Book review: some thoughts on “Silent Spring”

I first came to know of this book in Year 1 while taking the module ENV1202 “Communications in Environment”, but never found the time/ motivation to read it. Hearing it being mentioned again during the introductory lecture of this module one month back, I thought it would be a good time to pick this book up. After all, now that I’m a Year 3 environmental studies student, I would probably be better able to appreciate her arguments and writing (as compared to when I was a blur freshie). In this post, I’ll share some personal reflections on Carson’s writing and highlight some points that tie in to what we’ve been learning in Urban Ecology.

In our first lecture, it was mentioned that Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was monumental to the development of the environmental movement. Indeed, Carson’s book (first published in 1962) was arguably the catalyst that helped to put the environmental devastation wrought by man in the forefront of the public’s attention.

Silent Spring

 

There are 2 main reasons why I think her book was so successful in inspiring a change in public mindset:

Firstly, Carson’s background as a scientist and the fact that she was already a best-selling author [1] no doubt helped to establish credibility with her audience. The vocal criticisms by the pesticide industry probably also inadvertently increased publicity for her book and generated public sympathy, resulting in over 2 million copies sold.

Secondly, Carson’s lyrical and simple writing style and choice of examples allowed her engage her audience effectively. For instance, mitochondria are likened to ‘powerhouses’ of energy production (p. 107); acetylcholine is simply explained as a ‘chemical transmitter’ that ‘performs and essential function and then disappears’ (p. 24); highly emotive language such as ‘slaughter’ and ‘massacre’ (p. 52) are used to describe the extent of destruction wrought by overuse of pesticides. Moreover, many examples cited by Carson are not only backed up by statistics, but are also highly relatable to her target audience, showing the direct impact of indiscriminate spraying of insecticides on housewives (pets die), birdwatchers (birds die) and gardeners (plants die) alike.

Overall, I’m reminded of the importance of communicating science to the public in a way that is understandable to the layman, as has been repeatedly emphasized in ENV1202. After all, no matter how amazing or ground-breaking your research finding is, if no one except the scientific community understands its significance, it is unlikely to make any real-world impact.

In the recent lecture on urban vegetation, the Dutch elm disease (DED) was mentioned as an example of the intricate link between urban monocultures and disease prevalence. This example was also brought up in Carson’s book, which highlighted the failure of pesticides in solving the problem, instead compounding it through the bioaccumulation and biomagnification of DDT in the food chain, resulting in near-extermination of migratory robins. Carson thus advocates the use of mechanical (eg. removal of all diseased wood) and genetic controls (eg. producing hybrid elm resistant to DED) over chemical controls.

Beyond this example, Carson’s final chapter argues for the use of biological controls in tackling invasive species by sharing several successful case studies whereby newly introduced species were able to control pest population. However, she fails to mention that using nature to fight nature may backfire too. For instance, the introduction of the Cane toad in 1935 as a biological control against scarab beetles [2] inadvertently resulted in the poisoning of native animals. While we now have better understanding and better technology to mitigate such environmental problems, biological controls should not be seen as a silver bullet as ecosystems are usually more complex and multifaceted than what we imagine.

To conclude, although Silent Spring was published in 1962, it remains as relevant today, given the relentless pace of urbanization and its resultant impact on the environment. Although there has been greater awareness and legislative controls, chemical pollution resulting from pesticide use remains a major issue [3], especially when one considers the potential effects of mixing all these toxic chemicals in the ocean (a thought that frankly scares me).

So read this book, and hopefully when you finish, even though

“Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware alike of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us

you’ll be able to say “Nope, not me.”

 

[1] she had won the National Book Award for ‘The Sea Around Us

[2] These buggers were destroying Australia’s sugar cane crops

[3] See for instance, how the flower you give/ receive on Valentine’s day is not a very loving sentiment from the perspective of the environment 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *