Honoring Silent Spring

Sixty years ago, Rachel Carson published her seminal book, which alarmed millions of the threat of pesticides. Today, Silent Spring’s message is as urgent as ever.

November 10, 2022
By Austin Price, BFI Communications Coordinator

In the summer of 1962, the New Yorker published a three-part series based on a body of scientific evidence showing the dangers of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT. During World War II, allied soldiers had used the synthetic insecticide to ward off mosquitoes, and in the decades since, DDT had been liberally sprayed in farms, fields, and neighborhoods throughout the country to control gypsy moths and other pests.

But the New Yorker piece argued for an end to the chemical warfare. “Who has decided – who has the right to decide – for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?”

The writer of the article was Rachel Carson. Later that fall, the three-part series would be published as Silent Spring, the seminal book that alarmed millions to the threats of pesticides.

Silent Spring “was scientific, poetic, and world-changing,” says food systems writer Anna Lappé. The book would go on to inspire the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and a movement toward organic agriculture that would eventually lead to the establishment of the National Organic Program at the US Department of Agriculture.

In researching for Silent Spring, Carson recognized some of the pitfalls and unintended consequences of unchecked pesticide application. For one, these synthetics leave lasting impacts in the environment – killing birds, bees, and other beneficial insect biodiversity and wildlife. Today, largely due to pesticides, one in six bee species are extinct.

And bees are just the canary in the corn field. Pesticide exposure affects humans too, leading to cancers, reproductive harm, birth defects, and developmental disorders.

Carson also warned that the monoculture agriculture which was, in the 1962, becoming more of a defining form of farming in the American food system, created an ideal environment for pests that build up pesticide resistance with repeat spraying. In a 2014 poll of Iowa farmers, 90 percent reported feeling pest management as a “never-ending technology treadmill.”

Of course, Silent Spring faced its share of industry backlash. A headline of one heavy-handed review of the book read “Silence, Miss Carson!” And 60 years on, Silent Spring still resonates with urgency, as pesticide use continues to grow. The US applies 1 billion pounds of pesticide each year, leaving chemical traces throughout our food system. A 2020 Pesticide Action Network study found that 385 million people – nearly half of people involved in the agriculture industry – experience acute pesticide exposure each year. “This conversation Carson sparked is just as important as ever,” says Lappé.

On October 25, the Berkeley Food Institute co-sponsored a webinar organized by Real Food Media and Friends of the Earth called “Honoring Silent Spring: Stories from the Frontlines of the Fight for a Pesticide-Free Future.” Moderated by Anna Lappé, the webinar featured organic farmer George Naylor, journalist and author of The Monsanto Papers Carey Gillam, Co-Director at Californians for Pesticide Reform Angel Garcia, and Deputy Director of Science at Friends of the Earth Kendra Klein. You can watch the entirety of the webinar here.