Silence | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


Fifty years later, what have we really learned from Rachel Carson's master work?


In Silent Spring, published 50 years ago this fall, Rachel Carson warned of a season when the birds, and all of nature, would fall mute to chemical poisoning.

These days, though, I'm worried about the silence of a different animal: the humans making all the pollution.

Not that Springdale native Carson missed her mark. Silent Spring was published in 1962. Within a decade, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. The pesticide DDT, whose indiscriminate use was among Carson's prime targets in Silent Spring, was banned. Landmark federal legislation including the Clean Water Act was passed. As evidenced by the 1970 genesis of Earth Day, awareness grew about the harm humans could do the planet. Much of that harm, people now realized, was wrought with the household and industrial chemicals we'd regarded as modern miracles — insect-killers, weed-killers — but whose dark side Carson was key in revealing.

Carson's environmentalism was revolutionary. This wasn't Teddy Roosevelt grandly conserving far-off places most of us would never see. This was stuff happening in our own backyards, even our own bodies.

But while Carson changed our thinking, if you re-read her epochal book today, you'll wonder how much differently we're actually behaving. We know that too much pesticide use is bad. But most of the concepts Carson popularized we either never truly learned or have failed to act on. And we hardly ever talk about them.

Silent Spring's second chapter alone is a litany of issues still plaguing us a half-century on. The sheer ubiquity of long-lived man-made poisons in air, water, soil and living flesh; the scourge of toxins concentrating up the food chain; how growing lots of one crop in one place worsens insect problems, and how insects evolve to resist pesticides; the destructiveness of invasive species; even how we reflexively bow on such questions to corporate prerogatives of power and profit. In later chapters, Carson notes that while we manufacture chemicals one at a time, in nature they mingle, creating further unpredictable hazards. And she adds how overuse of pesticides sterilizes soils, stripping the micro-organisms, insects and so-called weeds that together give them life.

All these basic problems, though known to science for decades, remain largely unaddressed. And given how little we cite them when we talk about food or pollution, it can feel as though Carson never wrote about them at all. 

For while Carson decried our "relentless war on life," we haven't called a truce. We've escalated instead. Pesticides, and indeed all petrochemicals, are manufactured and used in greater quantities than ever; despite Carson's warnings, most of them remain untested for health effects. Globally, deforestation proceeds ceaselessly. Soils erode, aquifers wane, fisheries decline. Fossil fuels are burned, releasing greenhouse gasses that warm the planet and turn the oceans increasingly acidic.

Had Carson truly changed us, such issues would be front and center. But while the impact of climate change is obvious in droughts, floods and superstorms, for instance, our major-party presidential candidates didn't mention the issue during their months-long campaign. A world where both presidential contenders boast about how much oil and gas they'll drill is not Rachel Carson's world.

Yes, it's easy to forget our progress from the days when pollutants were utterly unregulated. But it seems even easier to forget — or to never acknowledge — scourges like deforestation and the acidification of the oceans.

Many people are fighting the good fight. In Carson's spirit, people cut their energy use, eat low on the food chain, and eat — and farm — organic. Scientists alert us to environmental degradation, activists fight for a greener world, and engineers explore nontoxic alternatives to industrial processes.

But the numbers of such people remain small, their impact slight. Consider perhaps Carson's biggest intellectual contribution: the idea that "in nature nothing exists alone." Nature works precisely, endlessly because of organisms minutely adapted to their environments; Carson's examples included species of mites who live inside fallen spruce needles. A small push, she showed, can ripple throughout an ecosystem. You can't kill a predator without causing its prey to explode in number. You can't pave a songbird's habitat and still hear that bird.

But the idea that all life is interconnected and interdependent still eludes us. Man's "war against nature is inevitably a war against himself," Carson warned. That idea should guide almost every decision we make. Instead, it's rarely part of even environmental policy, let alone broader discussions about, say, the economy.

A lot of this silence is corporate power trying to keep things as they are. While we citizens have scant say, for instance, about the quality of the air we breathe, advertising still serves fantasies of material omnipotence — yours for a push of the gas pedal or click of the mouse.

We recycle, sure. But few Americans seem willing to change their lives all that much. And surveys indicate hardly anyone votes based on environmental issues. 

We're too quiet about the environment. And we're courting a spring more silent than Carson ever dared imagine.

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