There are very few books that can truly be said to have changed the world. "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson is one of those few: the seminal work in the founding of the modern environmental movement.
It is fifty years to the day since Silent Spring was published. The central thesis of the book was that uncontrolled use of pesticides were harming and killing birds and other animals, including humans. The title was inspired by a line from a poem by Keats:
The sedge is wither'd from the lake, And no birds sing.
The book opens with a fable; an image of what would happen if the uncontrolled use of pesticides were to continue unabated. The fable describes a small American town where the birds no longer sing; where the people sicken and die. The following chapters are filled with detailed, referenced descriptions and analyses, which show how realistic that fable was likely to soon become.
Carson's book was subject to serious opposition. Agribusiness attempted to use the courts to prevent its publication. When this was unsuccessful, the public relations experts launched a campaign of denigration. They characterised her as a sentimental, emotional, and scientifically illiterate woman, who did not know what she was talking about. They claimed the pesticides were wholly beneficial, vital to agriculture and essential to material prosperity. Yet, paradoxically, all the campaign succeeded in doing was providing an even greater audience for Carson's book.
Even J F Kennedy was impressed. When the President's Science Advisory Committee published its report in the following year, the arguments of Silent Spring were fully vindicated. Agribusiness public relations experts responded by intensifying their campaign, personally attacking Carson, who was dying from cancer. They used the common tactics of the propagandist. They denigrated her on the ground of her sex. Journalists and politicians added their voices to the tsunami of insults for this woman who seemed not to know her place. They called her a hysterical woman, more poisonous that the pesticides she denounced. They labelled her a fanatic.
The avalanche of criticism could not silence Silent Spring. By the time Carson died in 1964, the book had sold almost a million copies. It had instigated a process of government review, reform and regulation. More importantly, it had laid the foundation for the modern environmental movement. Carson's warnings about chemical pollution have been embraced to the point that concern about ecology has become common sense.
Nevertheless, her fifty year old warnings are as relevant and urgent today as they were when she wrote them. For all the legal and regulatory mechanisms in place, our planet is still polluted by agribusinesses. In Britain, for example, eighty percent of ponds, the most vital ecosphere for biodiversity, are polluted by chemicals from farming businesses. Even to this day, Carson and Silent Spring are subject to constant criticism. Over and over, she is blamed for millions of preventable deaths on the ground that she was responsible for the banning of DDT, which could have helped prevent malaria. As the Competitive Enterprise Institute says on its website, rachelwaswrong:
Cultural myths often stand in the way of human progress—in some cases producing devastating consequences. In fact, today millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm. That person is Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 best selling book Silent Spring.
The criticism is specious. Carson was not opposed to using DDT to combat malaria, even though she was aware that due to the power of natural selection resistant strains had already evolved. The criticism is even more disingenuous when one considers DDT was never banned from use against malaria.
Carson's message is as urgent and important today as it was in 1962. Our species cannot afford to arrogantly assume we are the masters of the planet and can exploit it with impunity. We need to recognise that we are but one part of an organic, interconnected whole. We need to learn to live in harmony with nature.