Rachel Carson’s Environmental Health Legacy

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, launched the environmental movement.  As the EPA observes in its history, “Silent Spring played in the history of environmentalism roughly the same role that Uncle Tom’s Cabin played in the abolitionist movement.  In fact, EPA today may be said without exaggeration to be the extended shadow of Rachel Carson. The influence of her book has brought together over 14,000 scientists, lawyers, managers, and other employees across the country to fight the good fight for ‘environmental protection.’”

Silent Spring was serialized by the New Yorker in September 1962.  By carefully connecting the dots between DDT use and human health, Carson illustrated how using untested chemicals when manufacturing pesticides could backfire.  Specifically, Silent Spring explains how pesticides are really biocides, because they kill more than their pesky targets. Carson illustrated how DDT, like many other synthetic chemicals used in pesticides, bioaccumulates as it passes through the food chain, resulting in the increasing silence of springtime birdsong.  Most controversially, Carson accused the chemical industry of intentionally misinforming the public and government scientists and regulators of uncritically accepting industry information.  While most of Silent Spring focuses on natural ecosystem impacts, the last few chapters recount cases of poisoning, cancer, and other illnesses attributed to pesticides.  As she quoted Albert Schweitzer, “[m]an can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation.”

Writer and naturalist Ted Levin of Thetford, Vermont spoke to our class last Monday about Carson and her legacy.  Born in 1907 in Pennsylvania, Carson grew up with a yen for observing the natural world and capturing what she saw in prose.  As the New Yorker would note on the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring’s publication, “Carson combined a scientist’s ability to see with a novelist’s ability to imagine. She excelled at describing the very large and the very small; she found ways to reveal the drama inherent in nature, while at the same time allowing the natural world to retain its fundamental strangeness.  . . .  She humanized nature without domesticating it.”

Carson had to stop her doctoral studies in zoology at Johns Hopkins to support her family. She took a job at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service writing brochures.  One of her essays, Undersea, began as a brochure and ended up as an Atlantic Monthly article.  The Sea Around Us was first serialized in a June, 1951 New Yorker; it went on to win a National Book Award and the John Burroughs Medal (which Ted also won in 2004 for Liquid Land: A Journey Through the Florida Everglades) and spend 86 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.  In 1955, The Edge of the Sea again started out on the New Yorker’s pages, and became a bestseller.

The resistance Rachel Carson experienced when challenging the post-World War II paradigm of the absolute scientific progress is noteworthy.  American Cyanamid biochemist Robert White-Stevens called her “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.”  He predicted that “[i]f man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” Attacks on Silent Spring also came from the American Medical Association and the Department of Agriculture.  Ag Secretary Ezra Taft Benson questioned in a letter to then President Eisenhower “why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics?”

Silent Spring was Carson’s last major work, for in the final days of bringing the book to publication, Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She died in 1964.  President Kennedy discussed Silent Spring at a press conference and later convened a presidential commission to study its conclusions.  As Ted noted in a Valley News article, her legacy can be seen in the degree of environmental awareness embodied today in the numerous undergraduate and graduate programs in environmental studies, NGOs dedicated to environmental stewardship, and the growing body of environmental health law at the federal and state levels.  By 2007, 717 North American colleges offered a degree in environmental studies, 211 in environmental science, 201 in environmental health, 138 in environmental engineering, and 118 in environmental biology.  Nearly 3000 nonprofit environmental organizations are listed on EnviroLink, dedicated to topics ranging from sustainable business (71) and environmental economics (88) to ground pollution (86) and waste management (104).

When asked why she wrote Silent Spring, Rachel Carson replied, “The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became.  I realized that here was the material for a book.  What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important.”  The EPA banned the use of DDT in the US in 1974.


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