Fifty years ago with Silent Spring Rachel Carson took on the powerful chemical industry and directed our focus to humankind’s impact on nature. Our nation was rapidly becoming a frightfully inhospitable place for living things. Pesticides, particularly new persistent ones like DDT and dieldrin, were driving some species to the brink of extinction, toxic waste flowed unimpeded into our rivers, and the growing amounts of soot from ubiquitous smoke stacks poisoned the air.
We woke up and the clean-up began. Under a Republican President, the EPA was formed and Congress acted to pass landmark legislation with the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. People coalesced in advocacy groups like The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Resource Council. The first Earth Day was proclaimed in 1970 and yearly we’re reminded to recommit to a healthy planet. The message was stark. We harm the planet, we harm ourselves, so delicate is the balance between all living things.
Carson began as no instigator. She was a biologist who worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service but had the gift for explaining complex scientific concepts in readable, easily understandable prose. Already a celebrated writer and already fearing that the long-term effects of the new pesticides were not being sufficiently studied and tested, a friend’s concern over the number of dead birds on her property after a wide spraying of DDT targeting mosquitoes prompted the research from which Silent Spring grew.
Carson’s evidence and warnings were not appreciated by the hugely lucrative pesticide industry. That the public was awakened to the dangers of its synthetic poisons did not sit well and a troublingly familiar campaign to discredit and intimidate Carson was launched even before the book reached the bookstores. This will likely sound familiar. She was “an alarmist,” she was “emotional and reckless” and she was “a socialist and a communist”(still the favorite for inducing suspicion and fear). The president of Montrose Chemical called Carson “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.” (Think on that.) Monsanto — a huge chemical company — mounted its own campaign with an outrageous parody of what would happen if Carson were heeded.
Carson believed that the public had the right to unbiased and accurate information about any potential impacts of environmental practices. Only then can the public choose how it will respond. Fifty years after Silent Spring we’re again faced with the challenge to educate ourselves and confront the threat of global warming which requires we, in Carson’s words, “leave behind any childlike notion that ‘someone’ is looking after things.” Industry’s attacks on Carson seem quaint compared to the sophisticated and, over the past few years, shockingly effective tactics to lull us into complacency.
Some of us were contemporaries but most of us are the kids, grandkids and great-grandkids of Rachel’s time and we’re all the beneficiaries of her gift. We’ll be Rachel Carson for those who come next or we won’t. Our choice or, as writer Molly Bennet coined it, “Our Silent Spring.”
By Jennie Young