature Company, [1956, 1984] 1990).
Charles T. Rubin, “Reading Rachel Carson,”, September 27, 2012.
Header image by Landon Martin via Unsplash

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