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Rachel Carson Wrote Silent Spring (Partly) Because of the Author of Stuart Little

The book was a turning point for the environmental movement

Rachel Carson in 1962. (Photographer: Alfred Eisenstaedt; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
smithsonian.com

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at the end lies disaster.”

This was the proposition of  Rachel Carson, successful scientist and science writer, author of Silent Spring, a 1962 book whose publication is linked to a nationwide ban on DDT and the creation of the EPA.

On this day in 1958, Carson wrote to  author and journalist E.B. White, who is today remembered for his beloved children’s books as much as his journalism, but who at the time was the editor of The New Yorker. She suggested he write an article about pesticides, a subject she’d been interested in since the 1940s.

Carson had worked with the magazine in the earlier part of the 50's writes Randy Alfred for Wired, publishing excerpts of her science book The Sea Around Us. It was Carson’s second book about the ocean and would be followed by a third.  

White’s response: she should write it herself. What started out as an article, writes Alfred, turned into a book that Carson chose to call Silent Spring, “calling forth the image of a spring without birdsong.”

Silent Spring “presents a view of nature compromised by synthetic pesticides, especially DDT,” writes Eliza Griswold for The New York Times Magazine. “Once these pesticides entered the biosphere, Carson argued, they not only killed bugs but also made their way up the food chain to threaten bird and fish populations and could eventually sicken children.”

Much of the information Carson pulled together wasn’t new, Griswold writes, but Carson was the first to put it all together for the general public and deliver her stark conclusions.  “With its concluding warning that it was arrogant to believe humans could totally control nature, Silent Spring is probably the most influential environmental book of the 20th century,” Alfred writes.

It sold more than two million copies, Griswold writes, partially because of its serialization in The New Yorker that summer. Perhaps its biggest allure was that Carson was speaking to normal people, not other scientists, as she had in her past books about the ocean.

But it also didn’t go unnoticed by the chemical companies that were making a killing on pesticides. “The well-financed counterreaction to Carson’s book was a prototype for the brand of attack now regularly made by super-PACs in everything from debates about carbon emissions to new energy sources,” Griswold writes.

Thing is, Rachel Carson was dying. Of breast cancer. She was diagnosed in 1960. And, Griswold writes, she hadn’t known if she wanted to take on some of the country’s most powerful industries in the first place. She wasn’t an investigative reporter. But she was a good person for the job, writes Alfred, uniquely qualified because of her previous experience writing science for average people and her qualifications as a zoologist.

And while she was dying, when the book came out, she endured the personal attacks of her critics, the burden of press junkets and a congressional testimony where she framed her arguments and made this statement:

[I assert] the right of the citizen to be secure in his own home against the intrusion of poisons applied by other persons. I speak not as a lawyer but as a biologist and as a human being, but I strongly feel that this is or should be one of the basic human rights.   

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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