Rachel Carson’s Radical Ecological Critique

Rachel Carson was born just over 100 years ago in 1907. Her most famous book Silent Spring, published in 1962, is often seen as marking the birth of the modern environmental movement. Although an immense amount has been written about Carson and her work, the fact that she was objectively a “woman of the left” has often been downplayed. Today the rapidly accelerating planetary ecological crisis, which she more than anyone else alerted us to, calls for an exploration of the full critical nature of her thought and its relation to the larger revolt within science with which she was associated.


Carson was first and foremost a naturalist and scientist. But she was propelled by her understanding of the destructive ecological forces at work in modern society into the role of radical critic. A recent biography attempts to capture this in its title: The Gentle Subversive. The principal causes of ecological degradation, Carson insisted, were “the gods of profit and production.” The chief obstacle to a sustainable relation to the environment lay in the fact that we live “in an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at any cost is seldom challenged.”1


Silent Spring was directed against the chemical industry and its production of deadly pesticides. Carson combined the best scientific information then available with the skills of a great writer, and had an extraordinary effect in raising public concern over this issue. Yet, despite a number of victories, Carson and those who followed in her footsteps lost the war against synthetic pesticides, which she preferred to call “biocides.” Although she conceded that there were some situations where the application of such chemicals might be appropriate, she strongly believed “the elimination of the use of persistent toxic pesticides should be the goal”—as stated in the 1963 report on pesticides of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, which she regarded as a “vindication” of her views. Chemical control needed to be replaced wherever! practicable by biological control (organic methods relying on natural enemies of the pests). She called this, in the concluding chapter of her book, “The Other Road.” Nevertheless, except for the banning of a few of the most deadly toxins such as DDT, the chemical industry triumphed, seeing an expansion of the production of this class of chemicals.2


This growing use of synthetic pesticides had nothing to do with the rational application of science. Although the chemical industry and their allies attempted to demonstrate that Carson made mistakes and exaggerated the dangers of pesticides in her arguments, her research has generally stood the test of time. Moreover, the questions she raised about the accumulation of these dangerous chemicals in living organisms are today even more relevant. She was especially concerned about the long-term, widespread effects of such biocides, which were being used in ever greater quantities, were persistent in the environment, and drifted uncontrollably, often concentrating in organisms in areas far removed from the point of introduction. She accurately predicted that dependence on synthetic pesticides would result in a pesticide treadmill as organisms evolved rapidly into more resistant forms requiring either hi! gher doses or new biocides. “The chemical war,” she wrote, “is never won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire.” By the late 1980s the production of pesticide active ingredients, much of it destined for U.S. farms, had increased to more than twice that of the early 1960s when Carson wrote Silent Spring. In 1999 over 100 million U.S. households applied some type of pesticide to their homes, lawns, and gardens. Many such chemicals on the market today have not been adequately tested. Meanwhile U.S. agribusiness has continued to produce and export banned pesticides to other countries. Some of the food imported to the United States from abroad is grown using these substances.


In the last decade and a half, the main focus of concern with regard to pesticides and related chemicals has shifted from cancer and the potential for genetic mutations—both of which remain among the biggest dangers of these chemicals—to the disruption of the endocrine system, affecting a myriad of bodily functions. Numerous pesticides mimic the female hormone estrogen, and research has suggested that they can reduce fertility, produce testicular and breast cancer, and malform the genital organs. Serious questions are being raised about the complex and still little understood effects of these chemicals on animal and human reproductive systems. Between the early 1970s and the early 1990s the incidence of testicular cancer in the United States increased by about 50 percent; while the last half-century or so has seen a drop worldwide in sperm counts by about 50 percent. Attention has also turned to oth! er synthetic chemicals introduced into the environment in countless products. Over seventy thousand synthetic chemicals are used in commerce, while only 10–20 percent of these chemicals have been systematically tested. The failure adequately to test or limit the use of such chemicals more than forty-five years after the publication of Silent Spring makes Carson’s book of continuing importance for that reason alone.3


But Carson’s attack on synthetic pesticides is not her most notable achievement. Rather it is her wider, ecological critique challenging the whole nature of our society that is so important today. Carson is better understood if we recognize that she was not simply an isolated figure as is often supposed, but was part of a larger revolt among scientists and left thinkers in the 1950s and ’60s arising initially from concerns over the effects of nuclear radiation. Alarm about aboveground nuclear tests and the harmful effects of radiation, coupled with fears of nuclear war, spurred scientists, emanating primarily from the left, to raise searching questions about the destructiveness of our civilization. From this work, the modern ecology movement emerged.


