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SciFri Book Club Talks <em>Silent Spring</em>


I hope you're having your cup of coffee, your beverage of choice, maybe a little snack, sitting in your comfy reading or driving chair, settled in now because the first meeting of the SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club is about to go underway. And for our first book, we have chosen the Rachel Carson classic "Silent Spring."

Some of us read it years ago when it came out in 1962, at a time when few people were questioning the use of his new modern pesticides, weed killers and insecticides that were developed during and after World War II. Carson's book made a compelling case that the widespread use of these compounds, especially DDT, was not a good thing for the environment.

They indiscriminately killed not only the bugs, but the birds and the other animals that ate the bugs or otherwise came into contact with the compounds. Rachel Carson is credited by many people with kick-starting the modern environmental movement.

Well, you know, it makes us think about: What would she be saying today? What do you think Rachel Carson would be talking about today if she was still alive? Maybe something environmental, because besides, you know, "Silent Spring," she wrote other many books about the environment. And we want to hear what you think.

Give us a call. Call in and ask a question. Tell us what you think about "Silent Spring" all these years later. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, and we'll talk about it in our Book Club today, Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring."

William Souder is the author of a forthcoming biography of Rachel Carson "On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson," and he joins us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

WILLIAM SOUDER: Hi, Ira. Hi, Flora. Nice to be with you.

FLATOW: Thank you. Set the scene first. The book comes out in 1962. Kennedy was president. What's going on in the world?

SOUDER: Well, 1962, there's a lot going on in the world. "Silent Spring," of course, is serialized in The New Yorker magazine in June of 1962. June of 1962 is also sort of the heart of the peak year for atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which had been ongoing ever since the Second World War, but it really peaked in 1962 in both the U.S. and in the Soviet Union.

And then in October of 1962, we were involved in this confrontation with the Soviets over a missile base that they were trying to establish in Cuba. And by the time "Silent Spring" was heading towards number one on The New York Times best-seller list in late October of 1962, Cuba was under an American naval blockade, and the two countries were on the brink of a possible nuclear war.

Well, for Carson, these were not unrelated events. She really saw radiation and pesticide use as the sort of twin, conjoined demons of the post-war period. And she made that connection quite literally in "Silent Spring," that radiation and widespread pesticide use were contributing to this kind of global contamination of the environment that entered into the ecosystems, entered into the tissues of living things. And so these were sort of two halves of the same problem as far as Carson was concerned.

That was one reason why "Silent Spring" was as influential as it was because it really spoke to a generation of people who had come of age and grown up during the Cold War and who understood the threat of radioactive fallout, but had yet to come to any kind of realization about chemical contaminants, but they got it when they read "Silent Spring."

And, of course, those people really became the vanguard of the environmental movement, and Carson did, in fact, kick-start that. She's really the fault line between the conservation movement of the first part of the 20th century and the environmental movement that dominated the second half and is with us now.

And those are two very closely related ideas and movements, but they are different in important ways. And conservation was really about the idea that we should be good stewards of the Earth, that we should protect and preserve natural resources for our own benefit. The environmental movement is more urgent, a little more dire, maybe a little more pessimistic, and it's really about us and our place...


SOUDER: ...in the natural world and preserving that.

FLATOW: Let me read a little chapter - a little section of a chapter of the book that gives people a little flavor of what the book was like. And I'm going to - and Flora Lichtman is here with us to discuss the Book Club topic today. And our number is 1-800-989-8255. We'd like you to help us talk about "Silent Spring." And let me kick it off here with a little passage that sort of sums it up.

(reading) Our increasingly large areas of the United States, spring comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early morning are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of birdsong. This sudden silencing of the song of birds, this obliteration of the color and beauty and interest that lend to our world - they lend to our world have come about swiftly, insidiously and unnoticed by those whose communities are as yet unaffected.

And I think she lays it out right there, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this - you sort of get a sense, this book is filled with depressing passages, I thought.

FLATOW: She pulls no - you know, William, she pulls no punches in this book. I mean, there's nothing - she's right out there, and she is very forceful in what she said.

