DVD: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring

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In 1962, the New Yorker magazine serialized and the Houghton Mifflin Company published biologist Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, which warned of the dangers of unfettered use of pesticides and herbicides. The book set off a firestorm of negative and positive reaction that ultimately resulted in the outlawing of the deadly, but widely used insecticide DDT. The poison was not only killing bugs, but birds and other animals up the food chain. Originally telecast on the award-winning PBS series The American Experience, this documentary examines how Carson's ecological warnings made enemies and led to her writings being censored by publications that feared losing the advertising dollars of giant corporations earning millions from herbicides and insecticides... Carson's book rightly galvanized Americans to pay attention to the world around them, and helped create what has been called "the environmental movement." Highlights include film footage, photographs, and interviews with environmentalists and historians.
~ Steve Blackburn, All Movie Guide This DVD talks about the vital work Carson did to raise awareness of issues that the chemical industry wants us to remain unaware or unconcerned about. With the recent anniversary of the publication of her classic book, P.R. firms for Big Business started to accuse Carson of causing millions of deaths in Africa due to restrictions on DDT. It's an endless process to deconstruct the deception of corporate P.R. agents, but one consistent source to rebut the smears is the journal "Extra!" from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. In it, they talk about how the mosquito problem in Africa was caused by the use of pesticides that killed so many insects and bats and birds and reptiles that eat mosquitos. Also, they point out that other parts of the world like Mexico reduced malaria rates through approaches like reintroducing natural mosquito predators and making sure sources of standing water like old tires are kept dry. With the global cancer epidemic, the last thing the world needs is more toxic substances poured onto the earth. Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's At Stake for American Power. It's remarkable how many chemicals have been banned by the European Union, while the pressure groups of Big Business have continued putting people of the U.S. and the Global South at risk. Monsanto, Dow and DuPont have a fiduciary responsibility to increase sales; while citizens of the world have a moral obligation to resist threats to their health and the health of their children and non-human species. This DVD about Carson provides a wonderful introduction to this courageous person who changed the consciousness of the world. We need more like her.

See also:

Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology (Women of Our Time)
E - The Environmental Magazine
DVD: The Corporation
DVD: Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry
Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law and Endangers Your Health
The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being
Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice
Nature's Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies (The Bioneers Series)

Rachel Carson - Silent Spring: A Brief History of Ecology as a Subversive Subject

In the late 1960s Paul Shepard, a human ecologist and philosopher, wrote the introduction for Subversive Science - a book that offered an interdisciplinary perspective on what was then termed "the ecological crisis." Shepard noted that a change in western perspective was absolutely necessary: "where now there is man-centeredness, even pathology of isolation and fear...ecology, as applied to man, faces the task of renewing a balanced view." Ecology was less important as a scientific discipline than for its holistic perspective. There is, Shepard maintained, much that is radical in ecology: "The ideological status of ecology is that of a resistance movement. Its Rachel Carsons and Aldo Leopolds are subversive (as Sears recently called ecology itself)." He concluded by noting that the ecological crisis could not be ameliorated by technical and scientifically engineered quick-fixes, but rather by invoking "an element of humility which is foreign to our thought, which moves us to silent wonder and glad affirmation. {1} While the point is debatable, one could certainly argue that Shepard's, Leopold's, and Carson's revolution never took place, at least not in the manner that they had hoped.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring played a large role in articulating ecology as a "subversive subject" - as a perspective that cut against the grain of materialism, scientism, and the technologically engineered control of nature. But ecology's subversive moment proved all too brief, and by the first Earth Day in 1970, American environmentalism was headed in a very different direction. I want to examine briefly the subversive nature of ecology in the 1960s and demonstrate Carson's participation in that dialog; I also want to offer a few explanations for why this subversive vision never materialized. But if a subversively ecological perspective was not the legacy of Silent Spring, then what was? My claim is that an important legacy of Silent Spring is the adoption of a very healthy and widespread skepticism concerning the scientific control of both the body and the environment. Silent Spring laid bare a curious split within science that had its origin in the disputes between naturalists and experimental biologists of the early twentieth century. On the one hand, Carson speaks with the authoritative voice of ecology - a rational discipline by the 1960s wholly accepted by the scientific community at large for its rigorous and falsifiable methods of interpreting nature. On the other hand, Carson speaks as the critic of science; she did this in two ways. First, she takes aim at the overly mechanical and reductive sciences - economic entomology and organic chemistry in this instance - that isolate nature to the neglect of interconnections. Secondly, she critiques the wider - and perhaps more nebulous - cultural authority of science and technology to control nature. The two come together in the often-quoted final paragraph of Silent Spring.

