It has been 50 years since Rachel Carson’s seminal book “Silent Spring” was first published. It has sold more than 6 million copies in the United States and been translated into more than 30 languages. The book was an immediate bestseller, an inspiration for the environmental movement and a lightning rod for critics of her conclusions about the harmful effects of the indiscriminate use of industrial synthetic pesticides, particularly DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), on the environment and all creatures who live in it, including humans.
When I first read “Silent Spring” not long after its publication, I was immediately reminded of a summer night less than a year before in the small town of Fallon, Nev., an hour east of Reno, where I lived. Three college friends and I had attended some festive gathering in Fallon and late that night we were walking down a dark street of a suburban neighborhood (small-town Nevada ’60s style) following a city truck spraying clouds of DDT to rid the neighborhood of mosquitoes. We purposely stayed within the cloud on our walk and were successful in avoiding even a single mosquito bite that night.
One could call it a more innocent time, or, perhaps, one could call it a dumb, ignorant, gullible, deceived, brainwashed or propagandized-into-brain-dead time. One chemical manufacturer of the era had an ad illustrated with a wholesome cartoon depiction of a smiling dog, pumpkin, housewife, cow, potato and rooster dancing on a stage and singing “DDT is good for me-e-e!” with accompanying text reading “…[E]xhaustive scientific studies have shown that, when properly used, DDT kills a host of destructive pests, and is a benefactor of all humanity.” DDT in the form of powders and sprays were present in nearly all American homes and it took a Rachel Carson to alert the world to the truth that the scientific studies were, contrary to industry propaganda, hardly exhaustive.
“Silent Spring” shined a bright light on the innocence, the ignorance and the misinformation that conveniently allowed the world to overlook the obvious: Everything in the environment of the real world is connected to everything else, and that which is capable of killing an unwanted pest is also capable of killing, for instance, you.
When Carson’s book was published, she had a fortuitous, dedicated and powerful ally in the person of John F. Kennedy, president of the United States at that time. Carson, who was dying of breast cancer (she died in 1964), served on the Natural Resources Committee of the Democratic Advisory Council during Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency. That council’s report on pollution control was deeply influenced by Carson’s anti-pollution research and ideas, particularly those involving radioactive and chemical contamination of the environment. The report recommended that if Kennedy was elected, he create a Bureau of Environmental Health within the U.S. Public Health System. Carson viewed this idea as the prototype for an Environmental Protection Agency to regulate “our one imperative resource: the environment in which all of us live.” Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon for the presidency, and less than two years later he established a special panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee to study the health and environmental effects of using pesticides.
Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University, has written, “When ‘Silent Spring’ was at last published in book form on Sept. 27, 1962, the chemical industry went ballistic. Kennedy instantly became Public Enemy No. 1 for propping up ‘Silent Spring’ as worthy of serious attention. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association … warned that factory shutdowns would mean thousands of lost jobs.
The Environmental Protection Agency was formed by (of all people) President Richard Nixon in 1970 to, among other things, temper our willingness to rush ahead and use something new without knowing what the results are going to be, and to turn back after discovering that something new (or old) is harmful to human or environmental health. Such tempering continues to make the chemical, mining, agricultural, nuclear, oil, coal, gas and other such industries, as well as their congressional colleagues, go ballistic. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, for instance, called the EPA “the scariest agency in the federal government.”
While the ongoing evisceration of the EPA under the current and previous administrations is scary, the EPA is the (last?) best hope for tempering our willingness to use technology to destroy the environment and damage the health (and kill) humans in the interests of industrial profits. The EPA and public awareness (some of the public) of the value of conservation, fragility of the natural environment and the effects of chemical and radioactive contamination on that environment are just a part of the legacy of Rachel Carson. Eleven days after John Kennedy was assassinated, Carson said in a speech at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, “Conservation is a cause that has no end. There is no point at which we will say ‘our work is finished.’”
Rachel Carson’s legacy is a cause that has no end.