(This is a book review by the Entomologist Lounge)
“Rarely does a single book alter the course of history, but Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did exactly that,” reads the flyleaf of the front cover. This is the book that single-handedly brought together:
- A congressional hearing under orders of President John F. Kennedy
- The establishment of National Environmental Policy Act
- The birth of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as we know of today
- The subsequent ban of DDT, first domestically in USA and then globally in many countries.
Being a woman in 1960s where “science was god and science was male”, marine biologist Carson was challenged to speak up against state governments and chemical industry for indiscriminate use of pesticides for insect control without adequate study on long-term consequences on human health and environment.
What we can learn from this book:
The title Silent Spring was in reference to the alarming dwindling population of birds in many American towns in spring (described in chapter “And No Birds Sing”) during the years of peak use of organochloride and organophosphate pesticides. Even when birds were sighted, they appeared moribund, trembling in near-death phase and their nests showed either zero or dead hatchlings.
One notable case study in Carson’s book was the near-extinction of the country’s national symbol – the bald eagle. Ornithologists noted a worrying decrease in percentage of yearlings against adult eagles. Upon closer observation on the nests, the eggs were found to be so brittle that they cracked, or the eggs produced hatchlings so weak, they died soon after. The eagles fed on fish from rivers polluted with DDT, and it caused the eagles to be unable to reproduce optimally. This scenario demonstrated biomagnification of pesticides that passed on the food chain, ending in fatty tissues of apex predators and reproductive yolks in cumulatively dangerous levels. Unfortunately, humans too were not spared. Cancer and other health issues were on a rise between 1940s to 1960s during the writing of this book.
Spread across 17 chapters, Carson detailed the exponential use of pesticides, mostly approved by governments, in many towns and farms across in the United States of America during the post-war Industrial Era between 1940s to 1960s. In the same stroke of pen, she also detailed a myriad of detrimental consequences, some irreversible, that exhibited from such use on the environment, animal health, human health, insecticide resistance and eventual economic loss.
Carson included an appendix at the back of the book, listing her principal sources of information arranged by chapter and page. Since her publication of 1962, many renowned scientists and writers have written follow-ups to review her legacy. Among many were Beyond Silent Spring by H.F. van Emden and David Peakall (1996) and Silent Spring Revisited by ornithologist Conor Mark Jameson (2012).
The Entomologist Lounge review:
An established science writer with decades of experience under her belt and many books to her name, Rachel Carson is no stranger to engaging general public’s interest in natural science. While the book might seem lyrical to academic readers, Carson intended her writing to be understood by the general public and scientists alike.
Silent Spring carries an urgent and serious tone in its first 16 chapters to draw attention to how carelessly the pesticides have been developed, endorsed and applied without thorough environment impact study and toxicity assessment being carried out first. Notably, Carson warned of impending irreversible effects, not just on environment and non-target species, but also on human cancer (chapter “One in Every Four”), creation of new pests through displacement (chapter “Nature Fights Back”), and the most disconcerting of all, insecticide resistance (chapter “The Rumbling of an Avalanche”).
However, the book is not all about doom and gloom. In her final chapter “The Other Road”, Carson implored the readers to consider other options for pest management without overuse of pesticides. Strategies such as sterile male technique, pheromones and natural predators/parasites were discussed in this chapter. It is said that these lent an extension to the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
The Entomologist Lounge recommendation:
This book should be in mandatory reading list for every entomology undergraduate and every member of pest management and pesticide manufacturing industries. The importance in knowing this history behind pesticide regulation cannot be undermined.
Our obligation to the environment and humanity comes with our chosen profession.
Here’s some bibliography basics for you:
Title: Silent Spring
Author: Rachel Carson
Year of publication: 2002 (40th Anniversary Edition), originally published in 1962
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, USA
Number of pages: 400 pages
© Jo-Lynn Teh, BCE
Jo-Lynn Teh is ESA Board Certified Entomologist based in Singapore. While her specialisation is on tropical insects that affect public health and agriculture, Jo-Lynn’s passion is also to help people understand insects. Find her on LinkedIn.