The Silent Spring

Silent Spring
First edition cover art
Author Rachel Carson
Country United States of America
Language English
Subject Pesticides, Ecology, Environmentalism
Publisher Houghton Mifflin
Publication date September 27, 1962
Media type Hardcover/paperback

Silent Spring is a book written by Rachel Carson and published by Houghton Mifflin on September 27, 1962.[1] The book is widely credited with helping launch the contemporary American environmental movement.[2]

The New Yorker started serializing Silent Spring in June 1962, and it was published in book form (with illustrations by Lois and Louis Darling) by Houghton Mifflin on Sept. 27. When the book Silent Spring was published, Rachel Carson was already a well-known writer on natural history, but had not previously been a social critic. The book was widely read—especially after its selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the New York Times best-seller list—and inspired widespread public concerns with pesticides and pollution of the environment. Silent Spring facilitated the ban of the pesticide DDT[3] for agricultural use in 1972 in the United States.

The book documented detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment, particularly on birds. Carson accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation, and public officials of accepting industry claims uncritically.

Silent Spring has been featured in many lists of the best nonfiction books of the twentieth century. In the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Nonfiction it was at number 5, and it was at number 78 in the conservative National Review.[4] Most recently, Silent Spring was named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of Discover Magazine.[5]

A follow-up book, Beyond Silent Spring,[6] co-authored by H.F. van Emden and David Peakall, was published in 1996.


By tradition and by Carson's own public statements, the impetus for Silent Spring was a letter written in January 1958[7] by Carson's friend, Olga Owens Huckins,[8] to The Boston Herald, describing the death of numerous birds around her property resulting from the aerial spraying of DDT to kill mosquitoes, a copy of which Huckins sent to Carson.[8] Carson has stated that the letter prompted her to turn her attention to environmental problems caused by chemical pesticides.[9][10]

In writing Silent Spring, Carson relied on evidence from two New York state organic farmers, Marjorie Spock and Mary Richards, as well as that of biodynamic farming advocate Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, in developing her case against DDT.[11] Carson had become concerned about the effect of pesticides, DDT particularly, as early as the 1940s, when anti-pest campaigns had been part of the Pacific war effort. She had already begun collecting research on the matter and calling others' attention to it when a 1957 lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding aerial spraying over Long Island caught her attention and caused her to begin work on what eventually became Silent Spring.[12]

Frank Edwin Egler was a contributor to the book.


The book argued that uncontrolled and unexamined pesticide use was harming and even killing not only animals and birds, but also humans. Its title was meant to evoke a spring season in which no bird songs could be heard, because they had all vanished as a result of pesticide abuse. Its title was inspired by a poem by John Keats, "La Belle Dame sans Merci", which contained the lines "The sedge is wither'd from the lake, And no birds sing."[13]


History professor Gary Kroll commented, "Rachel Carson's Silent Spring played a large role in articulating ecology as a 'subversive subject'— as a perspective that cuts against the grain of materialism, scientism, and the technologically engineered control of nature."[14]

In response to the publication of Silent Spring and the controversy that ensued, U.S. President John F. Kennedy directed his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson's claims. Their investigation vindicated Carson's work, and led to an immediate strengthening of chemical pesticide regulations.[15][16]

In 2012, according to Charles Dewberry of Gutenberg College, Silent Spring is "Highly controversial, but may be the most important book in the formation of the environmental movement in the 1960s".[17] Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States and well-known environmentalist, said: "Silent Spring had a profound impact ... Indeed, Rachel Carson was one of the reasons that I became so conscious of the environment and so involved with environmental issues ... [she] has had as much or more effect on me than any, and perhaps than all of them together."[18]


Since its publication, Silent Spring has been subject to much debate among critics and supporters. Today, most controversy surrounds the political repercussions of the book and subsequent political movements that stemmed from its publication — particularly those that have deterred the usage of DDT. Public opinion of DDT today is rooted in Carson's work and the popularity of the book. Many of the scientific aspects of the book have been elaborated on, but scientists remain in disagreement as to whether the harmful effects of DDT outweigh the potential benefits of the usage of DDT for specific purposes.[18][19]


In the 1960s, biochemist and former chemical industry spokesman Robert White-Stevens stated, "If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth."[1]

Silent Spring has been attacked on the grounds that restrictions on the use of DDT have indirectly caused millions of deaths by preventing its use against malaria.[20][21] In 2002, economist Ronald Bailey wrote in Reason magazine that the book had a mixed legacy:

The book did point to problems that had not been adequately addressed, such as the effects of DDT on some wildlife. And given the state of the science at the time she wrote, one might even make the case that Carson's concerns about the effects of synthetic chemicals on human health were not completely unwarranted. Along with other researchers, she was simply ignorant of the facts. But after four decades in which tens of billions of dollars have been wasted chasing imaginary risks without measurably improving American health, her intellectual descendants don't have the same excuse.[22]

The weekly Human Events gave Silent Spring an "honorable mention" in its list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries." [23] British politician Dick Taverne asserted Carson was responsible for millions of deaths:

