Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

I would love to teach an Environmental History class - personal interest and student intrigue. However, I do not have an academic background in the field. Starting from scratch is a daunting task but I am curious enough about current environmental issues to dive into the field on my own. Last year I read The Gentle Subversive, a biography of Rachel Carson which I found enlightening - she is not an individual I ever heard about growing up (and I grew up in an environmentally conscious area). But living down the road from the Rachel Carson Homestead her name has come up more often recently.

I have checked out Silent Spring at least twice from the library but it took until this month to actually tackle reading it. I am NOT a scientist. I never liked science at school so reading a book about chemicals, full of acronyms and lengthy discussions of the impact of pesticides on human and animal populations seemed daunting. One of the great appeals of Carson's work is she takes a very heavy topic and makes it feel significantly less daunting. I understood a greater portion of the science than I had feared I would. She makes the topic of DDT and the destruction of the environment understandable. While Silent Spring is weighted with scientific and academic studies to prove her her points about the rapid destruction of the balance of the ecosystem I did not find my head spinning (too much) with jargony terminology.

When I discussed environmental history with another scholar, she pointed out Carson's book is a primary source. As a historian I recognize the book is dated. There are anachronisms in how she speaks (Carson did not live in the PC 21st Century) and a lot has changed in environmental awareness because of her book. I noted certain facts she included because I would like to know if they have changed in the past 40 years - in particular her information about the FDA caught my attention because that agency name comes up frequently in current discussions about Slow Food and Better School Food conversations.

Is this a book I would recommend to everyone?

No. I think there are more timely books to read now which discuss current environmental issues. However to someone who wants to understand the foundations of the current environmental movement its still relevant. Honestly for my needs I think the biography was more useful because I did gain a better understanding of how Carson fit into the scientific world discussing the balance of nature. Nonetheless, I feel more educated having read her words and seeing how good she was about taking a complex issue and writing about it for a non-scientific audience.

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