The crowd hushed, cameras snapped, and Senators sat respectfully still as the slight, pale woman limped slowly to the big table then, painfully, took her seat. It was June 4 1963, and Rachel Carson was 56 but looked much older. She was dying. Cancer had fractured her pelvis, taken a breast and, hidden by a dark wig, her hair.
Carson had worked as a United States Fish and Wildlife Service marine biologist and written articles for a number of magazines. She had turned her love of the sea and outrage with what was happening to rivers, lakes, and oceans into three best-selling books: The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea-Wind, and The Sea Around Us. Each presented disturbing ideas and scientifically sophisticated arguments without jargon, preaching, or rancour. She married her knowledge, passion, and writing and investigative skills in the creation her next book: Silent Spring.
While researching the book, Carson had served on the Natural Resources Committee of the Democratic Advisory Council where she became aware of Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy having initiated the Cape Cod National Seashore Act. Kennedy had read her books on the sea and then the committee report and so when he sought his party’s nomination for president, he invited Carson to join the Women’s Committee for New Frontiers.
Photo: Rachel Carson Council
As president, Kennedy read Silent Spring pre-publication excerpts in the New Yorker magazine. He was moved by Carson’s detailing the devastating effects of pesticide use on animal and human health and invited her to attend a White House conference on conservation. The conference led to Kennedy announcing that, because of Carson’s work, he was ordering the Department of Agriculture and the Public Health Service to investigate the dangers of pesticide use and the establishment of the President’s Science Advisory Committee to study links between pesticides and health.
Silent Spring became an instant bestseller when published in September 1962. It explained how pesticides, and specifically DDT, had been around since 1874. The American army had used DDT in both world wars to delouse soldiers and that Paul Hermann Müller had won the 1948 Nobel Prize for determining its effectiveness in killing mosquitoes and other pests. Carson’s book explained how DDT was also killing fish, birds, and people. Her title warned of the day that birds would be gone and skies without song. Most shockingly, Silent Spring told of how the government, scientific community, and the companies making and selling pesticides knew of their harmful effects. But there was money to be made. And so, the evidence was ignored, hidden, and denied. Carson asked an essential question: “How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the whole environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”
Pesticide manufacturing companies Cyanamid, Monsanto, and Velsical were outraged. They attacked. Velsical threatened to sue Carson, her publisher, and the New Yorker. They even tried to stop the publication of an article about the book in the Audubon magazine. The companies paid scientists to write editorials and articles that belittled Carson and her conclusions. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association published a booklet, Fact and Fancy, that savaged Kennedy and Carson. It was argued that Americans would suffer a food shortage without DDT.
In May 1963, the President’s Science Advisory Committee released a 46-page report, Use of Pesticides. With point after well-supported point, it said the companies were wrong and Carson was right. It stated, “Until the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides…The Government should present this information to the public in a way that will make it aware of the dangers while recognizing the value of pesticides.”
A month later, as part of that public education process, the sick, fragile, and wan Carson took her seat before the Senate subcommittee. She briefly summarized Silent Spring’s findings and then listed specific recommendations. The government should ban aerial spraying without the permission of landowners. Citizens should enjoy guaranteed security against poisons used by companies, governments, and private individuals. Corporations making pesticides, and all those using them, should be strictly regulated. She advocated the outright banning of DDT. The government should fund and support grass roots citizen organizations and non-government organizations to encourage awareness of environmental issues.
The environmental movement was born. American companies sold 90,000 tonnes of DDT in 1963 but production decreased the next year and every year after that. It took a while, but in 1972, American DDT production was banned. Carson’s name was raised and Silent Spring was read by those advocating and then celebrating President Nixon’s Clean Air and Water Acts, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and, in 1970, his establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In his 1996 book, Our Stolen Future, Dr. Theo Colborn wrote about chemicals that interfere with our body’s hormonal system called endocrine disrupters. He credits Silent Spring with awakening him and other scientists and researchers to the dangers of manmade chemicals and noted how it was still inspiring discoveries and environmental advocacy.
Breast cancer took Rachel Carson in 1964. But her voice still echoes for Silent Spring is still read. It still inspires. It still exasperates.Silent Spring is still discussed around the world every Earth Day.
Books that matter always educate and infuriate and important authors, like important ideas, are always ignored, then mocked, then attacked, and, in time, celebrated. Books measure how far we have come and how far remains to go. As the American government appears ready to deregulate corporations and eviscerate environmental regulations, and women are leading the charge to fight the turning back of the clock on this and other issues, perhaps Silent Spring is more important now than ever.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped change the world. It may need to change it again.
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