Radiation and Ecology


Carson’s discussions of the effects of pesticides on living things drew heavily upon earlier discoveries by scientists regarding radiation. She repeatedly referred in Silent Spring and elsewhere to the breakthroughs in the 1920s of U.S. geneticist H. J. Muller, who first discovered that exposure of organisms to radiation could generate genetic mutations. As she explained to the National Council of Women of the United States in October 1962, two weeks after the publication of her book:


When I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, studying under the great geneticist H. S. Jennings, the whole biological community was stirring with excitement over the recent discovery of another distinguished geneticist, Professor H. J. Muller, then at the University of Texas. Professor Muller had found that by exposing organisms to radiation he could produce those sudden changes in hereditary characteristics that biologists call mutations.


Before this it had been assumed that the germ cells were immutable—immune to influences in the environment. Muller’s discovery meant that it was possible for many, by accident or design, to change the course of heredity, although the nature of the changes could not be controlled.


It was much later that two Scottish investigators discovered that certain chemicals have a similar power to produce mutations and in other ways to imitate radiation. This was before the days of the modern synthetic pesticides, and the chemical used in these experiments was mustard gas. But over the years it has been learned that one after another of the chemicals used as insecticides or as weedkillers has power to produce mutations in the organisms tested or to change or damage the chromosome structure in some other way.4


As Carson observed in Silent Spring, “among the herbicides are some that are classified as ‘mutagens,’ or agents capable of modifying the genes, the materials of heredity. We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation; how then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in chemicals that we disseminate widely in our environment?”5


Muller, who was to be awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1946 for his discoveries, was a complex figure who had a long history as a socialist and a critic of capitalism. He had been a faculty adviser to the Texas branch of the National Student League in the early 1930s and helped in the sponsoring and editing of its publication Spark, named after Lenin’s Iskra. Muller went to the Soviet Union in  1933 to work in the advanced genetic laboratories there, but came into conflict with the regime in the context of the Lysenko controversy and ran directly afoul of Stalin. He served in the international brigades in the Spanish Civil War and worked with the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, later a hero of Mao’s China.


Although Muller was to become a very strong opponent of the Soviet Union under Stalin (due to the closing down of the genetic institute he had helped set up and the murder of some of his close friends and colleagues), he retained many of his critical beliefs, including faith in socialism. He held on to his earlier fundamental dialectical understanding that emphasized “the complicated processes (‘movements’ in the Marxian sense) whereby…objects are interrelated to one another and undergo their development”; such a dialectical approach he argued was crucial to the “realization of the complex realities of matter, especially of living matter, of its inter-connectedness.”6


The receipt of the Nobel Prize for work on the genetic effects of radiation shortly after the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made Muller a public figure. He frequently warned of the long-term dangers of radioactive fallout from nuclear war (and also nuclear tests), helping to raise public concern in this area, and running into conflict with the Atomic Energy Commission, which saw him as an obstacle to the full expansion of nuclear armaments. Muller was later to be the most prestigious scientific defender of Carson’s Silent Spring. In a review for the New York Herald Tribune, coinciding with the publication of her book, he called it “a smashing indictment that faces up to the disastrous consequences, ! for both nature and man, of the chemical mass-warfare that is being waged today indiscriminately against noxious insects, weeds and fungi.” However, the real importance, he suggested, of Silent Spring lay in the profound understanding that it conveyed of the interconnections within nature and between nature and society: in “the enlightenment it brings the public regarding the high complexity and interrelatedness of the web of life in which we have our being.”7


Muller was one of the eleven prominent intellectuals who signed the Russell-Einstein letter leading to the Pugwash Conference in 1957 addressing the control of nuclear weapons. He was a signatory along with thousands of other scientists of the 1958 petition to the United Nations initiated by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling (with the support of biologist Barry Commoner), calling for an end to nuclear weapons testing.


