Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment: And our irrational, insatiable, unsustainable desire to control nature

Rachel Carson: Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment

I feel ashamed to admit this, but until recently I had not read, end to end, Silent Spring.

I had read parts of the book over the years and have been acutely aware of what the book is about — and perhaps this was the reason I avoided it for so long. 

But when I saw this recently published Library of America edition on the “recent arrivals” shelf at the Ashland Library, I realized I could avoid the book no longer. 

And now I can say I’ve read Silent Spring I am thoroughly depressed. Because, damn, there were so many pages in that book that could have been written today. Pages about corruption between science and industry. Pages about man’s obsession with controlling nature. Pages about our unwillingness to actually understand nature rather than spraying it into nothingness. 

And yet, much has changed since Silent Spring was published.

Rachel Carson gave us the modern environmental movement, inspired the founding of the EPA, helped ban a laundry list of lethal chemicals. And she inspired a generation of naturalists, biologists, scientists and writers. And she points a way forward — to not simply banning the awful chemicals but also looking for natural ways of controlling pests, such as introducing predators, reintroducing the diversity of plant life (including more diversity within croplands). There is much in the book to be inspired about. All is not lost, not yet.

Under the philosophy that now seems to guide our destinies, nothing must get in the way of the man with the spray gun.  

Which brings to mind any number of Roundup ads I see every spring…

Rachel was spot on. And I think the “gun” in “spray gun” is a big part of the allure for a gun culture such as ours. Why get your knees dirty pulling weeds when you can just fire away?

And I fully understand the psychology behind spraying. I’m no saint. I’ve called on exterminators for ants and termites (though I’m now pursuing more organic methods). In the end, it comes down to control. We want to control our homes. The problem begins when we extend this degree of control outside of our homes, onto our lawns, our neighborhoods, our country, our planet.

The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.

Included in this book are more than a hundred pages of letters and speeches and they shed light on her remarkably ordinary life (and the cancer that she kept hidden from the world). Her letters were unassuming and intimate. She urged those closest to her to keep her cancer secret; she knew well that it would be used against her. And it was sad to see how industry was using the “crazy cat lady” trope against her back then. I can only imagine what they’d do to her today.

One obvious way to try to weaken a cause is to discredit the person who champions it. So–the masters of invective and insinuation have been busy: I am a “bird lover — a cat lover — a fish lover”– a priestess of nature- a devotee of a mystical cult having to do with laws of the universe which my critics consider themselves immune to.

She continued:

I know that many thoughtful scientists are deeply disturbed that their organizations are becoming fronts for industry. 

More than one scientist has raised a disturbing question– whether a spirit of Lysenkosism may be developing in America today–the philosophy that perverted and destroyed the science of genetics in Russia and even infiltrated all of that nation’s agricultural sciences. 

I had to Google Lysenkosism — and realized that was she is referring to has already happened. Ask any climate change scientist and he or she will tell you all about it.

Her address to Scripps College in 1962 titled “Of Man and the Stream of Time” is particularly sobering. She wrote of man’s increasingly terrifying attitude toward Nature and his “conquest” obsession (which I might add is still very much with us.) I love her definition of nature:  “Nature is the part of the world that man did not make.”

This is an age that has produced floods of how-to-do-it books, and it is also an age of how-to-do-it science. It is, in other words, the age of technology, in which if we know how to do something, we do it without pausing to inquire whether we should.

While reading the book, I made notes of many of the chemicals mentioned. And though they may be banned today a brief Google search brought up a number of news articles on chemicals that are still doing damage, like this article about the Malheur Basin (which suffered an occupation of a very different sort).

Rachel raised the alarm. She began the fight. And while we may have leaders now how would like to believe the 1960s never happened, it is up to us to remember.

And to keep fighting.

Rachel Carson: Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment (LOA 307) (Library of America)

PS: Speaking of Roundup (glyphosate), it’s now in our cereal.