My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Advocacy is tricky. When you’re trying to motivate people to take action, you need to decide whether to appeal to the head, to the heart, to some combination of the two, or perhaps to some more delicate faculty. Upton Sinclair miscalculated when he wrote The Jungle, aiming for the heart but instead hitting the stomach; and as a result, the book was interpreted as an exposé of the meat industry rather than a plea for the working poor. Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac, eschews appeals to expediency, and instead focuses on the spiritual joys of wild nature; but his book didn’t result in any legislation. Rachel Carson seems to have found the right formula: an urgent and multifaceted appeal to self-interest.
Silent Spring is often grouped along with Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which came out just the year before, in 1961. The comparison is apt, for both books were written by academic outsiders, by women working independently in male-dominated fields, and both books created a sensation. In subject matter, too, the books are surprisingly close. Jacobs describes how top-down city planning, which doesn’t take into account the needs of city-dwellers or the complex economies of cities, only causes ruination. Carson describes how indiscriminate use of pesticides destroys ecosystems and fails even to permanently kill the pests. Both books, in other words, criticize a practice taken for granted, a practice that attempted to mold the world using brute force while remaining ignorant of the systems it attempted to shape.
Even today, Carson’s book retains its moral urgency and its morbid fascination. Not only is Carson a knowledgeable scientist, but she is quite a gifted author. She knows how to drive home her point using vivid—and often frightening—examples, detailing case after case of poisonings, in animals and humans. And she supplements her examples with scientific explanations, showing us how poisons spread through the environment, are absorbed into the body, and disrupt natural processes. She knew that the chemical industry was going to fight her tooth and nail, so she did not leave any stones unturned in her research. She systematically goes through the effects of pesticides on soil, water, birds, and plants, offering case after case in support of her thesis. Now that we take it for granted that pesticides shouldn’t be applied with such wholesale zeal, this can actually be a little tedious. When advocacy is effective, it renders itself obsolete.
But Carson does not make the mistake of focusing only on the environment. She emphasizes again and again how pesticides can enter foods, can combine in the body, can kill livestock and desolate fish, can enter the skin through commercial lawn products—in other words, she emphasizes that this problem is not abstract and distant, but is one that closely affects the reader. It is this focus that makes the book so effective: she appeals to the stomach, the heart, the head, and also to Aldo Leopold’s spiritual values—but most of all, she appeals to self-interest, the strongest motivator of all.