Silent Spring, by marine biologist Rachel Carson, was first published 50 years ago this month, and two Perspective articles in the Ecology section of the journal Science examine the legacy of this book, which inspired the environmental movement we have today.
In their article, “Life in a Contaminated World,” Louis Guillette and Taisen Iguchi suggest the book dramatically changed the world’s perception of the use of pesticides from being a benevolent aid to agriculture to being of serious concern to human health. They point out that the debate not only continues today, but has been widened to include all synthetic chemicals.
In a second Perspective article, “Insecticide Resistance After Silent Spring,” David Heckel of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, reminds us that Carson warned us that pesticides have other unforeseen effects, including killing off the predators that had previously kept pest insects in check, at the same time as many target species become resistant to the chemicals. Heckel reports that in the 50 years since Silent Spring’s publication over 450 species of arthropods have become resistant to at least one pesticide and herbicide resistance has developed in a number of weed species.
Rachel Carson was born in 1907 in Pennsylvania and began writing early, publishing her first nature story when she was only 11. She later won a scholarship to study at Pennsylvania College for Women, and went on to John Hopkins University, where she gained a master’s degree in zoology. She was unable to continue to a PhD because of financial difficulties. She became a marine biologist, spending much of her working life as a writer and editor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. She lived a simple, quiet life and loved nothing better than to take long walks and observe nature.
The publication of Silent Spring, which took Carson four years to write, warned of a coming spring with no songbirds. Its publication led to a public awakening to the dangers of uncontrolled use of pesticides and other chemicals, and the activism that resulted led in turn to the establishment of organizations charged with protecting the environment, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US. More here Carson’s Silent Spring turns 50.