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on 28 July 2014
I read this as a follow-up to James Lovelock’s Gaia since, in these two works, we have two of the most influential books on the modern environmental movement.

This particular edition (Penguin Modern Classics) includes several introductions/prefaces. What quickly becomes clear from these is that the introductions were written for a British audience as it draws contrasts between the British environmental movement and the account that Carson presents in the main text, which is fairly US-centric. The other thing that is pointed out is that Carson found biochemistry as her secondary calling, having initially aimed to be a writer earlier in life. Therefore, it was a great delight for her to be able to write a book and I would say that in terms of the quality of writing, she is a lot more skilled than some novelists I have read.

The focus is on certain classes of chemicals (mostly chlorinated hydrocarbons) that have been used as insecticides, pesticides and herbicides. Though Carson notes that a more generic term is that is more appropriate is that they are biocides, or poisons. The fact is that if they are sprayed with the intention of killing a particular species, they are indiscriminate and affect the entire environment in which they are spread and the areas which are ecologically and geographically linked.

She begins with a short story. It is a scenario which acts as an executive summary of all the outcomes that have been observed and which are documented throughout the book. Only here, she brings them all together and envisions a town beset by every ill effect brought about by the use of such poisons. This serves as an executive summary, with the scene of death reminding me of The Andromeda Strain.

With this as her starting point, Carson then details a litany of ecological disasters that have been brought about by the use of the poisons she highlights. In the crosshairs of her criticism is DDT. Its effects are laid out in shocking detail. When talking of other poisons, she often compares them to DDT, even if they are more toxic. If a criticism can be made here, it is that Carson occasionally slips into the more generic use of the word 'chemical', even though she mostly remains specific. The danger this gives rise to is that a casual reader might just pick up on the generalities and become inclined to an opposition to 'chemicals'.

Carson details how these poisons permeate the biosphere, extending their influence far beyond the areas they are intended for, including travelling through the food chain to ultimately poison some carnivores which have eaten creatures which ate leaves that were contaminated.

In her writing, Carson wanted to avoid littering the text with footnotes so while she quotes some studies, the detailed references are left for the appendix. The main text then reads less like a scientific treatise and more like polemic. Yet the strength of the writing is not baseless invective; it is referenced, but the choice to keep the main text uncluttered and clear came at the price of having the evidence scientific evidence slightly off to the side, with the rhetorical power of the anecdote more prominent.

As I read through the first half of the book, one thought went through my mind. It was that the effects of the chlorinated hydrocarbons, though poisonous, were as much due to the method of distribution. Carson then addresses this issue with her criticism of indiscriminate spraying. Indeed, before reading the book, aware of its legacy, I was aware of some criticisms that it got DDT banned when it was really the broad-brush nature of its dissemination which was the cause of the poisoning that followed it. Every time I could myself thinking "what about this..." then Carson soon addresses the point.

An example of this would be that during her exposition of the effects of poisons on people and animals, one might wonder how the poisons actually act to produce the effects described. After all, without knowing how the environment is poisoned, there remains reasonable doubt over the cause of the effects noted. Yet Carson does go into some of the biochemistry to convey to the reader an outline of the science behind poisoning.

The book is not wholly pessimistic, though. Carson highlights alternative pest control methods, with specific emphasis on the introduction of natural predators. I think a fair criticism could be made here in that while she points to examples of successes, there is inadequate consideration of the wider ecological issues of introducing non-native species to a given area.

The afterword (written in 1998) looks at Carson's legacy and the criticism the book received at the time by those who would lose out financially if her proposals were taken up. The most obvious example we see to today is the absence of DDT, now subject to a ban in many countries. It may well be worth following up with a later volume, Silent Spring Revisited, by Conor Mark Jameson. For in concluding, it has to be noted that Silent Spring was a book for its time. As a result of the impact the book made, the 50+ years since it was written have not followed the trajectory Carson feared it might had her warnings not been heeded.