When the cloud of secrecy surrounding the fallout problem lifted in 1954, the scientific community was able to study the extent of environmental degradation and contamination caused by nuclear weapons tests. Such work required the expertise of biologists, geneticists, ecologists, pathologists, and meteorologists, who explored the effects of radiation on plants and animals, as well as the movement of radioactive materials through the atmosphere, ecosystems, and food chains. Nuclear testing had joined the world’s population in a common environmental fate, as radioactive fallout was distributed globally by wind, water, and living creatures. Human-made radioactive isotopes, such as strontium-90, iodine-31, cesium-137, and carbon-14, were introduced into the global environment, and from this point on, became part of the bodily composition of humans and all life. Different radioactive elements had distinc! t properties and posed unique threats to people and the environment. Plants and animals took up such materials, which were passed on through the food chain. Strontium-90 was built into children’s bones and teeth, cesium-137 concentrated in muscles, and iodine-131 was embedded in thyroid glands, each increasing the risk of cancer. Linus Pauling pointed to the myriad biological threats associated with carbon-14 lodged in all the tissues in the body.


In studying the effects of radioactive substances on food chains, the concepts of bioaccumulation and biological magnification were established—later to become intimately identified with Carson’s Silent Spring. Bioaccumulation refers to a process whereby a toxic substance is absorbed by the body at a rate faster than it is lost. For instance, strontium-90 is a radioactive isotope that is chemically similar to calcium and can accumulate in the bones, where it can cause genetic mutations and cancer. Biological magnification occurs when a substance increases in concentration along the food chain. An example of this occurred when radionuclides discharged into the Columbia River in trace amounts from the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington State were discovered to increase in order of magnitude as they were pa! ssed along in the food chain. A number of variables influence such biological magnification, such as the length of the food chain, the rate of bioaccumulation within an organism, the half-life of the nuclide (in the case of radioactive substances), and the concentration of the toxic substance in the immediate environment. Ecologist Eugene Odum noted that due to biological magnification it was possible to release an “innocuous amount of radioactivity and have her [nature] give it back to us in a lethal package!” Carson herself pointed to how biological magnification resulted in dangerously high burdens of strontium-90 and cesium-137 in the bodies of Alaskan Eskimos and Scandinavian Lapps at the terminal end of a food chain that included lichens and caribou.


In the 1961 edition of The Sea Around Us, Carson, who was deeply involved in protesting the dumping of radioactive wastes in the oceans, raised the pregnant question, “What happens then to the careful calculation of a ‘maximum permissible level’ [of radioactivity]? For the tiny organisms are eaten by larger ones and so on up the food chain to man. By such a process tuna over an area of a million square miles surrounding the Bikini bomb test developed a degree of radioactivity enormously higher than that of the sea water.”


The Castle Bravo hydrogen-bomb detonation at Bikini Atoll in March 1954, to which she referred here, was one of sixty-seven nuclear tests carried out by the United States in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, and the most notorious in its effects. The size of the blast (fifteen megatons, equivalent to a thousand times the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) was more than twice what was expected. Radioactive fallout rained down on inhabited areas of the Marshall Islands and on a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, some eighty nautical miles from Bikini (as well as contaminating ocean life over a vast region), creating an international controversy as the United States denied responsibility.8


A key figure linking the scientific critique of nuclear fallout and environmental contradictions in general to social movement struggles, and one with whom Carson closely identified, was the biologist and socialist Barry Commoner. In 1956 Commoner discussed with his friend and Marxist activist, Virginia Brodine, the possibility of organizing a campaign to get milk tested for strontium-90, modeled after the earlier pure milk campaign organized by St. Louis women. This led to the formation in April 1958 of the Greater St. Louis Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI)—after 1963 the Committee for Environmental Information—bringing together scientists (the “technical division” of the CNI) with activists. The CNI soon initiated its famous Baby Tooth Survey to examine babies’ teeth for strontium-90. Carson praised Commoner’s critique of the system’s failure to address problems such as air polluti! on before a new potentially dangerous technology was introduced. In her 1963 speech on “Our Polluted Environment” she underscored the importance of the CNI’s research on the effects of radioactive fallout.9


Carson and Ecosystem Ecology


Another very important influence on Carson’s environmental thinking was the rise of ecosystem ecology and new developments in evolutionary theory in her day. Ecology at this time was still a young field. The key concept of “ecosystem” had been introduced only a few decades prior in 1935 by the British ecologist Arthur Tansley. Tansley was a Fabian-style socialist who had studied under the leading Darwinian biologist of his day, E. Ray Lankester. Lankester was an adamant materialist, an early, sharp critic of ecological degradation, and a young friend of Karl Marx—present at Marx’s funeral.


