Misreading Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”

Published in 1962, "Silent Spring" is often considered the founding document of environmental activism. It's also profoundly misunderstood.

This famous book contains two lessons about environmental issues. One is about the misuse of technology, the other is about government. Regrettably, environmental activists have absorbed only one.

As green activists gear up for massive policy initiatives on “climate change,” it might be helpful for them to take a close look at Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Published in 1962, this work is often considered the founding document of environmental activism, highlighting the point that, when thoughtlessly employed, modern technology can damage the natural world.

Cultural Transformation vs. Politics

The question is, how should we go about correcting missteps? One strategy might be called cultural transformation. Concerned citizens work toward environmental improvement by developing social awareness and making voluntary adjustments. In this decentralized approach, neighbors talk to neighbors, scientists propose correctives, editorialists write critiques, and consumers and businesses alter their behavior over time.

The alternative is the political approach—to look to society’s centralized problem-solving agency. This is the perspective most of today’s activists embrace. When they see an environmental harm, they automatically suppose that the problem should be, and can be, corrected by the government. We see this in the “Green New Deal” proposals being widely urged today. The central assumption of these pronouncements is that government can be depended upon to fix anything that’s wrong.

Modern activists need to reexamine this faith in government as a wise and sensitive problem-solving agency. A good way to gain a more mature perspective is to go back and read Silent Spring. This comprehensive account of the misuse of poisons and pesticides in the 1940s and 1950s is far from an endorsement of government as a problem-solving agency.It is a world where crying “catastrophe” and calling on government to implement simplistic, sweeping measures can result in harm on a vast scale. To the contrary, as Carson reports it, the main perpetrators of this wave of mindless environmental abuse were federal, state, and local governments.

On page after page, Carson reviews these damaging actions. She devotes half a chapter to the sagebrush eradication program, a major effort to poison a key plant of western habitats. The effects of this intervention did grave harm to western wildlife, including grouse, deer, moose, and beaver. This “appalling example of ecological destruction,” as Carson put it, was carried out by the Forest Service of the US Department of Agriculture.

Carson criticizes local governments for the practice of spraying plant-killer along roadsides, leaving “a dirty, brown, dying-looking mess.” Even specially designated nature areas were violated. “Trees within the Connecticut Arboretum Natural Area,” she reported, “were seriously injured when the town of Waterford sprayed the roadsides with chemical weed killers in 1957.”

Silence at Springtime

In her chapter “Needless Havoc,” she spends a dozen pages reviewing the “shocking destruction of animal life,” as well as the “undeniable hazard” to humans of the aerial dusting of aldrin to control the Japanese beetle in midwestern states in the 1950s. This program was funded and carried out by the United States Department of Agriculture and state departments of agriculture. When people complained about the “extremely poisonous nature of aldrin” and injury to animals and humans, the government agencies, including the Federal Aviation Agency and the Detroit Department of Parks, assured—on the basis of no evidence—that “the dust [was] harmless.”

Oh, and who was responsible for silence at springtime? In her chapter “And No Birds Sing,” Carson singles out the culprits. First on the list was “the federal government,” which “launched a massive spraying program against the fire ant” in southern states in the 1950s. Also causing massive killing of songbirds were the many city governments, from East Lansing, Michigan, to New Brunswick, New Jersey, that carried out “intensive spraying” of DDT and heptachlor in a (futile) effort to control Dutch elm disease. This spraying, she reported, was backed by “recommendations by the United States Department of Agriculture.”

If modern environmental activists want to avoid being part of history repeating itself, they need to thoughtfully analyze what went wrong.

She found it “the height of absurdity” that in densely populated Nassau County, Long Island, the United States Department of Agriculture and the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets undertook an aerial spraying campaign against the gypsy moth, “showering insecticide over children at play and commuters at railway stations,” killing hives of honeybees and even a horse by poisoning its drinking water.

To be sure, Carson mentions other actors as bearing some of the blame for damage to nature, including consumers, sportsmen, farmers, and manufacturers of pesticides. But government is, overwhelmingly, the principal offender. She reports, by my count, 96 instances where some level of government carried out or reinforced an environmental abuse. Given this emphasis, it would not have been amiss to entitle the book Government’s Silent Spring.

This is not to say that Carson saw government as some kind of inherently evil agent. She simply reported that government’s actions were dysfunctional from a naturalist’s point of view. If modern environmental activists want to avoid being part of history repeating itself, they need to thoughtfully analyze what went wrong.

Unintended Consequences

The problem, as Carson saw it, is that government’s approach is one of simplistic overreaction. People see danger and respond “in a spirit of crisis” (her words describing the reaction to the Japanese beetle). This feeling of urgency favors a single-minded approach that ignores side effects and long-run harms. This is what happened in the government’s pesticide binge. The dominant philosophy was, as Carson put it, that “nothing must get in the way of the man with the spray gun. The incidental victims of his crusade against insects count as nothing.”

Once this thinking captured government, the bureaucrats lined up behind the policy in thoughtless obedience. Carson was deeply frustrated by this closed-minded mentality, by the way government agencies directing the sprayings spurned the pleas of concerned citizens and naturalists. Environmental activists need to realize that we live in a very complicated world where policy interventions have many unexpected consequences.She complained that “the control men in state and federal governments. . . steadfastly deny the facts reported by the biologists.”

Carson herself was above a single-minded approach. She noted in several places that pesticides and poisons have their uses. Her point was that we need to think deeply and thoughtfully about their side effects and long-run impacts.

This message is as important today as it was then. Environmental activists need to realize that we live in a very complicated world, a world where policy interventions have many unexpected consequences. It is a world where crying “catastrophe” and calling on government to implement simplistic, sweeping measures can result in harm on a vast scale.

Further Reading

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