The Van Trump Report

How the Modern Environmental Movement Got Started… “Silent Spring”

It was on this day back in 1962 that Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published, starting what many call the modern environmental movement and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The book became highly controversial as it pointed fingers at poor agricultural practices being used, specifically the widespread spraying of DDT and identified some of the horrific consequences to the wildlife and the environment. The book is now over a half-century old but it is still being talked about and heavily debated. In fact, my daughter is having to read the book right now in college for her air toxicity class. 

When the book first hit the shelves back in the fall of 1962 it became an instant topic of debate and controversy. Reactions to it were immediate and strong. The author’s best friend called it “the poison book.”  A spokesperson for the agricultural chemical industry called it “…gross distortions of the actual facts, completely unsupported by scientific, experimental evidence….”  Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called it “…the most important chronicle of this century for the human race.”  Today we call the book—Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—the origin of the modern environmental movement.

Rachel Carson was in her mid-50’s and an unlikely writer for a book that caused such commotion. Carson, born in rural Pennsylvania, was a shy, reclusive woman, never interested in the spotlight. Taught by her mother to observe nature and find her own lessons from those observations, she grew to love both science and literature. Forgoing the usual educational path for young women at the time—go to college, become a teacher or nurse, get married—she studied biology.  

She became the first scientist ever hired by the U.S. Biological Survey, a precursor to today’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But she never gave up on being a writer. Her fellow scientists marveled at her ability to combine scientific ideas and beautiful prose to tell the story of ecosystems. In 1959 Carson noticed the bird populations in and around her area were dramatically changing and she believed it was linked to the heavy aerial spraying of DDT that was being used to kill mosquitoes and fire ants.  So she wrote a letter, that was picked up and published in one of the large newspapers, that attributed the recent decline in bird populations—in her words, the “silencing of birds”—to pesticide overuse. The same year, 1957, 1958, and 1959 crops of U.S. cranberries were found to contain high levels of the herbicide aminotriazole and the sale of all cranberry products was halted.

Many of her closest friends and colleagues say she didn’t want to write Silent Spring. She wanted to keep studying and writing about the beauty and wonder of nature. But friends kept telling her about the deaths of wildlife after airplanes sprayed their fields and forests with insecticides. Unable to find anyone else who would take up the challenge, Carson dug in. She spent years gathering information about pesticides and their impacts, doing painstaking research to connect the dots. Her conclusion: the heavy spraying of pesticides was poisoning the earth in several locations. Interestingly, Carson never called for an outright ban on DDT. She said in Silent Spring that even if DDT and other insecticides had no environmental side effects, their indiscriminate overuse was counterproductive because it would create insect resistance to pesticides, making them useless in eliminating the target insect populations

Although agricultural interests worked hard to discredit Carson, the overwhelming response to the book and the caution that it urged changed the world of agriculture forever. Many critics repeatedly said Carson was calling for the elimination of all pesticides, but she had made it clear she was not advocating this but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use with an awareness of the chemicals’ impact on a biological ecosystem. Silent Spring was eventually named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of Discover magazine.

Unfortunately, Rachel Carson didn’t live long enough to witness her impact. She died 18 months after the book’s publication, consumed by breast cancer. Just as she always had, she sought understanding through nature, this final time through the monarch butterfly.  “…For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to its end.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *