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Free Study Guide for Silent Spring by Rachel Carson - Book Summary


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INFORMATION FROM OTHER SOURCES


ABOUT THE BOOK

Silent Spring is a book written by Rachel Carson and published by Houghton Mifflin in September 1962. The book is widely credited with launching the environmentalism movement in the West.

When Silent Spring was published, Rachel Carson was already a well-known writer on natural history, but had not previously been a social critic. The book was widely read (especially after its selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club and an endorsement by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas), spending several weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and inspired widespread public concerns with pesticides and pollution of the environment. Silent Spring facilitated the ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972 in the United States.

The book claimed detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment, particularly on birds. Carson accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation, and public officials of accepting industry claims uncritically. She proposed a biotic approach to pest control as an alternative to DDT, claiming that DDT had been found to cause thinner egg shells and result in reproductive problems and death.

Silent Spring has made many lists of the best nonfiction books of the twentieth century. In the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Nonfiction it was at #5, and it was at #78 in the conservative National Review's list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century. However, it was a "honorable mention" on conservative Human Events' "Ten Most Harmful Books of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries". Most recently, Silent Spring was named one of the 25 Greatest Science Books of All-Time by the editors of Discover Magazine .

Thesis

The book stated that uncontrolled pesticide use led to the deaths of not only animals, especially birds, but also humans. Its title was meant to evoke a spring season in which no bird songs could be heard, because they had all died from pesticides. Its title was inspired by a poem by John Keats, "La Belle Dame sans Merci", which contained the lines "The sedge is wither'd from the lake,/And no birds sing".

Support

History professor Gary Kroll commented, "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."

According to Time magazine in 1999, within a year or so of its publication, "all but the most self-serving of Carson's attackers were backing rapidly toward safer ground. In their ugly campaign to reduce a brave scientist's protest to a matter of public relations, the chemical interests had only increased public awareness."

Carson had made it clear she was not advocating the banning or complete withdrawal of helpful pesticides, but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use, with an awareness of the chemicals' impact on the entire ecosystem. However, some critics asserted that she was calling for the elimination of all pesticides.

Criticism

Even before Silent Spring was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1962, there was strong opposition to it.

According to Time in 1999:
Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a "hysterical woman" unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid--indeed, the whole chemical industry--duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.

One of the book's most controversial claims was that DDT is a carcinogen; see DDT: Effects on human health for a summary of the evidence for and against her claim.

In the 1960's, biochemist and former chemical industry spokesman Robert White-Stevens stated, "If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth."


Industry and agribusiness advocates continue to criticize Silent Spring. In a 2005 essay, "The Harm That Pressure Groups Can Do", British politician Dick Taverne was damning in his criticism of Carson:

Carson didn't seem to take into account the vital role (DDT) played in controlling the transmission of malaria by killing the mosquitoes that carry the parasite (...) It is the single most effective agent ever developed for saving human life (...) Rachel Carson is a warning to us all of the dangers of neglecting the evidence-based approach and the need to weight potential risk against benefit: it can be argued that the anti-DDT campaign she inspired was responsible for almost as many deaths as some of the worst dictators of the last century.

However, this criticism doesn't consider that, as reported also in Silent Spring, mosquitoes had started to develop pesticide resistance. Hence already before publishing Silent Spring, DDT was no longer as effective as this criticism implies. See also DDT's effectiveness against malaria.

In 2002, Reason Magazine (part of the Reason Foundation) published an essay by Ronald Bailey, a fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, marking the book's 40th anniversary. Both the Reason Foundation and the CEI have received substantial funding from corporations in regulated industries. In the essay, Bailey wrote that the book had a mixed legacy;

The book did point to problems that had not been adequately addressed, such as the effects of DDT on some wildlife. And given the state of the science at the time she wrote, one might even make the case that Carson's concerns about the effects of synthetic chemicals on human health were not completely unwarranted. Along with other researchers, she was simply ignorant of the facts. But after four decades in which tens of billions of dollars have been wasted chasing imaginary risks without measurably improving American health, her intellectual descendants don't have the same excuse.


BIOGRAPHY

Rachel Louise Carson

(27 May 1907 – 14 April 1964) was a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-born zoologist and marine biologist whose landmark book, Silent Spring, is often credited with having launched the global environmental movement. Silent Spring had an immense effect in the United States, where it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Early life and education

Rachel Carson was born in 1907 on a small family farm near Springdale, Pennsylvania. As a child, she spent many hours learning about ponds, fields, and forests from her mother. She originally went to school to study English and creative writing, but switched her major to marine biology. Her talent for writing would help her in her new field, as she resolved to "make animals in the woods or waters, where they live, as alive to others as they are to me". She graduated from the Pennsylvania College for Women, today known as Chatham College, in 1929 with magna cum laude honors. Despite financial difficulties, she continued her studies in zoology and genetics at the Johns Hopkins University, earning a master's degree in zoology in 1932.

Carson taught zoology at Johns Hopkins and at the University of Maryland for several years. She continued to study towards her doctoral degree, particularly at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Her financial situation, never satisfactory, became worse in 1932 when her father died, leaving Carson to care for her aging mother; this burden made continued doctoral studies impossible. She submitted a masters thesis instead, entitled "The Development of the Pronephros During the Embryonic and Early Larval Life of the Catfish (Ictalurus puncatatus)". She then accepted a part-time position at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries as a science writer working on radio scripts. In the process, she had to overcome resistance to the then-radical idea of having a woman sit for the Civil Service exam. In spite of the odds, she outscored all other applicants on the exam and in 1936 became only the second woman to be hired by the Bureau of Fisheries for a full-time, professional position, as a junior aquatic biologist.

Early career and publications

At the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson worked on everything from cookbooks to scientific journals and became known for her ruthless insistence on high standards of writing. Early in her career, the head of the Bureau's Division of Scientific Inquiry, who had been instrumental in finding a position for her in the first place, rejected one of Carson's radio scripts because it was "too literary". He suggested that she submit it to the Atlantic Monthly. To Carson's astonishment and delight, it was accepted, and published as "Undersea" in 1937. (Other sources have it that it was the editor of The Baltimore Sun who made the Atlantic Monthly suggestion—Carson had been supplementing her meager income by writing short articles for that paper for some time.)

Carson's family responsibilities further increased that year when her older sister died at the age of 40, and she had to take on responsibility for her two nieces.

Publishing house Simon & Schuster, impressed by "Undersea", contacted Carson and suggested that she expand it into book form. Several years of working in the evenings resulted in Under the Sea-Wind (1941) which received excellent reviews but was a commercial flop. It had the misfortune to be released just a month before the Pearl Harbor raid catapulted America into World War II.

Carson rose within the Bureau (by then transformed into the Fish and Wildlife Service), becoming chief editor of publications in 1949. For some time she had been working on material for a second book: it was rejected by fifteen different magazines before The Katie serialized parts of it as A Profile of the Sea in 1951. Other parts soon appeared in Nature, and Oxford University Press published it in book form as The Sea Around Us. It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks, was abridged by Reader's Digest, won the 1952 National Book Award, and resulted in Carson being awarded two honorary doctorates. It was also made into a documentary film that was 61 minutes long and won an Oscar.

With success came financial security, and Carson was able to give up her job in 1952 to concentrate on writing full time. She completed the third volume of her sea trilogy, The Edge of the Sea, in 1955. Through 1956 and 1957, Carson worked on a number of projects and wrote articles for popular magazines.

Family tragedy struck a third time when one of the nieces she had cared for in the 1940s died at the age of 36, leaving a five-year-old orphan son. Carson took on that responsibility alongside the continuing one of caring for her mother, who was almost 90 by this time. She adopted the boy and, needing a suitable place to raise him, bought a rural property in Maryland. This environment was to be a major factor in the choice of her next topic.

Silent Spring and the DDT ban

Starting in the mid-1940s, Carson became concerned about the use of newly invented pesticides, especially DDT. "The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became," she wrote later, explaining her decision to start researching what would eventually become her most famous work, Silent Spring. "What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important."

Silent Spring focused on the environment, and pesticides in particular. It was known as Carson's crusade, and she worked on this book till death. Carson explored the subject of environmental connectedness: although a pesticide is aimed at eliminating one organism, its effects are felt throughout the food chain, and what was intended to poison an insect ends up poisoning larger animals and humans.

The four-year task of writing Silent Spring began with a letter from a close friend of Carson's. It was from a New Englander, Olga Owens Huckins, who owned a bird sanctuary. According to the letter, the sanctuary had been sprayed unmercifully by the government. The letter asked Carson to immediately use her influence with government authorities to begin an investigation into pesticide use. Carson decided it would be more effective to raise the issue in a popular magazine; however, publishers were uninterested, and eventually the project became a book instead.

