Carson documents the immediate effects of these chemicals, as well as their effects once they get into the water and the food chain. She discusses the problem of growing pesticide resistance. And I think significantly, she includes examples of how to deal with pest infestations either without pesticides at all (Dutch elm disease can be controlled with good sanitation and the elimination of infected limbs, e.g.) or by limited, targeted application. She offers a view of life on earth as interconnected, and was the first to give widespread attention to the downstream consequences of disturbing an ecosystem.
The book was the subject of intense vilification by the chemical industry at the time of its publication. Indeed, the author herself was vilified as well at the time -- and continues to be to this day.
As Peter Matthiessen wrote in an essay in Time magazine in 1999
Silent Spring, serialized in the New Yorker in June 1962, gored corporate oxen all over the country. Even before publication, 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.Mattheissen further writes that eventually the chemical companies realized that their response to the book, rather than discrediting Carson, was only bringing attention to the issues, so they stopped. Indeed, Silent Spring became a runaway bestseller, and launched the environmental movement.
Norman Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on increasing wheat yield in Mexico, as well as horticultural techniques that eventually led to the Green Revolution. He is credited with having saved 1 billion lives from starvation. But the Green Revolution relied on widespread use of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, and increased the practice of monocropping around the globe. Thus, it has been criticized as unsustainable, and in fact the cause of decreased food security in much of the world. Borlaug himself was highly critical of Silent Spring, calling environmentalists hysterical, fear-provoking, irresponsible, having had their genesis in the 'half-science half-fiction novel' Silent Spring. Borlaug is a hero of the American right, and Carson the devil incarnate, much of this because of a campaign by right wing radio host Rush Limbaugh. Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, on the other hand, credits Silent Spring with raising his awareness of environmental issues.
Paul Krugman in the New York Times wrote a recent column about solar power, mentioning along the way the currently contentious issue of hydrolic fracturing (fracking), as newly adapted to the release of the methane gas now sequestered in the Marcellus Shale that extends across New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The industry insists that their methods are environmentally safe. If you don't believe that, you're surely unAmerican. As Krugman writes:
...the industry-backed organization energyfromshale.org declares that “there are only two sides in the debate: those who want our oil and natural resources developed in a safe and responsible way; and those who don’t want our oil and natural gas resources developed at all."But if Silent Spring launched the environmental movement, and the fact of the interconnectedness of all of life is now almost a cliché, why is the book still so timely? And what's with the widespread defense of DDT from the right wing? Why is the issue of GM crops still so polarizing, with the likes of chemical companies such as Monsanto still on one side and environmentalists on the other, with little to no common ground in between? Why the polarized debate over consequences of fracking? Indeed, why is it that if you know someone's position on these kinds of questions, or on Rachel Carson herself, you can predict their politics? Why isn't science resolving these issues?