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Five decades of ecological conscience

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is 50 years old and remains an environmental literature classic


Among the semi-centennials of 2012, one of the most important and least celebrated was the publication of Silent Spring (Primavera silenciosa, in Portuguese, reprinted in 2010 in Brazil by Editora Gaia).

This book by Rachel Carson caused such repercussions in the 1960s that even today it is considered one of the founding landmarks of the international environmental movement.

Carson was a scientist, but her name was included on the list of authors of the 100 best articles of the 20th century by a jury of prominent journalists put together by New York University in 2000 to select them.

Actually Silent Spring was originally published by The New Yorker magazine, in parts, between June and July 1962.

The strength of the arguments and facts that Carson reported in the text about the use of pesticides and their effect on the environment and people was so compelling that it became an instant hit. Dozens of newspapers reprinted excerpts from the work and commented on it. Senators and representatives in Congress talked about it and President John F. Kennedy even appointed a commission to study the issue based on Carson’s conclusions. The first edition of the volume with the full text, published by Houghton Mifflin, sold 600,000 copies in just one year.

People who knew Rachel Carson well described her as shy and introverted. Nevertheless, from a young age she became involved in popularizing science, the cause to which she dedicated most of her life.

With an undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s in zoology from Johns Hopkins, Carson in 1935 faced the prevailing prejudices of the time against women doing scientific research, and the only job she was able to get was as a writer of radio programs about the ocean, produced by the federal government department devoted to the study of forests and seas.

From there, she went on to publish articles in magazines such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Colliers, which she published in a series and which later would become her first bestseller, The Edge of the Sea (A margem do mar, in Portuguese) in 1952. When Silent Spring came out, she was already a well known author.

Yale Collection of American LiteratureThe first edition of the book in English and the work in PortugueseYale Collection of American Literature

Beginning in 1958, Carson devoted almost all of her time to the research and writing of what would become her greatest legacy to society. But at the same time, she was fighting breast cancer, whose first symptoms were detected in 1950 and which would lead to her death in 1964 at the age of 56. In addition, it made an orphan of her great-niece, whom she had adopted in 1957 when the child was 5 years old.

She interviewed hundreds of fellow scientists, employees of public agencies linked to agriculture, and physicians who studied the relationship between cancer and human exposure to pesticides.

She then conducted a broad survey of pesticide use and its possible consequences for human health and the quality of the environment.

The result was a text firmly based on science, but passionately written to incite the public to demand public policies against the use of synthetic pesticides.

“How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the risk of illness and even death to their own kind?” it asked.

The title is an allusion to a future spring in which if pesticide use were not contained, birds and wild animals would disappear from the environment, devastated by the poisons used against agricultural pests.

The book was dedicated to humanist Albert Schweitzer, author of the phrase serving as its frontispiece: “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.”

Although it was very well received by the public, Silent Spring provoked a brutal reaction from companies that produced pesticides, which attacked the author in several ways.

Although weakened by cancer, Carson vigorously defended herself, including in testimony to Congress and by participating in major news programs on television.

Roberto Berlinck, a USP chemist, made ​​the following assessment of the importance of Carson’s book: “It had two important consequences. The first was the need to regulate the production of chemicals used for different purposes. Her book served as the starting point for implementing government policies in the United States, such as the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.”

As to the repercussions in Brazil, Berlinck recalls: “The environmental regulations began to be implemented with Paulo Nogueira Neto, Special Secretary for the Environment between 1973 and 1985. After that the production, use and disposal of chemicals began to be regulated more and more strictly, so as to avoid environmental pollution and prevent disasters such as several that occurred in the city of Cubatão, São Paulo State.”

To Carlos Alfredo Joly, a Unicamp biologist and the Biota / FAPESP program coordinator, the book is a landmark in the international environmental movement. “It was the embryo for campaigns against the use of chemical pesticides, which then progressively expanded to, for example, combat CFCs which were depleting the ozone layer and culminated in the issue of CO2 emissions and global warming,” he says.

Silent Spring, which for 50 years has been raising the environmental awareness of millions of people around the world, is undoubtedly one of the universal classics of environmental literature, a perfect example of high quality scientific journalism.