Now, as a renowned author, she was able to ask for (and receive) the aid of prominent biologists, chemists, pathologists, and entomologists. She used Silent Spring to create a mental association in the public's mind between wildlife mortality and over-use of pesticides like dieldrin, toxaphene, and heptachlor. Her cautions regarding the previously little-remarked practices of introducing an enormous variety of industrial products and wastes into wilderness, waterways, and human habitats with little concern for possible toxicity struck the general public as common sense, as much as good science; "We are subjecting whole populations to exposure to chemicals which animal experiments have proved to be extremely poisonous and in many cases cumulative in their effects. These exposures now begin at or before birth and - unless we change our methods - will continue through the lifetime of those now living."

Even before Silent Spring was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1962, there was strong opposition to it. As Time Magazine recounted in 1999:

Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a "hysterical woman" unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid - indeed, the whole chemical industry - duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.

Scientists such as American Cyanamid's Robert White-Stevens (who wrote "If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth."), chemical companies, and other critics attacked the data and interpretation in the book. Some went further to attack Carson's scientific credentials because her speciality was marine biology and zoology, not the field of biochemistry. Some went as far as characterizing her as a mere birdwatcher with more spare time than scientific background, calling her unprofessional. A fringe of her critics even accused her of being a communist.

In addition, many critics repeatedly asserted that she was calling for the elimination of all pesticides despite the fact that Carson had made it clear she was not advocating the banning or complete withdrawal of helpful pesticides, but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use with an awareness of the chemicals' impact on the entire ecosystem. In fact, she concludes her section on DDT in Silent Spring not by urging a total ban, but with Practical advice should be "Spray as little as you possibly can" rather than "Spray to the limit of your capacity."

Houghton Mifflin was pressured to suppress the book, but did not succumb. Silent Spring was positively reviewed by many outside of the agricultural and chemical science fields, and it became a runaway best seller both in the USA and overseas. Again, Time Magazine claimed that, within a year or so of publication, "all but the most self-serving of Carson's attackers were backing rapidly toward safer ground. In their ugly campaign to reduce a brave scientist's protest to a matter of public relations, the chemical interests had only increased public awareness.”

Pesticide use became a major public issue, helped by Carson's April 1963 appearance on a CBS TV special in debate with a chemical company spokesman. Later that year she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received many other honors and awards, including the Audubon Medal and the Cullen Medal of the American Geographical Society.

Carson received hundreds of speaking invitations, but was unable to accept the great majority of them. Her health had been steadily declining since she had been diagnosed with breast cancer halfway through the writing of Silent Spring. In one of her last public appearances, Carson testified before President Kennedy's Science Advisory Committee, which issued a report on May 15 1963 largely backing Carson's scientific claims. However, she never did live to see the banning of DDT in U.S.

She died on 14 April 1964, at the age of 56. In 1980, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the USA.

Carson's legacy

Silent Spring remains a founding text for the contemporary environmental movement in the West and is seen as an important work to this day.

The Rachel Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is home to the Commonwealth's Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

On 22 April 2006, to celebrate Earth Day, the Ninth Street Bridge in Pittsburgh was formally renamed Rachel Carson Bridge; see also Rachel Carson Homestead. Between 1964 and 1990, 650 acres (260 hectares) near Brookeville in Montgomery County, Maryland were acquired and set aside as the Rachel Carson Conservation Park. The Hawlings River runs through this undeveloped park and there are both hiker and equestrian trails through both meadow and woodland. It is administered by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

There are at least four public schools named after her: Rachel Carson Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the Rachel Carson Elementary School in San Jose, California and the Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, Virginia. In Beaverton, Oregon, there is an optional middle school program named after her which is focused on environmental sciences.

The Rachel Carson Prize was founded in Stavanger, Norway in 1991, and is awarded to women who have made a contribution in the field of environmental protection.

A Sense of Wonder, a one-woman play based on the life and works of Rachel Carson -- written and performed by stage and screen actress Kaiulani Lee -- has toured the U.S., Canada, England and Italy since 1995. The two-act play takes place in Carson's Maine summer home (act one) and in her Silver Spring, Maryland home (act two) after the release of her book Silent Spring. The play has been performed at regional and national conferences, more than one hundred universities, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Albert Sweitzer Conference at the United Nations, the Sierra Club Centennial in San Francisco, and the Department of the Interior 150th Anniversary Celebration.

2007 is the centennial of Rachel Carson's birth. The Rachel Carson Homestead Association is planning four major events throughout the year including a May 27 birthday party and sustainable feast at her birthplace and home in Springdale, Pennsylvania.

Books

Under the Sea Wind, 1941
The Sea Around Us, 1951
The Edge of the Sea, 1955
Silent Spring, 1962
The Sense of Wonder, 1965,
Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, 1998
Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman 1952-1964 An Intimate Portrait of a Remarkable Friendship, 1995

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