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Silent Spring ()


New York Public Library's Books of the Century

    The current vogue for poisons has failed utterly to take into account these most fundamental
    considerations.  As crude as the cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the
    fabric of life--a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and
    resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways.  These extraordinary capacities of life
    have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no
    "high-minded orientation", no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper.

    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.  The concepts
    and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science.  It is
    our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and
    terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the
    earth.
                        -Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

    Despite the power of Carson's argument, despite actions like the banning of DDT in the United
    States, the environmental crisis has grown worse, not better. Perhaps the rate at which the disaster
    is increasing has been slowed, but that itself is a disturbing thought. Since the publication of Silent
    Spring, pesticide use on farms alone has doubled to 1.1 billion tons a year, and production of these
    dangerous chemicals has increased by 400 percent. We have banned certain pesticides at home, but
    we still produce them and export them to other countries. This not only involves a readiness to
    profit by selling others a hazard we will not accept for ourselves; it also reflects an elemental failure
    to comprehend that the laws of science do not observe the boundaries of politics. Poisoning the
    food chain anywhere ultimately poisons the food chain everywhere.
           -Al Gore

It is the premise of Silent Spring that the Age of Chemicals represents an impending disaster for mankind, that use and overuse of chemical compounds is going to cause enormous health problems by both direct contact and as they work their way up the food chain.  Carson seized on declining bird populations as an early warning sign that the effects were already being felt in animal populations.  She used the metaphor of a Silent Spring, a Spring without birdsong, to convey the horror of where we were headed.  As Al Gore laments above, her warnings were largely unheeded and the use of chemicals has grown rapidly.  So, we should all be dead right?

That's the problem with calling this one of the "Best" books of the century.  The title "Best" should indicate that the book conveys some fundamental and timeless human truths. It would be more accurate to say that Silent Spring is a "great" book.  Even then, Silent Spring is undoubtedly an important and influential book, but it is great only in the sense that Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was great (or The Communist Manifesto and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf for that matter).  It is great because it had a profound influence on attitudes and actions, despite the fact that it was completely wrong. At the end of a Century that has seen the widespread use of chemicals accompany tremendous lengthening of human life spans, deep cuts in infant mortality rates and the revival of most endangered species, isn't it time to acknowledge that the argument of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was a complete fallacy?  Apparently the intelligentsia doesn't think so.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (F)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: NY Times Book Review
    -REVIEW: There's Poison All Around Us Now (NY Times September 23, 1962)
    -REVIEW: 25th Anniversary Edition Greens in America (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW of RACHEL CARSON: Witness for Nature by Linda Lear: Saving Spring  (Robert B. Semple Jr., NY Times)
    -Rachel Carson Homestead (Springdale, PA)
    -Rachel Carson Council (A clearinghouse and library on pesticide-related issues)
   -REVIEW: Gregg Easterbrook's A Moment on the Earth (NY Times)
   -Excerpt: Gregg Easterbrook: From A Moment on the Earth From the Preface:  Why the Good News Shouldn't Scare You (The Atlantic)
   -A Moment of Truth: Correcting More Errors in Gregg Easterbrook's A Moment on the Earth (Environmental Defense Fund)
    -Atlantic Monthly Environmental Looney articles
   -DDT Updated (Michael R. Fox Ph.D., Junk Science, August 28, 1998)
   -National Review: THE 100 BEST NON-FICTION BOOKS OF THE CENTURY
   -National Review Promotes A Rogue and Fouls Its Nest, Part I (David Horowitz, Front Page)
   -NR Promotes A Rogue and Fouls Its Nest, II (David Horowitz and Michael Fox, Front Page)
   -The Environment (a guide to antiorthodox literature)(James G. Lennox, Ph.D., Institute for Objectivist Studies)
   -HOW GREEN IS OUR VALLEY? (Alexander Volokh)
   -First Things: Books In Review: The Green Crusade by Charles T. Rubin
   -The Smallpox Wars: Biowarfare vs. Public Health (Wendy Orent, The American Prospect, May - June 1999)
    -Piercing the Gloom and Doom (Herbert I. London, American Outlook)
    -Yesterday's Tomorrows: 1968-1998  Books that got the future right--and wrong (REASON)
    -ESSAY: Earth Day, Then and Now: The planet's future has never looked better. Here's why  (Ronald Bailey, Reason)
    -ESSAY: DDT Can Be Good For You The international environmental community's apparent willingness to disarm the world's poor in the fight against malaria does not speak well of their humanitarianism (Brian Doherty, Reason)
    -100 Things You Should Know about DDT
     -ESSAY Junk Science of the Century:  The DDT ban   By Steven Milloy
    -Rockwell Lecture August 26, 1998  Counter to Conventional Wisdom:  In Defense of DDT and Against Chemophobia (Thomas R. DeGregori    Department of Economics  University of Houston)
    -ESSAY : Killing Mosquitoes Or Killing Humans? (Alan Caruba, Too Good Reports)
    -REVIEW : of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjørn Lomborg (Matt Ridley, booksonline)
    -ESSAY : The truth about the environment : Environmentalists tend to believe that, ecologically speaking, things are getting worse and worse. Bjorn Lomborg, once deep green himself, argues that they are wrong in almost every particular (The Economist, Aug 2nd 2001)

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