[Cover Story] Silent Spring Turns 50

Features - Cover Story

It rocked our profession and the world. But have you ever actually read it?

September 28, 2012

It is now half a century since the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the celebrated/reviled book that became a cultural turning point, launched the environmental movement in the Age of Aquarius and became the bedrock on which the foundations of the entire Integrated Pest Management phenomenon were anchored.

Whatever you may think of this woman and her message, her effect on the course of history is undeniable. Designated as one of the 100 “most important people” of the 20th Century by Time magazine, Carson was a posthumous recipient (in 1980) of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the two highest civilian honors in the United States. In 1992, her landmark work was judged to be the most influential book of the past 50 years by a panel of 22 distinguished Americans from across the political spectrum. In 2005 — demonstrating that its ability to polarize remains undiminished — “Silent Spring” was included in a list of the “most harmful books of the 19th and 20th Centuries” (along with such worthy companions as “The Communist Manifesto” and “Mein Kampf”) by the conservative magazine Human Events.

A paradigm shift. The thrust of Carson’s argument was that widespread misuse of agricultural chemicals in this country following the end of World War II was beginning to have serious cumulative effects throughout the “ecosystem” (a term first popularized by her book), resulting in poisoned wildlife, damaged food chains and subsequent dire consequences for human health. Written in the author’s distinctively eloquent and lyrical style, the book’s call for more restraint in pesticide use and an increased implementation of biologically based control methods was extraordinarily persuasive across a broad swath of society. Its legacy cannot be overemphasized.

In hindsight, it had a major role in forever altering the public’s uncritically optimistic perception of technological progress that had characterized the 1950s — no small feat, and a paradigm shift far greater in scope than merely the business of pest control. But in particular, it forced the pesticide manufacturing industry and those whose livelihoods depended on its products into a remarkably poorly managed defensive position from which they have never truly recovered. Eight years after the book’s publication in 1962, and due in large part to the concerns that it raised, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created by President Nixon — with the unanimous approval of Congress — initiating a massive and continuing surge of regulatory initiatives at all levels of government.

In fact, no balanced appraisal of “Silent Spring” can omit its distinction of almost single-handedly creating the framework of values and assumptions underlying the still vigorous dispute about the inherent dangers of “pesticides” — as a stereotyped, generic, monolithic category of toxic molecules — that cleaves the structural IPM fraternity into its idealistic and pragmatic wings. Members of the former (which includes much of the professional IPM activist community), as a matter of principle, always have believed these chemicals to be significant hazards to human health and therefore to be used only with the most extreme reluctance. Members of the latter (which includes much of the professional IPM industry community), always have regarded pesticides simply as essential tools to be used with care. The controversy has long proved to be resistant to any resolution based on empirical data and thus remains as the discipline’s most divisive issue. It also highlights the broader truth that the IPM movement has never been merely the latest manifestation of an age-old, common-sensical approach to outwitting nature. It is, at its core, a product of the social upheaval and activism of the 1960s that spawned a variety of major, interrelated, ideological campaigns that challenged the status quo: environmental, civil rights, women’s rights, consumer protection and antiwar (i.e., Vietnam).

A shock to the system.
I was 14 years old when “Silent Spring” was published, and clearly remember its immediate impact. The societal shock that it produced was not just due to its message, but to the messenger. Rachel Carson was no firebrand, but an established, well-regarded scientist-gentlewoman, whose beautifully crafted bestseller “The Sea Around Us” (1951) — required reading in my New York City high school — had won universal and prolonged acclaim. For this pillar of the marine biology and nature writing establishment to apparently switch gears and produce a classic example of the muckraking genre, essentially no different than such contemporary journalistic bombshells as Jessica Mitford’s 1963 exposé of the funeral home business (“The American Way of Death”) or Ralph Nader’s 1965 indictment of the auto industry (“Unsafe at Any Speed”), was eye-opening indeed.

Nevertheless, despite the compelling subject, I only got around to opening the book five years after its publication, during my sophomore year of college, when it was vehemently denounced as insidious claptrap by my economic entomology professor. Throughout the ensuing decades and up until the present, a distinctive segment of the pest control trade, as well as the more conservatively oriented business community in general, has continued to hold it in similar regard. Carson herself, the patron saint of environmentalism, is considered by this contingent to have been a misguided zealot responsible for defaming the good name of agriculture and cursing the pesticide industry with a long, dark night of unjustified public condemnation and ceaseless regulatory persecution.

