Silent Spring

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Silent Spring
Silent Spring Book-of-the-Month-Club edition.JPG
The Book-of-the-Month Club edition, with included endorsement by William O. Douglas
Author(s)Rachel Carson
CountryUnited States of America
Subject(s)Pesticides, Environmentalism
PublisherHoughton Mifflin
Publication dateSeptember 27, 1962
Media typeHardcover/paperback
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Silent Spring
Silent Spring Book-of-the-Month-Club edition.JPG
The Book-of-the-Month Club edition, with included endorsement by William O. Douglas
Author(s)Rachel Carson
CountryUnited States of America
Subject(s)Pesticides, Environmentalism
PublisherHoughton Mifflin
Publication dateSeptember 27, 1962
Media typeHardcover/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] 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 #5, and it was at No.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 fact, 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 mobilized her to embark on the project that would eventually become Silent Spring.[11]

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."[12]


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."[13]

In response to the publication of Silent Spring and the uproar 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.[14][15]

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".[16] 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."[17]


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 in and outside of the United States. Public opinion of DDT today is rooted in Carson's work and the popularity of the book. Much of the scientific aspects of the book have been elaborated on, but scientists remain undecided and in disagreement as to whether not the usage of DDT is less harmful or more harmful than emphasized in the book, and there is further debate as to whether or not these harmful effects outweigh the potential benefits of the usage of DDT for specific purposes.[18][17]


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 continues to be criticized by a number sources, and in recent years Carson and her book have come under increasing attack from authors, particularly libertarians who claim restrictions and stigmas of DDT have caused millions of deaths indirectly by preventing its use to combat malaria.[19][20] 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.[21]

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." [22] 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.[23]

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."[24][25]

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",[26] 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."[27]

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".[28]


In 1999, celebrated writer, naturalist, and environmental activist Peter Matthiessen[29] 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.[29]

Defenders of the book argue that Carson was in fact sensitive to the problem of "insect-borne disease" and Silent Spring never called for the banning of DDT;[25] that when DDT stopped being used to fight malaria it was because mosquitoes had become resistant to it;[30][31]

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.[31])

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,"[31] 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."[32] 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.[31] 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.[33][34] It is now known that agricultural spraying of pesticides produces resistance to the pesticide in seven to ten years."[35]

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.[36][37][38][39] 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."[40][41]

See also


  • Carson, Rachel (2002) [1st. Pub. Houghton Mifflin, 1962]. Silent Spring. Mariner Books. ISBN 0-618-24906-0. Silent Spring initially appeared serialized in three parts in the June 16, June 23, and June 30, 1962 issues of The New Yorker magazine
  • Graham, Frank (1970) [1st. Pub. Houghton Mifflin, 1970]. Since Silent Spring. Fawcett. ISBN 0-449-23141-0.
  • Silent Spring Revisited, American Chemical Society, 1986: ISBN 0-317-59798-1, 1987: ISBN 0-8412-0981-2
  • Litmans, Brian; Miller, Jeff (2004). Silent Spring Revisited: Pesticide Use And Endangered Species. Diane Publishing Co. ISBN 0-7567-4439-3.
  • Lear, Linda (1997). Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-8050-3428-5.
  • Murphy, Priscilla Coit (2005). What A Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring. University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 1-55849-476-6.
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency "What is DDT?" retrieved April 26, 2006
  • 'DDT Chemical Backgrounder', National Safety Council Retrieved May 30, 2005
  • Report on Carcinogens, Fifth Edition; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program (1999).


