Knight Center affiliate explores Rachel Carson’s impact on popular culture of environmentalism

Perry Parks

Perry Parks

During his studies in journalism and science communication, Perry Parks, a Knight Center affiliate and doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism, noticed recurring references to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in academic literature, environmental reporting texts and popular mass media. Parks was intrigued both that the 1962 book on pesticides was still so prominent in the culture and that nearly every reference credited Silent Spring in some way with launching the modern environmental movement.

Parks decided to investigate Silent Spring’s role in environmentalism and the causes of its staying power. So he read previous research on the book and conducted a historical and cultural analysis of every reference to the term “silent spring” in the New York Times and the Washington Post over 50 years. That turned out to be more than 1,000 news stories, editorials, letters to the editor, calendar listings and other items.

Parks learned that Silent Spring helped galvanize existing discontent over the use of chemical pesticides, rather than instigating that discontent. The book’s popular reception and significant media attention made it a part of policy debates over the subsequent two years, but attention waned through most of the 1960s. After the first Earth Day and major environmental legislation in the early 1970s, Silent Spring slowly grew in collective memory as an iconic, shorthand reference to multiple strands of government and civic activism surrounding the environment. In recent decades, nuanced descriptions of the book’s argument were dropped, and its rhetorical connection with an abstract “environmental movement” solidified.

In short, over time, the culture has collectively refined and simplified its understanding of Silent Spring, transforming it from a complex argument about the effects of unreflective pesticide use into a convenient symbol for 1960s activism that still resonates. Parks’ findings were published in the journal Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

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