Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Silent Spring, 50 Years On

Widely considered the most important environmental book of the 20th century, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring has been reissued after 50 years. Margaret Atwood considers its impact and legacy in the Guardian.

From the piece...

Its subject was the human poisoning of the biosphere through the wholesale deployment of a myriad new 20th-century chemicals aimed at pest and disease control. Carson was already the most respected nature writer in the United States, and a pioneer in that field. She knew how to explain science to ordinary readers in a way that they could understand; she knew also that if you don't love a thing you won't save it, and her love for the natural world shines through everything she wrote. For Silent Spring – which she already knew would be her last tilt at the windmill – she polished all her rhetorical weapons, and synthesised a wide range of research. She was able to combine a simple and dramatic presentation with a formidable array of backup statistics, and to forge a call to specific action. The impact was enormous – many groups, pieces of legislation, and government agencies were inspired by it – and both its main insights remain central today.

The book also met with furious resistance, chiefly from the big chemical companies and the scientists in their employ. Multiple attempts were made to destroy not only Carson's scientific credibility but also her personal reputation: she was a fanatic, she was a "bunny hugger", she was a dangerous reactionary who would drag modern society backwards into a new Middle Ages filled with pests, vermin, crop destruction and lethal diseases. Yet Silent Spring never advocated an outright ban on pesticides: only careful testing and informed use, in contrast to the scorched-earth policies that had been pursued, with many disastrous outcomes.

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