Thursday, March 5, 2020

Book 223: Silent Spring



"To the public, the choice may easily appear to be one of stark simplicity: Shall we have birds or shall we have elms? But it is not as simple as that, and by one of the ironies that abound throughout the field of chemical control, we may very well end by having neither if we continue on our present, well-traveled road. Spraying is killing the birds but it is not saving the elms." 

Dates read: April 8-11, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

A sound that never fails to bring me straight back into my childhood is the nighttime song of spring peepers. I never thought I'd miss the high-pitched chorus emanating from the marshland behind us loud enough to be heard through even closed windows, but sometimes I long for it with an intensity that's hard to describe. They don't exist out here in the arid West, though they're widespread in the more humid regions of the country. At least, they are now. But like all wildlife, they're vulnerable to the decisions made by humans and could very well disappear one day.

The capacity for humans to not think through the ramifications of their choices on the environment and destroy it without meaning to do so inspired Rachel Carson's classic Silent Spring. In it, she traces the links between the rising use of pesticides and insecticides and the devastating consequences it has had for animal life in areas where application is wide-spread. Worse yet, it often doesn't accomplish the desired effect in the long term, which just encourages even heavier use. She doesn't flinch away from the fact that humans are animals, too, and highlights the issues that can arise for the people who live in the often-rural and therefore less-seen communities where these poisons are used most significantly. And since these people frequently eat locally-sourced meat and fish, the problem of biological magnification (animals eating food that has its own level of exposure, compounding with each step up the food chain) becomes even more pressing for them.

Carson writes all of this in strong, clear prose that first explains the concepts she's introducing and then illustrates them with examples of the devastating effects of poisons that are marketed as safe and effective on life, from plants all the way up to people. She doesn't condescend and though her urgency is clear, it doesn't feel alarmist or like a scare tactic. Instead, she presents her case that we need to start paying attention and questioning what we're told rigorously but understandably. Science writing often veers into the esoteric, and this book should be used an exemplar for how to write for the popular market without getting bogged down in details or sidetracked into areas more consequential for the author than the reader.

This book's continuing relevance even after it led to the the ban of DDT, the chemical she primarily discusses, is a result of both Carson's skill as a writer and the impact her work managed to have on the public. Not only did it take DDT off the market, it blazed the path that eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency by President Nixon. Imaging a book being so popular and espousing its cause so effectively that it led to the creation of a new federal agency in today's world seems preposterous. All of that being said, this book wasn't an unqualified success for me. After a while, her constant use of examples of a chemical being introduced and the death of wildlife that followed started to feel repetitive, blunting its impact. And I found myself a bit skeptical of the rosiness with which she portrayed the alternative option of importing predators for invasive species control...to the best of my understanding, that can have harmful side effects of its own. All in all, though, this book is readable, relevant, and worth a perusal before you go nuts with the Round-Up on the dandelions.

One year ago, I was reading: If Beale Street Could Talk (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Good Omens

Three years ago, I was reading: Die A Little

Four years ago, I was reading: The Good Earth

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