Silent Spring Revolution by Douglas Brinkley is a meticulously researched and deftly written chronicle of the rise of environmental activism during the Long Sixties (1960-1973). The book tells the story of an indomitable generation that saved the natural world under the leadership of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.
The book pays tribute to those who combated the mauling of the natural world during this period. It profiles with verve and insight, figures such as Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and author whose book “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, depicted how detrimental DDT was to living creatures. This exposé launched an ecological revolution that inspired landmark legislation like the Wilderness Act (1964), the Clean Air Acts (1963 and 1970), and the Endangered Species Acts (1966, 1969, and 1973).
Brinkley’s work also highlights other crusaders like David Brower, director of the Sierra Club, Barry Commoner, an environmental justice advocate, Coretta Scott King, an antinuclear activist, Stewart Udall, the secretary of the interior, William O. Douglas, Supreme Court justice, and Cesar Chavez, a labor organizer.
The book provides an intimate detail of epic events such as the Donora (Pennsylvania) smog incident, JFK’s Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Great Lakes preservation, the Santa Barbara oil spill, and the first Earth Day. It serves as a stark warning about the agriculture industry and the widespread use of the pesticide DDT.
What I Liked
Everything. This book is a part of the most informative, useful history trilogies that I have ever read. It starts with Wilderness Warrior, continues to Our Rightful Heritage, and finishes with Silent Spring Revolution.
The biggest thing that I loved about this book is the sheer relevance. History is great, but a lot of times it can only provide a broad, high-level picture of why things are they way they are.
I love how the book sets the context of the daily lived experience for Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, like now, there were a million issues all going on all at once. And not everything caught the public’s attention all at once either. The book gets into how the environment fit into people’s existing notions of conservation and health, and how the biggest achievement of the era was helping people think in terms of how the world around us directly affects us as individuals.
I also love how the book gets into the actual mechanics of the politics of environmentalism, conservation, and growth. The vote trading, the coalition building, the tying to existing issues. etc.
The book was also yet another reminder that even though the United States has done a lot of environmental damage to our shared world, it is the United States that has led the way on every environmental issue in modern human history. That is the big theme of the entire trilogy. America led the way on using up natural resources, but we also invented the idea of National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, Forests, and Preserves that saved millions of species and land. We led the way on industrializing extraction and accelerating consumerism, but we also invented the idea of wise use, preservation at scale, and scaling up restoration at a national & international scale. We led the way on advanced chemicals, nuclear weapons, and reckless economic development, but we also invented the ideas of Wilderness, Ecology (go University of Georgia BTW), environmentalism as public health, preservation of endangered species, and global coordination of the protection of wildlife.
And that contradiction is difficult and not ideal, but also OK. We* just need to increase the speed of our corrections and leadership.
What I Did Not Like
Nothing! It’s long and dense, but fast-paced and engaging.