It may be hard for us now to imagine the original context. It was truly the era of better-living-through-chemistry. Readers too young to remember that time may be shocked to learn of the indiscriminate spraying of the 1950s. Take the campaign against the fire ant, an invasive insect in the South. Despite decades of evidence that the ant did little harm to crops, wildlife, and humans, its “eradication” was deemed necessary by the United States Department of Agriculture. Eventually over 20 million acres were sprayed with “relatively new” insecticides. Carson takes several pages to describe the animal deaths that followed. After a couple of years, the USDA severely reduced the program, not least because farmers were increasingly unwilling to sign up for it. Or perhaps it was because the FDA banned any residue of the main insecticide, heptachlor, on food. The ban was based on research already available when the spraying program began.
Carson was not anti-science. Nor was her approach what we would now call “deep ecology.” Instead, it reflected an understanding of humanity’s relationship to the rest of nature that is now enshrined in Catholic teaching. She would have agreed with Pope Benedict when he wrote in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in veritate, that we should always aim to work with, rather than against, creation’s grammar. In her very first pages, Carson notes that she is not saying “there is no insect problem” but only that “control must be geared to realities, not to mythical situations.”
Take, for example, her extended study of the Japanese beetle, an invasive pest originally imported to the East Coast of the United States in the 1910s. Carson describes the efforts of Midwestern states in the 1950s to combat this “only…moderately destructive insect” through widespread spraying. The city of Detroit was sprayed with Aldrin because, though a poison, it was the cheapest available product. Residents were told that “the dust is harmless to children and will not hurt plants or pests.” When birds and domestic animals began to die because of the spraying, authorities strenuously denied it. And this was only one among many spraying programs, most of which resulted in “only temporary suppression of the insect.” Carson then explains that communities on the East Coast had controlled the pests for decades by importing a particular wasp predator and introducing targeted bacteria that gave only the beetles “milky spore disease.” Carson never suggests that controlling pests is in itself a bad objective. The crucial question is what sort of control. She consistently favors “natural” or “biological” controls rather than chemical ones. She even has good things to say about prospective genetic manipulations that would render pests sterile over time. Such solutions use knowledge of the natural system itself to achieve their objective, for “the really effective control of insects is that applied by nature, not by man.”
The overuse of pesticides, as described by Carson, also exemplifies the core concept of Pope Francis’s Laudato si’—namely, the technocratic paradigm, according to which we “lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.” This contrasts with an approach to nature Francis describes as “in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves.” Like Francis, Carson seems convinced that a key reason the technocratic paradigm has been adopted is that it advances the interests of the powerful. She notes the “sales bonanza” for manufacturers that lay behind the fire-ant program. The chemical companies trot out “outstanding entomologists” whose research labs are entirely funded by the industry itself, while research on natural controls is “never so endowed.” As Carson reminds the reader more than once, this heavy-handed approach doesn’t even succeed on its own terms: the bugs quickly evolve to become resistant to the control, leaving an even worse problem. She also warns that the same kind of “resistance” will not be built up by slow-evolving humans, who will be subject year after year to greater and greater quantities of necessarily more potent poisons. After all, she notes forebodingly, new insect populations “arise in a matter of days or weeks,” whereas humans do so “roughly three generations per century.” The point is clear enough: if this is how humans fight insects, it is the humans who will eventually lose.
And surely it is this human peril that ultimately accounts for the large impact of Silent Spring. As Carson notes in a letter written while she was preparing the book, “it has always been my intention to give principal emphasis to the menace to human health, even though setting this within the general framework of disturbances of the basic ecology of all living things.” This Carson does slowly but effectively, waiting until later chapters to talk about the dangers of “innumerable small-scale exposures” that lead to “progressive buildup...and so to cumulative poisoning.” Knowing she will have to overcome the counterclaims of people who say they are “fine” even after using sprays in their gardens for years, she explains in great detail how cellular mutations caused by toxic chemicals generate cancers and long-term genetic damage. She reports that “mosquitoes exposed to DDT for several generations” became “strange creatures called gynandromorphs—part male and part female.” She never goes beyond the evidence, but simply asks whether “filling the environment with chemicals that have the power to strike directly at the chromosomes” is “too high a price to pay for a spoutless potato or a mosquitoless patio?” She pleads that we must simply “reduce the threat.” The analogy with our own ongoing, potentially catastrophic experiment with the earth’s atmosphere will be clear to any alert reader.
Like Laudato si’, Carson’s work also calls us beyond fear to a deeper appreciation for the beauty of natural systems. The Library of America edition helps us see this by including, along with Silent Spring, several shorter works by Carson. In one, she describes how her interest in the sea—the subject of her earlier books—first developed:
I had my first prolonged contact with the sea at Woods Hole. I never tired of watching the tidal currents pouring through the Hole—that wonderful place of whirlpools and eddies and swiftly racing water. I loved to watch the waves breaking at Nobska Point after a storm…. My first impressions of the ocean were sensory and emotional, and the intellectual response came later.
She goes on to write, “I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society.” This foundation of delight and wonder is especially evident in her letters, which chronicle days spent introducing the natural world to her young great-nephew and adopted son, Roger.