SOUDER: Well, "Silent Spring" is a disturbing book, and it was meant to be, and that lack of color is a theme that recurs throughout the book. She portrays a world that will be gray and lifeless, in some places coated with some sort of a residue. Whether that's from pesticides or from fallout is sometimes left to the reader to imagine. But she certainly colors in a bleak outlook for the future if we do not begin to get control of some of these things that we are using and these technologies that we have sort of heedlessly let loose upon the global environment.

LICHTMAN: And she doesn't have a lot of qualifiers in this book either. I mean, you know, she sort of takes one side of this issue.

SOUDER: This is one of the knocks on Carson, is that - and this was said at the time, of course - that the book was one-sided, that it really only looked at pesticides through the filter of someone who was opposed to their use. But we have to be a little bit careful because this is a charge that lingered long after Carson was gone.

She did say - in several places in "Silent Spring" and in all of her public pronouncements and speeches, and even in her testimony before Congress - that she was not completely opposed to the use of pesticides in all cases. And one of the exceptions that she insisted on was in the - was in addressing human diseases that were carried by insects, and she felt that pesticides had a legitimate use in that context.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Judy(ph) in Des Moines. Hi, Judy.

JUDY: Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

JUDY: I just wanted to relate a incident. In 1973, I was a student at Iowa State University, taking courses in nutrition. And I distinctly remember my professor just mocking Rachel Carson for "Silent Spring" and just lambasting her as some kind of a nutcase for what she was proposing and what she had written in "Silent Spring."

And only after I graduated and, you know, read more about her did I realize, you know, what a prophet she was. And also, since then, living in Iowa, we had had no bald eagles as a result of the pesticides being used. And now, after they've been banned, there's a resurgence of them. They are wonderful to see, and I often think of her and her words that she spoke in "Silent Spring." I just wanted to relay that.

FLATOW: Thank you, Judy.

SOUDER: Thanks, Judy. I'm not sure what they were teaching back in 1973 down in Iowa. But, you know, the record after Carson's death in 1964 - she died of cancer two years after "Silent Spring" was completed - we can certainly see the effect that she had on this country and on the world. In 1970, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, really a direct result of conversations that go back to Carson's time about a need for some sort of federal regulatory authority that could bring some order to the use of pesticides, which were basically being used without any controls at all up until then.

And the first order of business for the EPA - one of the first orders of business was to ban the use of DDT and a handful of other closely related organochlorine pesticides, or chemically similar to DDT, in most cases more toxic and more hazardous. And so the legacy of Rachel Carson is really not in doubt. Now, she has her critics and her detractors still, but she certainly accomplished a great deal.

FLATOW: William Souder, author of the forthcoming biography of Rachel Carson, "On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson." I'm Ira Flatow with Flora Lichtman. We'll be right back with our Book Club. Stay with us. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. It's our SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club. It's our first one, hoping you will join us. We're talking with William Souder, author of a forthcoming biography of Rachel Carson. It's called "On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson." And we're talking about Rachel Carson this hour. As our first book, it's "Silent Spring" we're talking about with Flora Lichtman. And we hope you can join us: 1-800-989-8255. Flora, is there a section of the book you like?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. You know, I really loved the ecology part, but I want to read this section. This sort of comes after a few examples of botched pesticide use that didn't go as planned and caused a lot of damage. So Carson writes: In each of these situations, one turns away to ponder the question: Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chain of - chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond? Just...


LICHTMAN: You know, she's such a great writer.


SOUDER: This is a question and I think we should - we do a disservice to "Silent Spring" if we simply say it's a disturbing book or frightening book. It is those things, but it's also terrifically well-written. Rachel Carson was a wonderful prose stylist. And she had written three beautiful books about the ocean before she got to "Silent Spring." That passage is, again, an echo of something that is repeated throughout the book, which is her demand that if we, as a people, are going to be exposed to these chemicals, we have a right to know what they are and who's in charge and who's ensuring our safety because these were open questions in 1962.

