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 Movements, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 78-93