A bad review of ‘Silent Spring’

On September 27, 1962 – which is forty-nine years plus one day ago – Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published. This book is a bit special to me not directly because of its contents but because, when I was a student at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai a decade ago, Nityanand Jayaraman, who taught a course I’d signed up for on environment reporting, had assigned this book to me to review. It was a regular assignment; other students had received other books to review as well. I remember completing his course with above-average grades but I don’t remember if Nity scored the review well. When I read it now, I struggle to understand what I tried to say, in December 2011, but I do remember one thing.

In 2011, I was a year out of engineering college and a staunch libertarian. When Nity’s course began in the latter half of 2011, and he asked us in the first classroom session why we were all there, I said something along the lines of wanting to be aware of how environmental journalism works so I could surmount its better arguments in my own writing. I was besotted with technology’s godlike ability to provide solutions, apparently even to wicked problems, and miffed that people like journalists seemed determined to stand in its way. In this milieu, Carson’s book confronted me with a force of argument, conviction and evidence like no other book I had read or persona I had interacted with until then. I was utterly terrified. And the terror shows in my review, reproduced in full below: my principal arguments against the book are rooted in obfuscatory language, hope and speculation, snark and, with the great benefit of hindsight, a ridiculous naïvety about the intentions of the capitalist world-system.

I thought to read the review again after someone tweeted yesterday, on the 49th anniversary of the book’s publication, that Silent Spring had set them on a path to “help protect the environment”. I’m similarly very grateful to Nity, who was and remains a great teacher, for helping me sound less foolish when writing about the environment. At the same time, it’s hard for me to believe that I could have started asking more critical questions about environmental degradation without also being nudged parried in that direction by Carson’s writing.

Via ‘Silent Spring’, the worst that Rachel Carson does is to persuade honest inquisitors to surrender their desperation to assuage even the righteous hungers of humankind to an entity they did not, perhaps do not, yet understand. At the same time, via ‘Silent Spring’, the best that Rachel Carson does is to dissuade any persistence on the subject of harming one limb of nature and, somehow, not another.

Her discourse in the book is powerful and moving: Carson does not write with flair for the subject nor a verve born of conviction but with a deep sympathy for the environment. She pushes and pulls, being wary enough to tug at the common sense of her readers and wise enough to tug at their heartstrings as well, for the problem is one of both concept and technique. As she puts it, “Such poisoning of waters set aside for conservation purposes could have consequences felt by … everyone to whom the sight and sound of drifting ribbons of waterfowl across an evening sky are precious.”

After all, there is nothing to hide on the subject—not yet anyway until one realizes Carson’s complaints are insular—justified but limited in their scope, as if struck by the horror, Carson cannot go farther than mourning our losses.

Carson does not begin where others would have begun, whereto others, eager to drive at the heart of the malaise, would have asked their readers to follow; her first steps are at the threshold of the malady. She seems aware that in order to seek the most desired remedial measures, her readers must sustain their convictions.

She then weaves together a portrait of the global ecosystem: the endurance of pesticides like DDT, chlordane, parathion and others, their ceaseless journey from the farmland to the subterranean water reserves, then the heinous transcendence into remote wells and creeks, into the fatty tissues of cold-blooded beings and thereon a biological magnification that works upward viciously into the food chain and upon the fertility of sunlight and the nitrogenous air to synthesize deadlier chemicals.

Then comes the symbiotic relationship between the creatures in the soil and their germane host, the fervent burrowing of the earthworms and their vital role in sustaining soil composition, bacteria, fungi and algae as the agents of decay that, despite their microscopic sizes make possible “the vast cyclic movements of chemical elements such as carbon and nitrogen through soil and air and living tissue,” and ultimately the delivery of our crimes from the skies as acidic rain, abetted in its efforts by indiscriminate aerial spraying.

In her celebration of the resistance of the insects—of the Clarkston area and the Yakima and Wenatchee valleys, of the codling moths, blue ticks, lice, and Anopheles and Culex mosquitoes—and the apt quotation that Carson chooses— “rumblings of an avalanche” by Dr. Charles Elton—she is selective and circumspect at once. This stands as well for the retaliation of the dragonflies, lacewings, yellowjackets, gall midges, spider mites, muddauber wasps and mantises—inversing as they do our efforts to keep insect populations down. As an introduction to the subject, the book is invaluable, but as a suggestion toward modeling future action, it is a proselyte: since it was first published in 1962, the world has come a long way in identifying harmful substances and some way in taking measures to curb their use. The summarized and metaphorical “gunk” of her description—the myriad effects of those narrow-mindedly conceptualized chemicals and techniques—is no longer all that mysterious.

If anything, Carson advises complete isolation from the “great reservoirs” that we have spawned the past, the removal of human contact from the oceans of carcinogens we have used indiscriminately in a battle against the environment that was, from the first step, misguided and unnecessarily desperate. To whit: “The world was [at the turn of the century] full of disease germs, as today it is full of carcinogens. But man did not put the germs into the environment and his role in spreading them was involuntary. In contrast, man has put the vast majority of carcinogens into the environment, and he can, if he wishes, eliminate many of them.”

Man does wish to eliminate all of them, but he does not know how—which is not the same as reluctance: that is the new problem that is plaguing us, as is evident also from the measured and confused steps he is taking to mitigate the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions. Has Carson considered posterity? Where are the questions on other excesses such as population growth, capitalism, and market opportunism, the role of natural disasters, exported blights and accidents?

It could be unjust to imply that her indictment is of civilization itself, but such is the risk she runs without addressing the some-adverse and some-insurmountable roles that many of those, and such as those, entities played in shaping the disasters that the pesticide and fumigation industries profited from. Those decisions were not made in a vacuum consisting solely of the need to assert human superiority—and she shouldn’t have suggested them to have been as such. Limited exposition is, by far, more dangerous than a full eclipse.

It will be an achievement proper when, some years from now, Rachel Carson’s discourse is remembered only for the ensuing mobilization it effected for, in that sense, there will be no more careless experimentation. The world has changed and the forked paths she delineates about at the end of the book are gone, there are new problems and there are new solutions, and most of them, if not all, are founded upon the creativity and accountability she begs for.

Its task accomplished, it cannot aspire to stay in its entirety nor in its original form. ‘Silent Spring’ is not and will never be an enduring classic, nor will it ever afford an atavistic resurrection. It is a gem of the past, a star in the night sky that becomes one of many shining lights after its unprecedented discovery.

Featured image: A statue of Rachel Carson in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 2016. Credit: Laura Macaluso, PhD/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.