Young people, my interns or students attending my talks regularly ask for book recommendations. With no hesitation my first suggestion is “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. Called by some as one of the most important books ever, “Silent Spring” got the American environmental movement started. Al Gore describes it as the inspiration behind his involvement in climate change while Canadian geneticist turned activist David Suzuki reminds us that prior to “Silent Spring” there was not a single country with a ministry of the environment. Within 10 years, the United Nations Environmental Programme was created and the first global conference on the environment took place in Stockholm (Sweden). During the following two decades the environment became a key topic on the global agenda leading up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.
Rachel Carson had been concerned about the negative effects of pesticides since the 1940’s. She finally decided to write “Silent Spring” after receiving a letter from a friend describing how birds in Boston were dying from the effects of DDT and other pesticides. The title conveyed the idea of a morbid spring with no birds singing. It was and remains controversial. It resulted in virulent attacks against her. She was called a hysterical woman that wanted to return humanity to the “dark ages” and that restrictions on the use of DDT caused the unnecessary death of millions. Rarely do critics mention that in most countries the use of DDT is still allowed for mosquito eradication but that growing resistance to DDT has reduced its effectiveness. President John F Kennedy ordered an investigation by the Science Advisory Committee which resulted in increased oversight and regulation of pesticides.
In “Silent Spring” Rachel Carson thought us that everything in nature is connected and that all our actions have consequences – most of them unintended. At a time when it was hoped that science and technology would allow humanity to dominate nature this book helped us realize how little we knew. This lesson is just as relevant today as it was in 1962. “Silent Spring” should be a mandatory read for all students and for anyone interested in the environment.
Additional suggested reading: Science and Human Values by Jacob Bronowski