Topic: PollutionSilent Spring Revisited: a revolutionary art-science synthesis

Rachel Carson's images of a 'Silent Spring' bereft of birdsong – robbed by harmful pesticides – are known for launching the Western environmental movement as we know it. In this piece, Rowan Jaines revisits Carson's 1962 classic, arguing that the book's success, and the industry backlash it provoked, can be credited to Carson's powerful synthesis of traditionally artistic and scientific practice – a synthesis that we might still learn from today.

By Rowan Jaines

The biologist and writer Rachel Carson’s fourth book, Silent Spring remains one of history’s most influential. It mapped the relationships between the fantasy of scientific and economic progress that underpinned the post war American dream, industrial malpractice and ecological ruination. For many, especially in the Western world, Carson was, to quote Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing: ‘the originator of ecological concerns.’

Silent Spring first appeared in serialised form in the New Yorker over the summer of 1962, that year of the Cuban missile crisis. The unique form – a literary synthesis of research into the ecological effects of chemical pesticides – drew major media attention. The furore pushed J.F. Kennedy to investigate the book’s central claim: that pesticides such as Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) were causing widespread, persistent environmental destruction.

When it was published in book form later that year Silent Spring immediately triggered reactionary responses from the US chemical industry who attempted not only to sue Carson but also launched campaigns to discredit her science. Despite these attempts, Carson’s findings introduced new ideas into public discourse and directly influenced the development of organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. She also introduced new methods for the communication of environmental science, ones that drew on deep attention and extensive research, articulated in literary, rather than scientific form.

At the time of writing, Carson’s research on the effects of DDT dated back more than 15 years to the first civilian use of this pesticide. Caring responsibilities slowed her progress considerably, however a letter from her friend, journalist Olga Owens Huckins, in January 1958 ignited the spark.

Huckins, a nature lover, had established a small bird sanctuary in her back garden in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and was quick to notice the destructive effects of DDT on birdlife and the wider ecosystem, especially since the commencement of the state’s programme to control mosquitoes in the area. She wrote to Carson enclosing a copy of a letter she had sent to the Boston Herald, titled ‘Evidence of Havoc by DDT’. Carson, filled with a sense of urgency, worked to put the vast scientific knowledge that she had gathered across sciences and literature to work to warn the public.The dialogue between Huckins and Carson shows latent power of ordinary people noticing impacts on the world around them and makes a case for the role that non-scientific nature lovers play in environmental histories.

The result was a world-changing synthesis: at once a beautiful piece of prose as well as a rigorous piece of scientific research.

The result was a world-changing synthesis: at once a beautiful piece of prose as well as a rigorous piece of scientific research. This was a radical act in a world that had divided the realms of the humanities and the sciences with increasing rigidity since the second half of the 19th century. The German philosopher Wilhelm Windelband described the difference in these two approaches as a dichotomy between ‘nomothetic’ and ‘idiographic’ perspectives of knowledge. Before Silent Spring, environmental science’s attempts to study the effects of the new technologies that had developed since the Industrial Revolution had been dominated by the natural sciences and their ‘nomothetic’ approaches, where measurable data was collected and used to try to derive laws that explained the workings of the natural world.

Though Carson was a biologist, she originally studied English Literature at college and switched her major after being inspired by a compulsory zoology course. Beyond the natural sciences and their ‘nomothetic’ pursuit of objective truth, her lifelong interest in literature simultaneously rooted her thinking in the arts and humanities and their ‘critical-relational’ approaches to knowledge. By simultaneously drawing on this ‘idiographic’ thinking – embodied in literary form – Carson was able to begin to dissolve the boundaries between the two approaches, drawing on both at once to rigorously explore the relationships between producers, political actors and pesticides, for example. In the same vein, such a synthesis allowed her to recast the human, from the centre of meaning to a small part of an astonishingly intricate web of organisms that make up life on earth. As a result Carson was able to raise important ethical questions regarding the intensifying technological control of the natural world. For example she wrote:

‘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. The concept and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. 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.’[1]

The poetics of the text that Carson produced and the challenge it posed to mechanistic science had a major tangible impact, leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and latterly, the banning of DDT in 1972. Indeed, Silent Spring was much more than a study on the effects of pesticides on the environment, it was a critical milestone in our understanding of the nuances of nature in a technological age, and diversified the possibilities for thinking about the natural world. If science can help us diligently back up our arguments, Carson combined this with literary writing’s potential to help us think beyond the bounds of so-called ‘common sense’.

Her metaphor-rich writing continues to inspire activists today, at least in part because of the cultural footprint that the book left in music, culture and art. Silent Spring is deeply encoded in culture through figures like Joni Mitchell, who famously sang: ‘Hey farmer farmer, Put away the DDT, Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees. Please!’ Indeed, the new audiences reached by Carson’s groundbreaking contribution have grown exponentially over the years, becoming a readership for a diverse range of inspired writers, from Robin Wall Kimmerer to Scott Russell Sanders, who are exploring and embracing different ways of knowing nature.

Opposition, especially with regards to attacks from powerful corporations, also attest the power of the book’s form; its reach being significantly broader than any previous piece of research from the environmental sciences. By the late summer of 1962 an anti-Carson campaign was already in gear and ready to attack. The Department of Agriculture and the chemical industry were made aware of Carson’s work even before it appeared in the New Yorker. By the end of the summer of 1962, the Velsicol Chemical Corporation was engaged in an attempt to persuade Silent Spring’s publisher Houghton Mifflin not to release the book. Invoking Cold War discourses, they suggested that the cessation of chemical pesticide use would induce Eastern European style food shortages and adjacent political instability. In addition to this, a wide range of news publications and scientific journals discredited Carson on the grounds of being ‘overly emotional’; in other words, using gender-based criticisms related to the text’s ‘idiographic’, poetic tendencies. The implication was that beautiful prose was useful only for exploring subjective phenomena such as emotions and relationships but was of no use to scientific research which should be presented in the form of clear facts, decipherable only to other scientists.

With that in mind, Carson can ultimately be understood as the creator of a new, fusional literary form, aligned with figures such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, both of whom sought to overcome the duality of ‘nomothetic’, or supposedly objective research, and ‘idiographic’ or relational readings of cultural meaning. Like these figures, Carson explored the very real implications of nature’s divorce from culture, and in doing so she created a new space for us to explore the relationships between our systems of production and the natural world they rely upon.

Carson explored the very real implications of nature’s divorce from culture

In our current moment of geopolitical conflict and deepening climate crisis, let Rachel Carson remind us, in the words of anthropologist David Graeber; that 'the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.' We have the choice to understand nature’s beauty as opposed to its utility; to revel at its wonders rather than its potential to widen profit margins.

[1] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, (1962) p.297.

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