It will continue to be a book that divides opinion. In writing for a wider audience, some of the scientific detail has been sacrificed. But in the opinion of this reviewer, the weaknesses in precision should not detract from the direction in which the argument goes, which is sound.
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on 21 January 2009
"The sedge is wither'd from the lake, and no bird sings." So begins this book with an eerie quote from Keats. Imagine a world without birdsong, with decreased biodiversity and increasingly threatened species, on account of human ignorance and technological pollution. Rachel Carson tells it like it is in Silent Spring, credited by many as the book which ignited the environmental revolution in the 60's. "What we have to face is not an occasional dose of poison which has accidentally got into some article of food, but a persistent and continuous poisoning of the whole human environment". Written in 1962, this book is more relevant today than ever, and based on science that still holds good. It will basically scare the hell out of you- you may never reach for an innocent looking can of fly spray or some other household chemical again. The science of Clinical Ecology wasn't around when Rachel Carson wrote this book, and I credit her with founding a whole science based on her tireless work of advocacy for the cause against the agrochemical and pharmaceutical machine. Due to family circumstances and her humanity in caring for her sick and elderly parents, and then her own breast cancer, she was unable to undertake doctoral work. I believe she is a worthy candidate for a posthumous award- a shining light in the science world who deserves far more credit for her work.
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on 2 September 2000
I read the original version of this book published in 1962, and I believe this book should be compulsory reading not only for every person who says that s/he cares for the environment, but also for those that say they don't care. Maybe it'll make them care. The book is a strong indictment against the chemical industry and the havoc that their products create in every part of the world (including our cosy homes), about the dangers of more and more insects and pests becoming resistent to chemicals and a strong call to look for alternatives that do not damage all our lives (animal, plant and human). But when I read the newspapers, not much appears to have changed in almost 40 years: many of us (especially politicians) still live in the back pockets of the chemical industry! After all, money and jobs are more important than saving what is left, isn't it?
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on 2 September 2006
In "Any Questions" on BBC Radio 4 a panel of politicians were quizzed in turn as to one person they thought would be regarded as an important person in the future from the 20th century who improved the lot of us humans. Of about four panelists one said Nelson Mandela. Important though Mandela is, none of the other panelists had anyone else to suggest so they also ended up saying Nelson Mandela. I would have mentioned Rachel Carson representing as yet an unsung heroine - the pioneer of the "Deep Ecology" movement.

Unfortunately a lot of what she had to say is still ignored by mainstream politicians though enough has trickled through to create a stream of people who think in the context of concern for all life on Earth rather than how best one group of us can dominate and manipulate our human and environmental resources at irreplaceable cost to life as we know it.

This is the book that started it all - showing us that science and technology unrestrained were not the solution to all our problems. The EPA at least owes its very existence to Carson.

I salute Carson and her book as a lighthouse that guided our thinking from the cliffs of short sighted destructiveness. Long may the beacon prevail.

This is an important book. Perhaps dated, Carson's voice is not shrill but reasoned and strident. A classic worth sharing and upgrading.
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on 11 June 2009
Silent Spring (Penguin Modern Classics) I heard about this book several years ago and was surprised to find it still in print but not once I had read it. It relates just how stupid and greedy people are - we do not deserve this planet. We pump it full of poisons and then wonder why things die. I was watching a programme about our dissappearing bees on the TV recently and Carson's words came flooding out of the screen; over 200 toxins found in a bee's body, each individaully 'tested' for 'safety' but not in combination. Is it little wonder that they are dying out? What happens next? few people seem to realise that without bees we will have no crops, without crops we have no farm animals, without crops and farm animals WE have no food - alarmist maybe...
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on 25 August 2009
Excellent book that is well written. Takes you on a journey through how mankind is wrecking its own home. Why are we poisoning our own planet? Maybe that tractor spraying the wheat field isn't quite so innocent. What price cheap food? Is it corporate greed as usual? Rachel guides you through what we are doing to the earth with clarity and a list of suggestions for a better way to conduct ourselves. Worth a read.
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One can only applaud Carson's work and marvel at her determination to be heard and the research she did. This must have been a very shocking book at the time it was published, even now it is horrifying to look back and see what wholesale garbage the American public was being sold by those supposed to be looking after their health and welfare. It is however, a dated book which I found hard to read and difficult to sustain. I believe it was first written as a series of articles for journals and magazines, which makes sense, as each chapter is very much isolated from the others in terms of style and content, so there is little sense of flow or continuity, other than the continuation of the bad news Carson imparts. It tends to jerk from quite florid poetic writing with lyrically drawn pictures of nature which give way to horrific apocalyptic style visions into bunches of data and facts which are so dry they sit hard up against the narrative and make for difficult reading. It's still a book to recommend, particularly in today's climate and with the emphasis on green issues, but you really have to want to read it rather than just having an idle interest.
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on 30 November 2013
Such an important book. Everyone needs to read this book , it is easy to understand but scientific and opened my eyes so much, you will look at food in a different way after reading this book and want to change your lifestyle to organic.
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on 4 February 2014
There are a few other publications, but this one still retains the original illustrations with that fairy tale/ fable like start. It still augments the surprising start to the 'science' book that started the environmental movement.
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on 18 August 2014
Classic of course but interesting stuff. Packed with accounts of environmental disasters of '60's. A good starting point for everyone interested in environmental/ agricultural/ ecological issues.
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