This still-festering infamy, particularly when expressed by structural pest management professionals, always has intrigued me and frankly calls into question whether or not many of Carson’s modern critics have actually read “Silent Spring” or are merely invoking it as an inflammatory expression of speech. I recently revisited the book to see how much relevance it might have to pest control in general and especially to my own specialty of IPM in buildings. It’s a quick read, and I recommend the exercise to anybody who wants to viscerally understand just what all the chemically focused uproar was about back in the world-shaking 1960s and why it provoked such an overwhelming, bipartisan impetus across the political spectrum to create a federal agency charged with comprehensively regulating environmental pollutants.

For the record, Carson never even mentions the structural pest control industry. Even consumer pesticides marketed for household use are referred to only in passing, and the specific products (e.g.. chlordane sprays, dieldrin fogs, lindane-impregnated strips) are striking reminders that the book is firmly set in a different age. “Silent Spring” deals mainly with rampant and indiscriminate pesticide use on a gigantic scale, with compounds that for the most part have now been justifiably banned or severely curtailed. The bulk of the described events takes place in the 1950s, when application practices were virtually unregulated by today’s standards, contamination of our food supply was far more serious, and almost no regard was given to the massive wildlife kills and environmental mayhem that resulted from aggressive aerial campaigns. This was the Wild West of spraying, roughly on a par with the vile stockyards and meatpacking plants described by Upton Sinclair in “The Jungle” (1906). My feeling is that the degree of cavalier imprecision and overkill described in “Silent Spring” would dismay even the most hardened spray jockey in today’s industry.

And yet one of the most effective aspects of Carson’s presentation is her restraint. Unlike the fury of Robert van den Bosch in the principal anti-pesticide publication (“The Pesticide Conspiracy,” 1978) of the following decade, Carson’s tone is mainly sad. She is not excoriating a rapacious industry but lamenting the folly of man, methodically building her case through an enormous amount of documentation that ranges from the cellular level to the ecosystem. Despite the inevitable, mostly minor, examples of oversimplification and fact-stretching to make a point for general audiences, “Silent Spring” remains an unusually compelling and persuasive book.

Unfortunately, there is one, more seriously flawed, part of Carson’s exposition that has received attention through the years all out of proportion to its significance in her overall message. This is her focus on cancer as the primary health risk that the pesticides of her time presented to humans, a hunch that was only tenuously supported by the data available to her. As an accusation that proved to be extraordinarily energizing for IPM activists, it has similarly served as a lightning rod for critics who have treated it as a central defect that somehow discredits everything else she wrote about the collateral damage of broad-spectrum toxins or the folly of over-reliance on chemical fixes to bend nature to our will. Considering the abundance of subsequent research on a host of non-cancerous human pathologies for which the older pesticides are conclusively responsible, invoking Carson’s cancer connection to disparage her is nothing less than a blatant diversion from the main issue.

The revolution matures. In summary, although “Silent Spring” continues to recede into history in terms of its specific indictments, its relevance as a benchmark for the present and the future is unquestionable. There is a single reference in the book to “the integrated control programs developed by some California entomologists” as a novel, biologically rational approach that should be more widely emulated.

Today, as a direct result of Carson’s scholarship and virtuosity, the IPM paradigm — often referred to in modern marketing shorthand as a “green” approach — is taken for granted throughout a sizeable, and still-expanding, progressive sector of the pest control industry. In fact, in terms of putting IPM principles into practice, particularly in regard to more benign and incisive pesticide chemistry and application methods, the structural pest control trade is now indisputably in the forefront of this technological shift. It is more than a little ironic that the relatively innocuous pyrethrins and pyrethroids recommended by Carson as less toxic alternatives to the dominant compounds of her time are now considered by some advocates to be among the least desirable insecticides used in buildings. By this standard, the accomplishments of the “Silent Spring” revolution have been truly remarkable.


Much of this article has been excerpted from a forthcoming book by the author on the theory, history and practice of IPM in buildings. The opinions expressed herein are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U. S. General Services Administration (GSA). Dr. Greene is entomologist and national IPM coordinator for the GSA’s Public Building Service in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via e-mail at agreene@giemedia.com.