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. . . . 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. {2}

The point was more graphically presented in the [1962] CBS News Reports documentary, "Rachel Carson's Silent Spring." The program created a clear dichotomy between laboratory science - accompanied by shots of factories and dams - and the "softer" side of Carson's ecology that had a strange ability to speak as a science while at the same time appearing very other than the stereotype of science. Many of my students, for example, are surprised to hear that Carson had a graduate degree from one of the premier universities for experimental biology.

It was precisely this ambiguity that Shepard and Sears were articulating when they called ecology a "subversive subject." Radical ecology emerged from the disciplinary matrix of academic ecology. The Leopold of Sand County Almanac emerged from the Leopold of the U.S. Forest Service. Similarly, Carson's subversive ecology emerged from the laboratories of Johns Hopkins University and the offices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The voices of Carson, Sears and Leopold merged with other critical currents in the postwar era. In 1958 a concern over the dangers of nuclear test fallout led Barry Commoner and others to organize the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information. Echoing Carson's critique, Commoner noted that the Committee emphasized "the balancing of social judgment against cost," decisions that "should be made by every citizen and not left to the experts." {3} Murray Bookchin criticized the uses of pesticides and preservatives in his treatise on human ecology, Our Synthetic Environment (1962). Like Carson, he noted that "neither science nor technology, however, is a substitute for a balanced relationship between man and nature." Though the laws that define that relationship are the laws of ecology. {4} Other subversives, like Paul Goodman, took aim at the entire complex of the scientific-industrial-technocratic and consumer-oriented west. Herbert Marcuse added fuel to the New Left fire by claiming that "authentic ecology flows into a militant struggle for a socialist politics which must attack the system at its roots, both in the process of production and in the mutilated consciousness of individuals." {5} While Carson rarely waxed on reforming the entirety of western society, there is an element of critical theory in Silent Spring that begins to contemplate a wholly new relationship between humans and nature.

This message was lost to popular environmentalism of the 1970s. The cultural history of Silent Spring as an appropriated text has yet to be written. But one can start by looking at Peter Matthiessen's brief Time biography for an index to the co-opted Silent Spring. Matthiessen makes no reference to Carson's calls for humility; he says nothing about the fundamental choices that humans would have to make 'Silent Spring's "Other Road"; there is no mention of the ecological interconnectedness of the world that made the threat of toxins so dire. Carson's key contribution, in Matthiessen's estimation, lie in blowing a whistle on the pesticide industry. "True, the damage being done by poison chemicals today is far worse than it was when she wrote the book," Matthiessen tells us. "Yet one shudders to imagine how much more impoverished our habitat would be had Silent Spring not sounded the alarm." {6} Carson would have shuddered. Silent Spring was so much more than an anti-pesticide tract. It was an essay of ecological radicalism that attempted to wake up a populace quiescent to the techno-scientific control of the world.

This "radical ecology," as Carolyn Merchant calls it, quickly flagged in the early 1970s. Indeed, Marcuse's essay on "Ecology and Revolution" noted that the ecology movement had been co-opted by commercial capitalism. For example, a Schlitz malt liquor advertisement appeared in the New York Times on the first Earth Day; it shows a man and a woman, hand in hand, strolling along a beautiful and deserted shoreline. Below the photograph is the copy that a Schlitz advertising team carefully constructed to fend off Earth Day criticism. "You've found a beautiful spot? Take us along. We were made for each other. Leaving? Take us along. Drop us off. The nearest trash can'll do. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. We'd like to help keep it that way." Earth Day itself seems to have been artfully orchestrated as a centrist issue by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson and Harvard law student Denis Hayes. As environmentalism became a matter of political consensus dominated by professional environmentalists, ecology lost its subversive edge.

