Greens in America

The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work, with Selections from Her Writings

by Paul Brooks
Houghton Mifflin, 350 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Silent Spring

by Rachel Carson
Houghton Mifflin, 368 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement

by Robert Gottlieb
Island Press, 413 pp., $27.50

The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism

by Charles T. Rubin
Free Press, 312 pp., $22.95

The Green Revolution: The American Environmental Movement, 1962-1992

by Kirkpatrick Sale
Hill and Wang, 124 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement

by Susan Zakin
Viking, 483 pp., $23.50

Rachel Carson died thirty years ago this past April, two years after the publication of Silent Spring, her path-breaking account of the myriad ways that pesticides, particularly DDT, were damaging the natural environment and threatening human health. Much of the book, now reissued in an anniversary edition, is devoted to explaining technical subjects such as the intricate interaction of chemical compounds like dieldrin with physiological and ecological phenomena; yet it is written with passion and a poetic sensibility, and it shows eloquent concern for the human stakes in a chemically uncorrupted nature. Serialized in The New Yorker, Silent Spring captured enormous public attention, was a best seller for months, and was quickly translated into twelve foreign languages.

By the early 1970s, a variety of issues related to the environment and the management of resources had been raised in other popular books, including Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb and Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle, which together warned against the growing threats to the future of a ceaselessly exploited and overpopulated planet. Still, Carson’s book probably did more than any other single publication or event to set off the new environmental movement that emerged in the Sixties.

In his introduction to Silent Spring, Vice-President Al Gore writes that the book, which he read at his mother’s insistence and discussed at the family dinner table, had a “profound impact” on him. (Today, he tells us, Carson’s picture hangs on his office wall, along with photos of his other heroes.) During the first Earth Day, in 1970, an estimated 20 million environmental advocates demonstrated and paraded on streets and campuses all over the country and attended huge rallies in New York, Washington, DC, and San Francisco.

While the new environmentalism has been attentive to issues of land and wilderness, its central concern has been the pollution and poisoning of metropolitan industrial society. As such, it usually has been seen as different from the environmental movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century, with the closing of the landed frontier. According to most histories, the early environmentalists concerned themselves almost entirely with preserving nature outside the cities; they expressed an attachment traditional in American culture to unspoiled nature as a retreat from urban clangor and from “the busy haunts of sordid, money-making business,” as an article in the Atlantic Monthly put it as early as 1833. At the turn of the century, the leading exponent of the tradition was John Muir, who in 1892 led the founding of the Sierra Club by a group of San Franciscans concerned for the future of the mountain ranges, and who extolled the mountains as retreats for “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people.”

The turn-of-the-century impulse to preserve the wild was tempered by the recognition that the natural resources of the United States were not inexhaustible. Obviously not all of undeveloped nature could be protected from development, not if the country was to continue to meet the needs of its growing population, and meet …

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Letters

Earth First! December 1, 1994