First published in 1962, Silent Spring can single-handedly be credited with sounding the alarm and raising awareness of humankind's collective impact on its own future through chemical pollution. No other book has so strongly influenced the environmental conscience of Americans and the world at large.
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The prospect of reading a 300+ page book (or listening to a 10+ hours audiobook) about the perils of spraying DDT might not sound all that appealing. However, this book was declared one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by Discover magazine in 2006, alongside works by Einstein, Darwin, Galileo, Dawkins, Feynman, Watson (of DNA fame) and other major scientific figures.
I have known people who call themselves environmentalists because they hug trees, care about fluffy bunnies and harangue neighbours for trimming their hedges. So it's pleasing to find a book which came in right at the start of the movement (indeed, was a key work that got the movement going) and which deals with the science in an accessible, easy to follow way without dumbing down at all.
The book consists mainly of scientific explanations and case studies. We learn the chemistry of insecticides and herbicides and what effect they have on living creatures; how various species of insects, wildlife, plants and humans interact with each other, and what alternatives were available even at the time.
Some of the case studies are horrifying. As Howard Devoto of the post-punk band Magazine sang, I was shocked to find what was allowed. Highly toxic chemicals sprayed in large quantities over vast areas from planes, landing on cattle, children and so on. Lethal chemicals sold over the counter; instead of warning stickers, pictures of smiling father and son out spreading the lethal cocktail. A housewife with a morbid fear of spiders spraying her cellar with domestic pesticide on three occasions - the last of which killed her.
Then there's the chemist who wanted to work out the lethal dose of a chemical, so he tried ingesting a tiny amount. Oh, don't worry - he had the antidote right next to him. Unfortunately paralysis came in so quickly he couldn't move his hand to take any, He couldn't move his lungs either.
The book can almost be treated as a nonfiction horror novel. Indeed, it directly inspired an early Doctor Who serial, Planet of Giants, and its vibe can be felt in the likes of Doomwatch. More than anything, though, is its insight into ecology. We all know about the interconnectedness of living things, but Silent Spring makes it clear that this isn't hippy nonsense, it's solid science.
It's 54 years old now. I want to know more about the subject, what we learned since then, and how the governments changed their attitudes.