A stark warning of
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is regarded by
some as one of the most influential books
of the twentieth century. The author was
a biologist and a writer, so both skills are
brought together to tell the story of the use
of pesticides in America, a practice that
caused widespread destruction of wildlife.
In doing so, the book recognises the heart
of ecology, the fact that everything in nature
is related to everything else.
PROFESSOR JOY CARTER
The book was written for a popular audience:
it is well researched and endlessly compelling.
It is a fascinating tale of unintended
consequences, with successive chapters
discussing the effects of pesticides on birds,
other animals, plants and humans. If you think
this sounds like a rather disturbing vision,
you are right, but the book is also filled with
Carson’s total delight in the natural world.
“I am pessimistic about the human race
because it is too ingenious for its own good.
Our approach to nature is to beat it into
submission. We would stand a better chance
of survival if we accommodated ourselves to
this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead
of sceptically and dictatorially.” - E. B. White
(from the Silent Spring epigraph)
As an environmental geochemist with real
passion for my discipline, I am drawn to books
which reflect on the relationship between
humankind and our planet. James Lovelock’s
books on his Gaia hypothesis were strong
contenders for this spot. His central notion is
that the planet behaves as a living organism,
with all parts dependent on one another (staff
at the University of Winchester are probably
fed up with me referring to my ‘Gaia model’ of
the university). If you haven’t yet discovered
these books they are well worth reading.
Silent Spring provoked a huge change in
attitudes, including a new ‘spirit of activism’,
recognition of the problem in government,
and new legislation. Has the problem she
describes gone away? Clearly many pesticides
are now banned and/or controlled, but
new compounds abound – pesticides and
other chemicals – and a key problem for the
twenty-first century is that the science of toxic
chemical cocktails is hugely complex and very
much in its infancy.
Professor Joy Carter has been vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester
since April 2006 and was previously
pro-vice-chancellor (academic) at the
University of Glamorgan. Her research
area is environmental geochemistry and
health, and she recently stepped down as
president of the international Society of
Environmental Geochemistry and Health
(SEGH). Her research interests are pesticides
(environmental storage, transport and
health effects), trace metals and micro-anionic nutrients and she has published
over one hundred papers and several books
in the field.
When the book was published the reaction
of the chemical industry was predictable:
a hugely expensive publicity campaign
designed to denigrate Rachel Carson’s science.
Linda Lear says in her afterword, “Journalists
and reviewers labelled Carson ‘an hysterical
woman‘. Carson’s sin was not only that she
had presented only one side of the argument,
but her more unpardonable offence was that
she had overstepped her place as a woman.”
Rachel Carson’s biographer comments that
“toughness of character, resilience and an
appetite for new experiences sustained her”.
(I suspect that these are essential
characteristics for leadership in the current
higher education sector, for women and men.)
Professor Carter is chair of the Cathedrals
Group (the Council of Church Universities
and Colleges), as well as vice-chair of
GuildHE and a director of Universities UK.
Her other national roles include chair of the
University Vocational Awards Council and
member of the ministerial advisory group
on further education and skills.
But just ahead of these, and in many
ways linked to them, I had to select Silent
Spring. Why? This amazing 1960s work
has an important prophetic content. It is a
remarkable, controversial and exciting book
with the added benefit that the life of the
author says much about the trials of some
professional women, even today. Rachel
Carson’s biography The Gentle Subversive is
a good read too.
Finally, Silent Spring is, above all, a stark
warning of unintended consequences.
Perhaps it should be on every politician’s
essential reading list? E
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (27 September 1962);
latest UK edition Penguin Classics (28 September 2000)
Format: Paperback, 336 pages
Price: £ 6.79 at Amazon.co.uk