FLATOW: She was already a bestseller at that point. Were people really surprised by this book?

SOUDER: I think they were surprised by the departure from the books that she had written before. Her first big book was "The Sea Around Us," published in 1951. That was a huge international bestseller. It was on top of The New York Times bestseller. It was for 39 consecutive weeks, almost unheard of. It won the National Book Award. I think it was translated into a couple of dozen languages. And her other two books were, like "The Sea Around Us," these lyrical, poetic, really kind of uplifting books about the ocean that had a scientific content to them.

She was great at translating science for popular consumption, but they were really, really beautifully and movingly written. And she was a celebrated and beloved author. And so when she published this strident polemic against pesticides, it did certainly catch people off guard but they did pay attention, and everybody then, not as is the case today, knew who Rachel Carson was.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's go to the Phones. Amy(ph) in New, Orleans. Hi, Amy. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

AMY: Hi. Thank you. I wanted to respond to your question earlier about what Rachel Carson would think if she was around today, and I wish she was. I think she'd be very happy to see her effect on the regulatory system, like you guys have been talking about. But I also think she'd be quite disappointed. And I don't think she'd be surprised, but I think she'd be quite disappointed to see the huge increase in the number of synthetic chemicals in plastics. I think she'd be quite concerned about genetically modified organisms and other kinds of issues that we have right now that have increased so much because, you know, when she wrote her book, we were really, you know, in my opinion, kind of at the beginning stages of all of that.

And I think she'd be quite concerned and upset to see, you know, the issue of ocean plastic pollution that's happening now, like I said, genetically modified organisms and especially the corporatization of all of this and how difficult it's become to prove what the effects of this are both on other organisms and on human health. So I think she'd be a little bit - very concerned, and I think she'd be out in the forefront fighting for all of these things the way a lot of other people are these days.

SOUDER: I'm sure that's true. You know, we've learned about cells and about molecular biology since Rachel Carson's time, and this new science has allowed us to look at issues like endocrine disruption, you know, chemicals that mimic hormones and cause many kinds of problems. I'm sure she would be concerned about that. I have no doubt, though, that her major concern right now would be with climate change. And the subtext for that, of course, would be the resistance that we see to the science, even though it is well-established and even though there's overwhelming consensus.

And we see this again and again today. And I think, more than anything, Rachel Carson would be dismayed at the resistance, the unwillingness to accept the science of evolution, the science of climate change, to engage in the kinds - some of the kinds of experimental work that needs to be done these days. So yes, she would be disappointed, I think, in where we're at. She would, yes, find some progress on some of the specific issues she was concerned about with pesticides, but she would see a lot of other problems that are just as big, if not bigger.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Thanks...

AMY: I agree.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Amy.

AMY: Thank you.

FLATOW: And we want to welcome New Orleans as a new SCIENCE FRIDAY station. Thanks for having them onboard. Flora, did you want to say something?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. William Souder, do you have a sense of what Carson's ambitions were for this book? Because I think one of the most - the things that - the thing that really moves me about this book is that it shows that an individual can actually change the course of history, I think, with a piece of writing. Did she expect that?

SOUDER: I don't know if she expected that. What she told her friend Dorothy Freeman was she felt that she really never had a choice but to write this book. And she referred to a famous quotation from Abraham Lincoln that, you know, it's a great sin to not do something that you're really obliged to do, and she felt that obligation. I don't know that she undertook the book thinking that she would affect the kind of changes that she ultimately did, but that was certainly part of the reason that she did go into it.

She started out just looking at a trial that was going on in New York where some residents were trying to stop aerial spraying for gypsy moths. And that idea quickly grew into this book, which was like her other books, initially serialized in The New Yorker magazine. And the magazine basically told her to say what she really wanted to say about pesticides. And as it turned out, what she really wanted to say was fairly dramatic and fairly substantial.

FLATOW: And one of the things that struck me by re-reading the book was her talking about the overwhelming profit motive, money talking, and it just seems still to ring so true today, you know?

