Silent Spring | Study Guide

Rachel Carson

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Silent Spring | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is a work of tremendous environmental and political influence, which has become synonymous with the modern conservation movement. Published in 1962, Silent Spring discussed the harmful effects of pesticides—namely the notorious chemical DDT—and their potential to eradicate entire ecosystems.

Silent Spring drew the attention of politicians, including President John F. Kennedy, who sought to pioneer environmental protections in the United States. The book also made complex scientific data regarding pesticide accessible to a general readership, which helped environmental thought gain traction in the public consciousness.

Silent Spring also drew tremendous backlash from those whose interests were tied to the chemical companies, causing Carson to be viewed as both an environmental hero and an economic troublemaker. One chemical company executive even claimed that, if Carson's findings were accepted, "we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth." Despite these protests, Silent Spring had a huge, tangible impact on environmental policy in the United States.

1. Carson was inspired to write Silent Spring after hearing that her friend's property was littered with dead birds.

Carson knew that something was amiss when she received a sobering letter from her friend, Olga Owens Huckins, who managed a small wildlife sanctuary in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Huckins informed Carson that dozens of dead birds suddenly littered the previously pristine landscape, and that the sanctuary, which previously rang with the melodic tunes of numerous bird species, was now silent. This letter inspired Carson to take action and investigate the chemical pesticide DDT as the source of the deaths. Huckins's plea for help also gave Carson the idea to title her book Silent Spring, after Huckins's saddening descriptions of the eerily quiet nature preserve. In the book's acknowledgements, Carson recalled:

Olga Owens Huckins told me of her own bitter experience of a small world made lifeless, and now brought my attention sharply back to a problem with which I had long been concerned. I then realized I must write this book.

2. The title Silent Spring was also inspired by the work of English poet John Keats.

In addition to the terrible thought of a forest with no bird songs, Carson's title also draws upon the work of famous British romantic poet John Keats. Keats's poem, "La Belle Dame sans Merci," or "The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy," (1820) tells of a destroyed landscape in which nature has been completely eradicated, leaving nothing but silence. The poem reads: "the sedge is wither'd from the lake, And no birds sing."

3. Silent Spring was crucial to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Carson's greatest achievement with Silent Spring was the spread of knowledge to the public about crucial environmental issues—which led to the creation of a federal agency. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, was founded in 1970, inspired in part by Carson's work.

Silent Spring was written in a style that made complex environmental problems accessible to the public, and it generated a noticeable public outcry against the use of harmful chemicals that had negative impacts on natural spaces. Since its inception, the EPA has worked to regulate and, when necessary, ban the use of products that contribute to environmental degradation. These bans were in direct response to the investigation Carson conducted with Silent Spring, and the EPA even credits Carson's involvement in the global movement for environmental protection on its website.

4. Silent Spring led to the ban of a harmful pesticide in the United States.

At the time Silent Spring was written, the most destructive pesticide in the United States was DDT—a chemical compound that was useful in eradicating more species of harmful insects than any before it. DDT had harmful consequences for many other types of animals, however, such as birds. In larger species, including humans, DDT posed risks for cancer and genetic disorders in newborns. In addition, DDT killed off swaths of insects that served positive ecological roles, such as bees, giving it the potential to decimate entire ecosystems. Upon publication, Silent Spring caught the attention of President John F. Kennedy, who commissioned the President's Science Advisory Committee to apply greater scrutiny to the pesticide's use. This, along with the creation and subsequent research conducted by the EPA, led to the chemical's ban in the United States in December 1972.

5. Silent Spring was inspired by an event known as "The Great Cranberry Scare."

One contributing factor to Carson's research for Silent Spring involved neither birds nor insects—but cranberries. The "Great Cranberry Scare of 1959" occurred when the FDA noted the harmful effects of aminotriazole, an anti-weed chemical sprayed on cranberry crops that had the potential to cause cancer.

The study was released several months before Thanksgiving 1959, and panic ensued regarding the poisonous cranberry sauce that would grace the tables of millions of Americans in November. In attempts to quell the outcry, several politicians—including Richard Nixon, during a presidential campaign—purposefully ate large helpings of cranberries at public events. Still, the FDA ended up seizing hundreds of barrels of potentially contaminated berries from Ocean Spray—the largest cranberry producer in the United States. Carson would later revisit this "cranberry panic" while contemplating the harmful effects of pesticide and herbicide use on crops in Silent Spring.

6. Carson was accused of contributing to the malaria death tolls of sub-Saharan Africa.

Although Silent Spring generated a huge public backlash toward the indiscriminate use of pesticides in the United States, the book also made Carson more than a few enemies. Numerous politicians—many of whom received donations from the chemical sector—spoke out against Carson's research. One notable rebuttal to Silent Spring was that advocating against the use of DDT would lead to more cases of malaria in Africa, where the chemical was used to kill disease-spreading mosquitoes. As Carson's environmental message spread globally during the 21st century, British politician Dick Taverne denounced her explicitly, claiming that

The anti-DDT campaign that she inspired was responsible for almost as many deaths as some of the worst dictators of the last century.

However, Carson herself stated that she was never fully against the use of pesticides, especially in cases where they may be beneficial in eradicating terrible diseases such as malaria. In Silent Spring, Carson specifically notes that, "No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored."

7. Carson originally worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service—which named a wildlife refuge in her honor.

Before her success as an author, Carson worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages natural spaces in the United States such as wildlife reserves. Her work for the federal agency inspired her dedication to environmental preservation, and it provided her with the tools to conduct research for Silent Spring. In 1969 the agency renamed a wildlife refuge in Southport Island, Maine, the "Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge." During the 1950s Carson spent summers on the island where she'd observe the local wildlife and study the creatures in the tide pools of the rocky northern coast.

8. Famous naturalist David Attenborough claimed Silent Spring was the most important environmental book since Darwin's.

Sir David Attenborough, a British naturalist famous for his work on the Life documentary series, had high praise for Carson's Silent Spring. The beloved broadcaster and conservationist claimed that Carson's book had the greatest worldwide impact of any piece of environmental literature since biologist Charles Darwin's 1859 On the Origin of the Species, which gave rise to the modern theory of evolution. Attenborough cited Silent Spring's popularization of the necessity of environmental protections as one of the most groundbreaking feats of conservation literature in more than a century.

9. Carson was battling breast cancer while she defended Silent Spring from critics.

Upon the publication of Silent Spring, Carson was beset by protests from chemical companies and politicians who did not want to see DDT banned. She had to defend her work from many sides—all while battling breast cancer. Since Silent Spring drew connections between pesticide use and cancer, Carson initially wanted to keep her condition private, since she felt it might make her research look biased. However, Carson continued to make public appearances when she felt it was important throughout her illness, until her death in April, 1964, at age 56. At one point, she testified in front of U.S. Congress while wearing a wig to hide the effects of radiation treatment. After her death, the "Silent Spring Institute" was founded to research connections between environmental risks and breast cancer.

10. The company Monsanto released a "parody" of Silent Spring advocating pesticide use.

One of the most adamant objectors to Carson's findings in Silent Spring was the chemical conglomerate Monsanto. The company attacked Carson whenever they could—most notably by releasing a pamphlet parodying Silent Spring entitled "The Desolate Year." The purpose of the document was to show the detrimental effects of pesticide bans, namely a world in which crops couldn't be protected from harmful insects. The pamphlet read:

Imagine, then, that by some incomprehensible turn of circumstances, the United States were to go through a single year completely without pesticides. It is under that license that we take a hard look at that desolate year, examining in some detail its devastations.

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