Environmental science departments mushroomed in academia over night and embraced the mantra of ecology-but instead of Marcuse, Commoner, Leopold and Carson's subversive and radical ecology, such programs were largely developed with an emphasis on the trophic-dynamic systems of engineered environments. {7} Academic ecology most certainly became one of the conceptual cornerstones of mainstream environmentalism. But it was not a subversive ecology that questioned fundamental values of economics, consumer habits, and techno-scientific control. It represented an engineering mentality in which problems of waste, pollution, population, biodiversity and the toxic environment could be solved scientifically.

So if the ecological revolution never materialized in the way that Carson had hoped, what was her legacy to the history of science and society? Over the past thirty years green philosophies like eco-feminism, social ecology, and deep ecology have illustrated increasingly sophisticated systems of thought that attempt to re-configure the relationships between humans, environment, and the role of science and technology in mediating the human-nature dialectic. The growth of sociology and ethics programs that scrutinize science, technology, and society is especially impressive. While it is doubtful that scientific authorities ever had free reign to do whatever they wished, today they are held to a high degree of accountability. The press actively keeps the public wary with news of genetically engineered organisms, terminator seed manipulations, irradiated food, and new pesticides. While we might question the efficacy of such initiatives in creating real and widespread changes in values, we have come a long way in questioning the epistemic sovereignty of science. Carson was not the first to do this; but she was among the first to bring the debate into the public sphere.

Paralleling these initiatives among America's empowered classes has been the remarkable growth of the environmental justice movement. Since the 1970s, people of color - often living at or below the poverty level - have come together at the grass roots level to mount campaigns against the environmentally racist policies of American industrialism. These points of resistance often arise from degraded urban spaces whose inhabitants have felt particularly victimized by the nonarbitrary placement of incinerators and pollution-producing factories. They have marshaled scientific evidence -often under incredible duress- to oppose these policies of indiscriminate environmental racism. For instance, the "Principles of Environmental Justice" written at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 declares the rights of people of color to develop social, political, cultural, and economic communities - collaborative groups that define their own ecology of existence in opposition to the technocratic top-down directives of modern business, government, and - most notably - the professionalized environmental lobby.{8} In one sense, the environmental justice movement has moved beyond Carson's own vision for a democratically based subversive ecology. Seen from another perspective, it was precisely these social movements that Carson envisioned, and it would be easier for us to recognize the fact if Silent Spring was not part of the conservative co-option of the 1970s.

The hope for a resurrected subversive ecology that incorporates a vision of both human and natural diversity seems to be on the rise. But the United States is sitting in the backseat - with some notable exceptions - as world leaders, scientists, and social advocates hash out a new vision of sustaining human existence within nature. [2010's] World Summit in Johannesburg boasts a truly visionary program in which the environmental sciences will partner up with social and economic justice advocates. Leaders are coming to realize that there will be no technological quick-fix for the global environmental crisis. Global warming is now being conceived of as less a scientific and technological problem than a social and cultural problem, and it is the perspective of ecology, to invoke Shepard again, that lies at the core of this [issue]. Whether or not there is a direct link between Silent Spring and the World Summit is besides the point; the Summit promises to be a full realization of Carson's desire to humble humanity into a relationship of equanimity with nature - an overdue actualization of ecology's subversive potential.


1. Paul Shepard, "Introduction: Ecology and Man - a Viewpoint," in Paul Shepard and Daniel McKinley (eds.) The Subversive Science: Essays Toward an Ecology of Man (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969), pp. 1-10.
2. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962), p. 297.
3. Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man and Technology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), p. 56.
4. Lewis Herber, Our Synthetic Environment (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), p. 201.
5. Herbert Marcuse, "Ecology and Revolution," Liberation 16 (September 1972), p. 12.
6. Peter Matthiessen, "Environmentalist: Rachel Carson" in Time Magazine. (March 29, 1999), 187.
7. On the rise and fall of radicalism see Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Washington D.C., 1993).
8. See Gottlieb and Giovanna Di Chiro, "Nature as Community," in William Cronon (ed.) Uncommon Ground (New York: Norton, 1995), pp. 298-320.

Gary Kroll
Assistant Professor of History
Plattsburgh State University of N.Y.