In the late 1920s and ’30s, when Tansley was writing, the new field of ecology was dominated by teleological conceptions (emphasizing the purposiveness of nature, emanating from final causes) associated with the work of Frederick Clements in the United States and Jan Christian Smuts and his associates in South Africa. (Smuts, who served as South African prime minister, was one of the principal figures in establishing the preconditions for the apartheid system.) Incensed by the idealistic/racist interpretations of ecology propounded by Smuts and his followers, Tansley developed the concept of “ecosystem” as a materialist alternative to Smuts’s teleological “holism.” “Though the organisms may claim our primary interest,” he wrote, “we cannot separate them from their special environment, with which they form one physical system….These ec! osystems, as we may call them, are of the most various kinds and sizes. They form one category of the multitudinous physical systems of the universe, which range from the universe as a whole down to the atom.” Tansley was deeply concerned with “the destructive human activities of the modern world.” “Ecology,” he argued, “must be applied to conditions brought about by human activity,” and for this purpose the ecosystem concept, which situated all life within the larger material environment and penetrated “beneath the forms of the ‘natural’ entities,” was the essential form of analysis.10


Another of the founders of modern ecosystem analysis was the British zoologist Charles Elton, a close associate of Tansley’s, whose work was to be fundamental to the development of Carson’s ecological critique. Elton was famous for his pioneering 1927 work Animal Ecology. However, it was his later book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants (1958), in which he employed the new ecosystem concept, that was to inspire much of the wider argument of Silent Spring. In a powerful ecological condemnation of synthetic pesticides Elton declared that “this astonishing rain of death upon so much of the world’s surface” was large! ly unnecessary and threatened “the very delicately organized interlocking system of populations” in a given ecosystem. There were “other and more permanent methods of safeguarding the world’s organic wealth” that emphasized complexity and diversity rather than biological simplification. The unthinking use of “chemical warfare” on living things, he contended, following the U.S. ecologist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, reflected the failure of a system based on economic values that had no place for the larger values of a biotic community. He stressed that these actions might one day be looked upon as we now do on “the excesses of colonial exploitation.” Carson quoted Elton’s statement on “the rain of death” in her April 1959 letter to the New York Times in which she opened her attack on pesticides; she was to quote it again in Silent Spring as the leitmotivo f her chapter “Indiscriminately from the Skies.”11


Elton’s analysis had provided the foundation for the work of Carson’s friend and associate, Robert Rudd, a professor of zoology at the University of California at Davis. Carson first contacted Rudd in April 1958 to get help with her pesticide research, and to obtain some of his publications on the subject. He visited her with his children at her Maine cottage in July and the two struck up a strong friendship, and a close working relationship.


Rudd was a sophisticated left thinker with a deep sense of the ecology, sociology, and political economy of the pesticide issue. When he met Carson he had already started his own book on the subject funded by the Conservation Foundation. In 1959 he wrote two articles for The Nation:“The Irresponsible Poisoners” in May, and “Pesticides: The Real Peril” in July. “The Irresponsible Poisoners” argued that the use of deadly pesticides such as DDT was based on a misplaced emphasis on production over all other values. “Overproduction has settled on us like a plague….Chemical use to increase production is continually stressed; and few stop to inquire ‘Why?’” In “Pesticides: The Real Peril” he contended that the key reason that such chemicals were needed and also the leading effect of their use—in a kind of self-reinforcing vicious circle—was the extreme “simplification” imposed on the environment by industrial agriculture. Asked why there was an increasing reliance on such deadly chemicals, “an ecologist would answer….simplification of the ecosystem, [which] is the result of most current production practice in the United States.” The only effective way of dealing with the problem was therefore to change the production practice: to “cultivate ecological diversity” and reliance on biological control. “For the good of us all, chemical techniques must give way to ecological emphasis. The cultivation of ecosystem diversity will yield crop safety, sustained productivity, [and] reduction of chemical hazards.” The emerging system of global agribusiness needed to be questioned at the outset: “Our export of ! American agricultural ‘know-how’ may be doing the ‘favored’ countries an ultimate disservice.”


Carson drew extensively on Rudd’s research in two of the chapters of Silent Spring (“And No Birds Sang” and “Rivers of Death”). Rudd’s Nation articles also helped inspire Murray Bookchin’s first work on ecology, Our Synthetic Environment, published in 1962 (the same year as Silent Spring) under the pseudonym Lewis Herber.