Geography Compass Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

‘Silent Spring’ and Fifty Years of Environmental Advocacy

Rachel Carson c. 1940

Martin Mahony

Last week saw the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s classic study of the effects of agricultural pesticides on the environment and human health. The book is widely credited with kick-starting the modern environmental movement, raising awareness of environmental concerns among US and global publics, and laying the groundwork for a slew of new environmental regulations in US law.

Eliza Griswold in the New York Times has reflected on Silent Spring’s impact on the environmental movement. Griswold argues that part of Carson’s success lay in reaching out to a pre-existing “army” of concerned citizens – particularly “scores of housewives” – whom the text mobilised as both sources of information about the plight of local animals and birds and as a receptive audience to Carson’s arguments about the effects of industrial agriculture on American landscapes.

Environmental activism has recently been of great interest to geographers concerned with the relationship between nature, space, and the development of social movements. In recent articles in Geography Compass and Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Walter J. Nicholls explores some of the contributions geographers can and have made to the study of such movements. Geographers have paid particular attention to how a ‘sense of place’ often lies at the heart of environmental movements. Contestation over the ‘value’ of a place – for example as a site of intensive agriculture or natural beauty – can lead to the formation of political forces which run counter to dominant economic interests. However, if movements are so rooted in place, then one is led to the question of how a social movement can spread across a country or across the globe. Must a social movement appeal to pre-existing values or interests, or can new alliances be brokered among previously unconnected groups of actors?

Rachel Carson’s work was distinctly place-based. But her opening fable about a fictional town ravaged by a multitude of environmental disasters – all of which, she claims, have happened somewhere in the US or the world – tells us something about how she was able to relate her concerns to those reading her book in far-away libraries and living rooms. These far-flung concerns were brought together at the outset in a single fictional place, thus opening up a wide terrain into which her arguments could subsequently reach.

The enduring legacy of Silent Spring is an interesting study in the geography of social movements. The book’s 50th anniversary and its associated acts of reflection and contemplation have made clear how the text was instrumental in forging new interests and identities through relational exchanges across a range of sites, environments and political spaces.

 How Silent Spring Ignited the Environmental Movement New York Times

Walter J. Nicholls, 2007, The Geographies of Social Movements, Geography Compass 1 607-622

 Walter J. Nicholls, 2009, Place, Networks, Space: Theorising the Geographies of Social MovementsTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 78-93


  1. Excellent article and an interesting consideration regarding “place” in the discussion of the impact of “Silent Spring” on its 50th Anniversary. To find an excellent list of additional articles, check out Spring Movie the official website for a future feature film about Rachel Carson and her struggles to write and defend “Silent Spring” as she was dying of breast cancer.

    1. Thanks. Hope you’ll “like” the Facebook page or become a follower on my Twitter @silentspringmov so you can receive updates on the project as we move forward. The film project has the rights of the Estate of Rachel Carson and is based her papers at the Yale University library.

  2. Good day! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m undoubtedly enjoying your blog
    and look forward to new updates.

  3. Heya! I’m hoping it is possible to answer my question. I’m
    interested in a premium WP theme, but I don’t know how to know if the one I choose will be works with mobile phones. What are some guidelines you can give me as to what to look for with regards to colors and background and issues like that? I usually look at websites via my mobile, and I’m going to guess that many
    people are like me in that way. Oops, i went a bit off topic, sorry.
    Appreciated the document thou.

    1. I’m only a guest writer on here so I have no involvement with the design of the site, but WP does seem to work pretty well on mobile phones. I guess the best thing would be to keep it simple and use lighter colours – that often gives a greater feeling of space on a small screen!

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