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Is Spring Still Silent?

What is new, and what is not new, as we approach Rachel Carson's 100th birthday.

Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson

Edited by Peter Matthiessen

Mariner Books, 224pp., $14.95

Silent Spring

Rachel Carson

Mariner Books, 378pp., $14

book coverAthough it was the message she became famous for, Rachel Carson was slow to accept the fragility of nature. Her earliest books, often referred to as her ocean trilogy, are celebrations of the eternal patterns of the sea, what Peter Matthiessen has called "the ever-changing changelessness of life on earth." Humans appear in these works only rarely, and when they do, usually it is to reflect on their own insignificance -- to stand at the edge of the water and watch the shorebirds sweep over the surf. In Under the Sea-Wind, published in 1941, Carson wrote that the cycles of the sea "continue year in, year out, throughout the centuries and ages, while man's kingdoms rise and fall." Looking back, some two decades later, she acknowledged that she had missed something, and labeled her earlier faith in the inviolability of nature as "naïve." She had resisted the knowledge that was pressing itself upon her, she wrote to a friend, because "it was comforting to suppose...that however the physical environment might mold Life, that Life could never assume the power to change drastically -- or even destroy -- the physical world." Finally, though, she could no longer deny what she "couldn't help seeing."

Silent Spring , published in 1962, was the product of Carson's conversion. This may be why the book was so effective. Millions of Americans were, like Carson, in a state of denial. The narratives they had chosen to tell themselves -- about nature, about technology, about progress -- meant they had to ignore threats that they really "couldn't help seeing." Silent Spring showed this impulse to be both futile and deeply dangerous. By showering the earth with pesticides, Americans were, the book demonstrated, upsetting the order of the natural world. The issue, Carson wrote, was "not only scientific but moral. The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized." Such was the sensation that the book produced that it will stand, perhaps forever, as the measure of what it means to write about the environment.

The centenary of Carson's birth will be marked this May, and in honor of the occasion Houghton Mifflin, Silent Spring ‘s publisher, has reissued the book (under its Mariner imprint) and come out with a collection of essays titled Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson. The volume, edited by Matthiessen, includes contributions from E. O. Wilson, Al Gore, Terry Tempest Williams, and Carson's biographer, Linda Lear. (Some of the essays were newly commis-sioned; several others were previously published.) One of the themes that wind through the collection is Carson's influence -- in several cases quite direct -- on today's environmental leaders.

In his essay, "On Silent Spring ," Wilson writes about the case of the red imported fire ant, an insect about which he and Carson corresponded in the late 1950s. Red imported fire ants, or RIFA, as they are now known, are not native to the United States. They entered the country in cargo probably shipped from South America through the port of Mobile, Alabama. Red fire ants have a painful sting, and their colonies produce mounds up to a foot high, which can damage agricultural equipment. Wilson, who grew up near the Mobile docks, was the first person to note the ant's arrival; as a curious Boy Scout in 1942, he discovered a single colony not far from his house. By the end of the decade the ant was widespread enough to qualify as a nuisance, and Wilson was hired by the state of Alabama to study its habits. The RIFA continued to spread, and in 1958 the U.S. Department of Agricul-ture embarked on a campaign to eradicate it, using the pesticides dieldrin and heptachlor.

To Carson, the case of the red fire ant was a perfect illustration of man's heedless power. Negligence had brought the ant into the United States, and even more negligence was demonstrated in the campaign to eliminate it. Dieldrin, which is several times more toxic than DDT, and heptachlor, which is similar to chlordane, both bioaccumulate, allowing them to concentrate as they move up the food chain. In the RIFA eradication effort more than a million acres across the country were sprayed, with devastating results. Bird populations crashed. In some counties in Texas, creatures that had come into contact with the pesticides either directly or indirectly, like opossums and raccoons, disappeared. Many farmers in the sprayed areas reported that young calves had died and hens had stopped laying.

Meanwhile, the RIFA population, after falling at first, quickly rebounded; today, the ant's range extends as far north as Delaware. "This disconcerting outcome was easy to predict," Wilson writes. A new colony of red imported fire ants is established by a single queen. When a colony matures, it can produce thousands of new queens, each capable of traveling several miles through the air before landing. Thus, if just one RIFA colony survived the eradication effort, the reestablishment of species was assured. Evidently the Department of Agriculture had failed to conduct -- or at least heed -- the most basic research on the ant before initiating its campaign.

In Silent Spring , Carson called the attempt to wipe out the RIFA "an outstanding example of an ill-conceived, badly executed, and thoroughly detrimental experiment in the mass control of insects, an experiment so expensive in dollars, in destruction of animal life, and in loss of public confidence in the Agriculture Department that it is incomprehensible that any funds should still be devoted to it." Wilson rather more succinctly calls it the "Vietnam of Entomology."

Silent Spring is often credited with having launched the environmental movement in the United States, which, in turn, led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970. (The EPA assumed the pesticide regulation duties that had previously been carried out -- or, as the case may be, not carried out -- by the Agriculture Department.) Wilson also credits the book with having prepared the ground, as it were, for the Endangered Species Act, which was approved by Congress in 1973. But, he goes on to note, "the battle Rachel Carson helped to lead on behalf of the environment is far from won. We are still poisoning the air and water and eroding the biosphere, albeit less so than if [she] had not written."

This is the second theme that emerges from Courage for the Earth , and it couldn't be more timely. Most Americans now recognize -- thanks partly to Carson -- that the natural order is fragile; nevertheless, we continue to act as if this were not the case. Toxins are even more pervasive today than they were when Silent Spring was published. In his essay, "Rachel Carson and Silent Spring ," Al Gore notes that since 1962 "pesticide use on farms alone has doubled to 1.1 billion tons a year and production of these dangerous chemicals has increased by 400 percent." The problem, according to Gore, is not that we have done nothing, but that "we have not done nearly enough." Meanwhile, the number of people on the planet has more than doubled, and new environmental hazards have emerged that are both more terrible and more intractable.

By the time of Carson's death from breast cancer, in 1964, the basic physics of global warming was already well understood. It was also clear that carbon dioxide levels were rising. In the intervening years, entire libraries have been written on the subject; dozens of writers, myself included, have tried to produce a work that would have the galvanizing effect of Silent Spring . So far at least, we have all failed. Every few months, an alarming new study is published in the scientific press -- the flow of ice off of Greenland has doubled, the seas have absorbed so much CO2 that the fundamental chemistry of the water is changing, the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer by the year 2040 -- and these studies, too, are largely ignored. Even as it becomes increasingly clear that the climate of the entire planet is changing, with potentially catastrophic consequences on every continent, we have taken no significant steps to alter our behavior. Once again, we have chosen not to pay attention to what we can't "help seeing."

Carson probably would not have been surprised at this turn of events. Though Silent Spring was written specifically about pesticides, the book's deeper concern is with the way man's technological capabilities always seem to outstrip his wisdom. While writing the book, Carson gave a speech at the Brookings Institution, in Washington. During the question and answer period, she observed:

One great trouble... is this desire for the quick and the easy way of doing something, without any consideration of the consequences. Even if the consequences are strongly implied or known, there is still a great temptation to go ahead and get the job done and let the future take care of itself. Maybe we will come up with a pill to take care of it, or something like that!

This was an astute assessment when Carson issued it. It seems, if anything, more astute today. Her work still speaks to us because she was an uncompromising student not just of nature but of human nature as well.

image of Elizabeth Kolbert
Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at the New Yorker and author of Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. Her next book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, will be released in February 2014.