SOUDER: One of the questions that I wanted to try to not answer, at least address in my book, is why we have this divisive partisan argument over the environment. I mean, why should Republicans and Democrats feel differently about the environment? Why is the right on one side and the left on the other side? And, you know, the simple answer is it has to do with economics, that trying to preserve the environment can be a cost to doing business, and it can involve some, you know, reach from government to regulate things. We kind of get that, but there's more to it than that.

And I think the answer is really kind of embedded in the reaction to "Silent Spring" when it came out, which was - on the part of the chemical companies and agricultural interests and commercial interests and all of their allies in government, there was a great deal of push back and attempt to really discredit the book and destroy the author. And many things were said about Rachel Carson that were an attempt to kind of cast her out on the lunatic fringe, if you will. She was lumped in with the organic farmers and the food faddists and the anti-fluoridations, people who were thought to be at the very margins of, kind of, rational thought and behavior.

But the real charge, the one that really hit home, was that she was, in some way, in lieu with or a front for or affiliated with sinister influences from the Eastern Bloc, meaning the Soviet Union and their satellites, and that her real agenda was to undermine American agriculture by reducing the use of pesticides and to bring the United States down to the level of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. So the idea that Carson was a communist is - that still flavors the argument today.

If you are someone defending the environment, you get cast way out to the left end of the political spectrum, and there really is no logical reason for that. We all share the same planet. We're all embedded in the same ecosystem, whether they're Republican or Democrat, right or left, you ought to take a look around and see what you're breathing and drinking.

FLATOW: There's a piece from The Huffington Post suggesting that Carson's book may have actually done a disservice to the environment and given us the polarization of the environmental movement. And let me quote from the article. It says, "in the process of protecting us from the poisonous effects of modern technology, 'Silent Spring' and the movement it helped spawn have poisoned our ability to think open-mindedly about the benefits of modern technology, including its environmental benefits as well as its many risks." Would you - is there any true to that, William Souder?

SOUDER: Well, anytime you have a polarization of public thought, you're going to have difficulty affecting reasonable public policy. But I don't know that that can be laid at the feet of Rachel Carson. She's a very rational person. And in taking the sense that she did in "Silent Spring," she was standing on the side of science and fact and the environment as opposed to the other side, which was on rumor and innuendo and the profit motive. So, you know, that polarization is there. Whether she did a disservice to us by causing us to be unable to communicate with one another, I'm not so sure about that. It's hard to go back and second-guess what might have been different had events unfolded in a different way 50 years ago.

FLATOW: Here's a tweet from Michael Dorsett(ph). He says, how many human voices are silent because of the banning of DDT and their subsequent deaths due to malaria?

SOUDER: Well, this is the charge that's always leveled against Carson, that she has blood on her hands from malarial deaths, particularly in Africa, because of the banning of DDT. Again, to reiterate, Carson always said that she was not opposed to such uses of DDT. She said it categorically, again and again, in many situations, and so she never ever said that DDT should not be used to fight malaria. The fact is, by the early 1960s, the World Health Organization program to - their efforts to eliminate malaria in Africa was undergoing some changes.

The use of DDT was declining because it was becoming less effective against mosquitoes that were becoming resistant to it. Funding was shrinking, and there was more a lack of will to continue than there was any overt cessation of the use of DDT. Which, although it was banned in the United States, was still produced here and was in no way prevented from being used overseas.

LICHTMAN: You know, one of the points she makes is about how we enact things without knowing the science well enough first. We didn't know the effects of these pesticides. Do you think that that message has registered too?

SOUDER: I think when - we might be in a little bit better shaped these days. Certainly, the EPA, for all its faults, does regulate the use of toxic or potentially toxic compounds. It's not a perfect system. In many ways, it's quite an imperfect one, but we've made some progress there. But you're absolutely right. Even though the subject at hand in "Silent Spring" was pesticides, you know, Carson's real complaint was always the same, and it was about human arrogance. This is the underlying sin to Rachel Carson, is this assumption that we can control nature at will and when the real challenge is to control ourselves. It should not be...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And that we should control nature, right? I mean, it...

