July 28, 2010

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is considered by many the genesis event of the modern environmental movement. What is sometimes lost to our collective memory is that Silent Spring, Carson’s “little book of horrors,” as it was derisively labeled by one reviewer, (Williams 296) was a direct challenge to a long-dominant view of science as a progressive force and the idea that this force was manifest in science’s ability to control and exploit nature (Smith 746). As Michael Smith writes, “[Carson] offered a vision of science that expressed a reconsideration of the Baconian model that has more or less guided Western science since the seventeenth century” (Smith 746).

Faith in science triumphant, Carson implied, was a dangerous illusion. She wrote, “the road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end is disaster.” (Carson 227)

Biographer Linda Lear claims “Silent Spring … dealt a mortal blow to public confidence in ‘experts.’” (qtd. in Williams 296). But as Leo Marx notes, “On balance … the attitudes toward the environment sanctioned by the official culture of the United States continue to reflect the view, central to the belief in progress, that nature exists chiefly to satisfy human needs (Marx 1992, 465).

Despite its popularity, Carson’s critique did little to derail the dominant view of science as a progressive force. Later “eco-catastrophes,” such as Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb and Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article “The Tragedy of the Commons,” found a receptive audience among academics and a public prepared in part by Silent Spring. But the emphasis in these latter works on the impending peril of rapid human population growth, and the calls by their authors for direct and drastic action to counter that growth, owed little to Carson’s book. In fact it could be argued that Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, published six years after Silent Spring represented a throwback to the harsh neo-Malthusian ideology embraced by early twentieth century eugenicists (see this recent critique).

Silent Spring was certainly a radical work. But it was radical within the literature, ironically, because it suggested that modest controls within a democratic framework could correct the damage science and technology had caused, a position in stark contrast to that held by her more apocalyptic contemporaries.


Carson, Rachael. 2002 [1962]. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Commoner, Barry. 1966. Science and Survival. New York: The Viking Press.

Huxley, Julian. 1964. Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Marx, Leo. 1992. “Environmental Degradation and the Ambiguous Social Role of
Science and Technology.” Journal of the History of Biology 25: 449-468.

Muller, Hermann J. 1949. “The Menace of Radiation.” The Science News-Letter
55: 374+379-380.

Smith, Michael B. 2001. “‘Silence Miss Carson!’ Science, Gender, and the Reception of
Silent Spring.” Feminist Studies 27: 733-752.

Williams, Michael. 1998. “The End of Modern History.”
Geographical Review 88: 275-300.

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