THE CHEMICAL INDUSTRY'S COUNTERPOINT (reviewed 8/6/07). . . they still feel the need to smear and discredit this landmark biologist's work nearly half a century after it was published!
Perhaps her cause was just in writing this book, but her short-sighted ignorance of the repercussions was inexcusable. Because of the ban on DDT which largely resulted from Silent Spring, the WHO has estimated that around 20 MILLION children have died of malaria. DDT was, and still is, one of the very best insecticides to control mosquitoes, the sole transporter of this deadly disease. Best of all, DDT is very NON-toxic to humans. The need for DDT is so urgent that even the Sierra Club is justifying it's use inside houses in malaria stricken locations of Africa, South America, & Asia. Way to go Rachel. Save the Birds, Kill the Children...Wake Up People!!
David Donnell

A Response to the above comments:
Having been poisoned to DDT at age five, DDT stopped me from being able to urinate, my stomach area where my bladder and kidneys became swollen, and in those days they had steel catheters, and as they began to insert this monstrosity into my urethral canal, I passed out. Two days later I awoke. If it's 'very non-toxic to humans' why don't we just spray helter skelter, the children, etc.? Since then I have met two other men [who were] poisoned by DDT, just in passing. But of course, this guy has the audacity to paint DDT as benign to humans. I find his review [a] work of idiocy. DDT didn't appear until the 1930's and since then companies like Monsanto have helped cause the entire earth to be decimated by toxic chemicals, the oceans, the lakes, land, streams, etc. The "best" insecticide! Really, this guy is either an idiot or working for the chemical companies. What he wants is the entire world where malaria exists to be a toxic bath. There are mechanical ways of dealing with malaria, have you heard of mosquito netting, but there are others unless one chooses to live near places where malaria thrives. So, for a few deaths of children,( I hear adults die from malaria, too), we're to poison the world? Insanity. Insofar as Rachel Carson being self-serving, that is a statement of half-wits. Here is a way to deal with Malaria, sans insecticide. (Mosquitos cannot be totally eradicated and they develop an immunity to pesticides eventually, what, another toxic material, etc.): Malaria prevention is vital. For any trip into a suspect area that is going to include an overnight stay, mosquito nets are vital. Mosquito netting should always be carried with you when you travel in risky areas. No other malaria prevention is as effective or inexpensive. Remember, it only takes one mosquito to infect you. If the mosquito net is Permethrin treated, it will continue to provide protection even if it develops a rip.
This guy never read Carson's book, I'd bet on it.
Rachel Carson made environmentalism respectable. Before Silent Spring, nearly all Americans believed that science was a force for good. Carson's work exposed the dark side of science. It showed that DDT and other chemicals we were using to enhance agricultural productivity were poisoning our lakes, rivers, oceans, and ourselves. Thanks to her, progress can no longer be measured solely in tons of wheat produced and millions of insects killed. Thanks to her, the destruction of nature can no longer be called progress.
A great woman, a great human being, and even printing a cheap shot artist like DD [above comments] ...is an outrage.
Robert Kindelan

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson helped spark the environmental movement of the sixties and led to many changes in how pesticides were used. This WGBH Public TV documentary is part of the American Experience series and includes historic footage of the indiscriminate use of DDT and other persistent pesticides after WWII. Rachel Carson was viciously attacked in the media and called a Communist, ignorant scientist and a hysterical woman for her efforts to protect the health of both humans and nature.
Rachel Carson was not the first person to warn of the dangers of these powerful chemicals. She was the first person who was able to gather the documentation to make a case against widespread spraying of our countryside. Her book was a best seller and was translated into many languages.
Rachel Carson was not against pesticides outright. She was against the widespread aerial spraying that killed hundreds of people, horses; and vast numbers of butterflies, bees, birds and other wildlife. DDT contaminated milk and other food items and killed important crop pollinators. DDT caused egg shell thinning and reproductive failures in our national symbol, the Bald Eagle and put this and other wildlife on a downward trend that lasted for decades due to the persistence of the nerve agents used.
I believe Rachel Carson would consider the use of pesticides in the homes of African villagers exposed to Malaria carrying mosquitoes as a prudent use of chemicals to protect ones health. This is what the World Health Organization is proposing in Africa.
This 55 minute DVD is a fine way to understand the significance of Silent Spring and how it changed America and led to safety standards for workers and how the chemicals were applied. It includes scientists and spokespersons from the pesticide industry who gave their side of the story in the sixties. I am thankful that then President John Kennedy listened to what this quiet woman with a passion for nature said and instituted the changes needed to protect our health and safety.
(reviewer unknown)