Carson didn't seem to take into account the vital role (DDT) played in controlling the transmission of malaria by killing the mosquitoes that carry the parasite (...) It is the single most effective agent ever developed for saving human life (...) Rachel Carson is a warning to us all of the dangers of neglecting the evidence-based approach and the need to weight potential risk against benefit: it can be argued that the anti-DDT campaign she inspired was responsible for almost as many deaths as some of the worst dictators of the last century.[24]

New York Times journalist and author, John Tierney, wrote of Silent Spring in 2007: "For Rachel Carson admirers, it has not been a silent spring. They have been celebrating the centennial of her birthday with paeans to her saintliness. A new generation is reading her book in school — and mostly learning the wrong lesson from it."[25][26]

In 2009, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, "a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty",[27] set up a website, stating "Millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm. That person is Rachel Carson."[28]

In 2012, Roger E. Meiners, Pierre Desrochers, and Andrew P. Morriss edited Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson (published by the Cato Institute), which argues that a number of Carson's major arguments rested on what can only be described as deliberate ignorance: "Much of what was presented as certainty then was slanted, and today we know much of it is simply wrong". In an article published in Spiked magazine, Pierre Desrochers cites five problematic issues: First, "Carson vilified the use of DDT and other synthetic pesticides in agriculture, but ignored their role in saving millions of lives worldwide from malaria, typhus, dysentery, and other diseases". Second, "far from being on the verge of collapse, American bird populations were, by and large, increasing at the time of Silent Spring's publication". Third, "cancer rates - exaggerated in Silent Spring - were increasing at the time Carson researched the issue because far fewer people were dying from other diseases". Fourth, "Carson's alternatives were worse than the 'problem'". Fifth, "Carson's 'you can't be too safe' standard came to permeate the environmental regulatory agenda".[29]


In 1999, celebrated writer, naturalist, and environmental activist Peter Matthiessen[30] wrote in Time Magazine that before Silent Spring was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1962 there was vicious opposition to it:

Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a "hysterical woman" unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto Company, Velsicol, American Cyanamid – indeed, the whole chemical industry – duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.[30]

Defenders of the book argue that Carson was sensitive to the problem of "insect-borne disease" and Silent Spring never called for the banning of DDT;[26] that when DDT stopped being used to fight malaria it was because mosquitoes had become resistant to it;[31][32]

Carson wrote in Silent Spring:

No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story—the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting ...

What is the measure of this setback? The list of resistant species now includes practically all of the insect groups of medical importance ... Malaria programs are threatened by resistance among mosquitoes ...

Practical advice should be "Spray as little as you possibly can" rather than "Spray to the limit of your capacity" ..., Pressure on the pest population should always be as slight as possible.

In further defense of Carson, it is argued that DDT was never banned by the US government or international treaty for use against malaria (its ban for agricultural use in the United States in 1972 did not apply outside the US or to anti-malaria spraying; the international treaty that did ban most uses of DDT and other organochlorine pesticides — the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants — included an exemption for DDT for the use of malaria control until affordable substitutes could be found.[32])

John Quiggin and Tim Lambert have written that "the most striking feature of the claim against Carson is the ease with which it can be refuted,"[32] while Merrill Goozner laments publicity given to critics "who make statements that can be refuted by spending just fifteen minutes in online databases that contain scientific abstracts."[33] Mass outdoor spraying of DDT was abandoned in poor countries subject to malaria, such as Sri Lanka, in the 1970s and 1980s, not because of government prohibitions, but because the DDT had lost its ability to kill the mosquitoes.[32] The Global Malaria Eradication Campaign, which employed large outdoor spraying of DDT, was halted in 1969 — four years before the US DDT ban — for not "achieving its stated objective", as mosquitoes were developing resistance.[34][35] It is now known that agricultural spraying of pesticides produces resistance to the pesticide in seven to ten years."[36]

Some have referred to criticisms of Silent Spring and Rachel Carson today as an concomitant push for DDT, that some have called an industry-sponsored strategy to discredit the environmental movement.[37][38][39][40] For example, Monica Moore of Pesticide Action Network, an organization that "works to replace the use of hazardous pesticides with ecologically sound and socially just alternatives," has argued that "Renewed promotion of DDT and attacks on those who would limit its use isn’t about malaria, or even DDT. It is a cynical 'Better Living Through Chemistry' campaign intended to discredit the environmental health movement, with support from the Bush administration and others who seek nothing less than the dismantling of health and environmental protections."[41][42]

See also


  • Silent Spring initially appeared serialized in three parts in the June 16, June 23, and June 30, 1962 issues of The New Yorker magazine
  • Silent Spring Revisited, American Chemical Society, 1986: ISBN 0-317-59798-1, 1987: ISBN 0-8412-0981-2
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency "What is DDT?". Retrieved April 26, 2006
  • . Retrieved May 30, 2005
  • Report on Carcinogens, Fifth Edition; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program (1999).


External links

  • The Rachel Carson Council
  • report of chemical industry's campaign July 22, 1962
  • book review September 23, 1962
  • NRDC
  • Silent Spring, A Visual History curated by the Michigan State University Museum
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