SOUDER: Well, obviously...

LICHTMAN: ...this is a human tendency.

FLATOW: Well, she writes in her book, I'll quote, "The control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.

SOUDER: And this was the question that started being asked really from - kind of the middle of the 20th century on as biologists began to take a more ecological view of the world. We had to start thinking about mankind being not apart from nature, but embedded in it. And again, that's why I say that, you know, environmentalism differs from conservation in that the chief species, the chief object of preservation in the environmental movement is us - is human beings.

But, yes, Carson was distressed at the heedless, thoughtless use of technology. She felt that just because we can do something, doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea. And she always wished that there could somehow be more consideration given to emerging technologies than simply to their engineering.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm talking with William Souder, author of the forthcoming biography "On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson." Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones...

FERVIN: Hello.

FLATOW: ...to Fervin(ph) in Cincinnati. Hi, Fervin.

FERVIN: Hello there. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

FERVIN: I'm feeling good. I was so excited when you said that you are going to (unintelligible) a book of Rachel Carson. I am an grad student. I am always actually devoting myself for the green (unintelligible). The first (unintelligible) this one mentioned Carson watching her son and pointing out that (unintelligible) and (unintelligible) Love Canal and how (unintelligible) their existence.

FLATOW: All right. We're having trouble with the phone, but I think the caller was saying that he was a green student - student of green course and the first book they read was Rachel Carson. And...

SOUDER: You know, I was interest...

FLATOW: And, of course, Love Canal came right down the road after that. Did it not?

SOUDER: Yeah, I think Love Canal a few years after "Silent Spring." You know, "Silent Spring" does predate really a time frame when people did start to become aware that chemical contaminations would be a problem.

FLATOW: Yeah. Did she realize the power she had when she wrote the book?

SOUDER: I think that Rachel Carson, like many writers, is always surprised when her book sold well and had an impact. Anyone who writes a book knows that it's a bit of gamble that anybody will pay attention, even if you are an exceptionally well-known and famous author like she was. I don't know that she had any specific expectation about what she would accomplish. But as I said before, she just felt obligated to do it.

LICHTMAN: What about being a woman proposing this in that time? How did that go over?

SOUDER: Well, yeah, even going back to her first books about the ocean, this was something that was always noted about Rachel Carson, was that it was surprising to many people that a woman should be so articulate and knowledgeable about science or about the ocean, which seemed like a distant and forbidding place that maybe women shouldn't or wouldn't venture to. By the time we get to "Silent Spring," I think that was less of a factor because she was so well-known, and she was such a beloved author. The exact...

FLATOW: Could she have inspired - that was right at the beginning of the feminism movement, all books of the early '60s. Could she have inspired some women to speak up, who - some of the leaders?

SOUDER: She certainly might have. And I think that because she was taken at face value and take - and because her book was so seriously considered, both by people who liked it and by people who didn't, there really wasn't a question as to her credibility, or her authority or her talent. I mean, everyone recognized that she was the real thing.

The one sort of coded attack on Carson was that she was often referred to as a spinster because she wasn't married. And in those days, perhaps, that was a signal that maybe she was something else, some kind of a slight. And these things just, kind of, rolled off her back. She never, never got distressed - whether it was the threat of a lawsuit, or someone saying something critical or confronting her own critics in public. She was more than capable, even though she was a very slight woman, always described as kind of fray-looking and elfin. She could her own.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, that's a good - late And thank you, William Souder, for taking time to be with us today. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: William Souder...

SOUDER: Thanks so much. A pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Author of the upcoming book, "On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson." Our first book in our SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club. We'll be having Book Club as a regular feature. And come - we'll have an announcement of the next book we're going to be discussing. And we hope that you'll go to our website and follow us for the Book Club and everything else we do on SCIENCE FRIDAY, podcast and our website over there. We have iPhone and Android apps, and also we'll be tweeting all week and talking on the - our Facebook page. So have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.