  1. ^ a b McLaughlin, Dorothy. "Fooling with Nature: Silent Spring Revisited". Frontline. PBS. Retrieved August 24, 2010.
  2. ^ Josie Glausiusz. (2007), Better Planet: Can A Maligned Pesticide Save Lives? Discover Magazine. Page 34.
  3. ^ EPA reference: DDT. Retrieved November 4, 2007.[dead link]
  4. ^ The 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century. National Review. Retrieved on November 4, 2007.
  5. ^ "25 Greatest Science Books of All Time". Discover Magazine. December 2006.
  6. ^ Peakall, David B.; Van Emden, Helmut Fritz, ed. (1996). Beyond silent spring: integrated pest management and chemical safety. London: Chapman & Hall. ISBN 0-412-72810-9.
    Richards H (September 1999). "Beyond Silent Spring: Integrated Pest Management and Chemical Safety. Edited by H.F. van Emden and D.B. Peakall". Integrated Pest Management Reviews 4 (3): 269–270. doi:10.1023/A:1009686508200.
  7. ^ Matthiessen, Peter (2007). Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson. Mariner Books. p. 135. ISBN 0-618-87276-0.
  8. ^ a b Himaras, Eleni (May 26, 2007). Rachel's Legacy – Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 'Silent Spring’. Quincy, MA: The Patriot Ledger.
  9. ^ Wishart, Adam (2007). One in Three: A Son's Journey Into the History and Science of Cancer. New York, NY: Grove Press. p. 82. ISBN 0-8021-1840-2.
  10. ^ Hynes, H. Patricia (September 10, 1992). PERSPECTIVE ON THE ENVIRONMENT Unfinished Business: `Silent Spring' On the 30th anniversary of Rachel Carson's indictment of DDT, pesticides still threaten human life. Los Angeles, CA: The Los Angeles Times. p. 7 (Metro Section).
  11. ^ Lear 1997, Ch. 14, Murphy 2005, Ch. 1
  12. ^ Coates, Peter A. (October 2005). "The Strange Stillness of the Past: Toward an Environmental History of Sound and Noise". Environmental History 10 (4). Retrieved November 4, 2007.
  13. ^ Gary Kroll, "Rachel Carson-Silent Spring: A Brief History of Ecology as a Subversive Subject". National Academy of Engineering. Retrieved November 4, 2007.
  14. ^ Graham, Frank. "Nature’s Protector and Provocateur". Audubon Magazine.
  15. ^ "The Story of Silent Spring". NRDC. 1997-04-16. Retrieved 2012-10-16.
  16. ^ "Gutenberg College Great Books". 2012-02-17. Retrieved 2012-10-16.
  17. ^ a b "Special Reports - Silent Spring Revisited | Fooling With Nature | FRONTLINE". PBS. Retrieved 2012-10-16.
  18. ^ "Gutenberg College Great Books". 2012-04-17. Retrieved 2012-10-16.
  19. ^ Lytle, Mark Hamilton (2007). The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517246-9.
  20. ^ Examples of recent criticism include
    (a) Rich Karlgaard, "But Her Heart Was Good",, May 18, 2007. Accessed September 23, 2007.
    (b) Keith Lockitch, "Rachel Carson's Genocide", Capitalism Magazine, May 23, 2007. Accessed May 24, 2007
    (c) Paul Driessen, "Forty Years of Perverse 'Responsibility,'", The Washington Times, April 29, 2007. Accessed May 30, 2007.
    (d) Iain Murray, "Silent Alarmism: A Centennial We Could Do Without", National Review, May 31, 2007. Accessed May 31, 2007.
  21. ^ "Silent Spring at 40", Ronald Bailey, Reason, June 12, 2002
  22. ^ Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries, accessed August 24, 2007
  23. ^ Taverne, Dick (2005). "The Harm That Pressure Groups Can Do". In Feldman, Stanley; Marks, Vincent. Panic Nation. ISBN 1-84454-122-3.
  24. ^ Oreskes & Conway 2010, p. 223
  25. ^ a b Tim Lambert (June 6, 2007). "John Tierney's Bad Science". Deltoid.
  26. ^ "About CEI | Competitive Enterprise Institute". 2012-10-11. Retrieved 2012-10-16.
  27. ^ Oreskes & Conway 2010, p. 217
  28. ^ Desrochers, Pierre (2012-09-23). "sp!ked review of books | The real story of Silent Spring". Retrieved 2012-10-16.
  29. ^ a b Matthiessen, Peter (March 29, 1999). "Environmentalist Rachel Carson". Time Magazine 153 (12).,8816,990622,00.html.
  30. ^ Oreskes, Naomi; Conway, Erik M. (2010). "Ch. 7: Denial Rides Again: The Revisionist Attach on Rachel Carson". Merchants of Doubt. New York: Bloomsbury. pp. 216–239. ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4.
  31. ^ a b c d Quiggin, John; Lambert, Tim (24 May 2008). "Rehabilitating Carson". Prospect (146).
  32. ^ Carson Bashing and the Ill-Informed DDT Campaign Merrill Goozner June 5, 2007
  33. ^ Oreskes & Conway 2010, p. 225
  34. ^ Berenbaum, May (June 5, 2005). "If Malaria's the Problem, DDT's Not the Only Answer". Washington Post. Retrieved April 23, 2009.
  35. ^ Oreskes & Conway 2010, pp. 223–4
  36. ^ Aaron Swartz (September/October 2007). "Rachel Carson, Mass Murderer?: The creation of an anti-environmental myth". Extra!.
  37. ^ Kirsten Weir (June 29, 2007). "Rachel Carson's Birthday Bashing".
  38. ^ David Roberts (May 24, 2007). "My one and only post on the Rachel Carson nonsense". Retrieved September 23, 2007.
  39. ^ In this context, some[who?] draw attention to the fact that the Reason Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, both critical of Silent Spring, have received substantial funding from corporations in regulated industries. (W. Bush's Anti-Environmental Advisors, Tempest).
  40. ^ Monica Moore, "First Words", PAN Magazine, Fall 2006. Accessed September 23, 2007
  41. ^ "Staff | Pesticide Action Network". Retrieved 2012-10-16.

External links