Cause Without a Rebel: Silent Spring and the Rise of Environmentalism

“From the beginning she assumed the uncomfortable role of reformer, or of “crusader” as she called it, because no one else would.”[1]

Vision and Motivation

Throughout the summer of 1962, it seemed that nuclear war was imminent. As the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis captured Americans’ attention, and with disaster in Vietnam looming, a new crisis arose from an unlikely source – Americans themselves. Silent Spring, a damning indictment of indiscriminate pesticide use written by popular author and ecologist Rachel Carson, topped the New York Times bestseller list and sparked outrage amongst scientists and the general public.[2] In the post-World War II years, the discovery of the insecticide DDT was hailed as a modern miracle; entire provinces were sprayed to curb malaria and typhus epidemics, and National Parks were protected from voracious gypsy moths, while aerosol bombs allowed housewives to eliminate insects in “just six seconds.”[3]

The booming multi-million dollar pesticide industry promised “better living through chemistry”[4] and seemed beyond reproach. Although a nascent environmental movement already existed, its rationale was maximizing man’s ability to exploit the environment, and it was entirely compatible with widespread pesticide use. In fact, many members of the prestigious conservationist Sierra Club served on the boards of chemical manufacturers.[5] While Carson knew that the chemical industry would be a formidable opponent, she also knew she had to publicize its dangers, writing, “I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could.”[6]

While smog levels reached record highs in San Francisco, stories of babies deformed by thalidomide dominated the headlines, and radioactive snow contaminated New York’s Central Park, concerned Americans now read of “elixirs of death” and “needless havoc”caused by a failure to appreciate that “public health and the environment ... are inseparable.”[7][8][9] Carson’s eloquent prose, combined with her scientific rigor, rationalized many previously ill-defined fears and provided a catalyst for change. Despite editorials demanding “Silence, Miss Carson!”[10] and calls for her book to “be ignored”, Silent Spring was swiftly heralded as a book which would “substantially [alter] the course of history,” as one senator told Carson.[11]

Goals and Objectives

Opening with a desolate dystopia describing stunted children, lifeless streams and vanishing wildlife, Silent Spring was intended to expose the hidden dangers of pesticide use and “shock the public into action.”[12] Meticulously detailing the chemical composition and biological effects of the most widely used pesticides, Carson argued that indiscriminate aerial spraying combined with rainwater could turn even puddles into “potential death potions.”[13]

The effects on wildlife were devastatingly clear, with hundreds of bee colonies destroyed, young salmon in contaminated rivers “practically wiped out,” and “alarming numbers of dead and dying birds” discovered by distraught homeowners. In areas of Venezuela sprayed with the pesticide Dieldrin, so many cats died that they were reduced to the status of rare animals.[14]

This unbridled proliferation of pesticides, Carson argued, was destroying not only wildlife but ultimately human health as well. “Every human being”, she warned, “is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals from the moment of conception until death,” with every meal carrying “its load of chlorinated hydrocarbons.”[15] Carson cautioned that while people are “accustomed to look for the gross and immediate [health] effects and ignore all else,” longer term chemically induced health problems are no “less frightening as it is simply impossible to predict the effects of lifetime exposure…” She warned, “the full maturing of whatever seeds of malignancy have been sown by these chemicals is yet to come.”[16]

Indeed, cancer rates in children had already increased dramatically; while childhood cancer had previously been considered a rarity, by the early sixties, cancer was more likely to kill American school students than any other disease.[17] Meanwhile, laboratory animals developed thyroid and liver tumors in reaction to pesticide exposure, and small children accidentally exposed to pesticide spraying equipment often died within hours.

However, information on the toxicity of such chemicals was typically buried in scientific journals while the public was placated with “little tranquilizing pills of half-truth.”[18] Carson believed the average consumer was “bewildered by the array of chemicals and [had] no way of knowing which are the deadly ones and which are reasonably safe.”[19] She challenged the notion that “knowledge was the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories,”and believed that by educating the public she could empower “citizens’ brigades” to tackle environmental degradation.[20][21] Within months, thousands of Americans, from housewives to senators, initiated community cleanups; lobbied for more stringent legislation on pesticide use; and challenged chemical manufacturers openly in courts across the country.

Carson asked, “How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of death and disease even to their own kind?” – but she never advocated eliminating all chemical pesticides.[22] The ultimate solution, she believed, was to control insect populations naturally by engineering bacteria capable of targeting only pests, releasing large numbers of sterile insects, or developing natural pesticides using chemicals found within the stings or venom of the insects themselves; in the interim, however, Carson called for the use of less toxic insecticides.[23]

Leadership

Rachel Carson was an unlikely crusader, only reluctantly deciding to write on the dangers of pesticides: "The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became. I realized that there was 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."[24]

Carson had begun her career by obtaining a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins in 1932, after which she was hired by the Bureau of Fisheries (later the Fish and Wildlife Service) as a junior aquatic biologist. She went on to write three bestselling books on the sea, winning the National Book Award for The Sea Around Us in 1952. That year, she transitioned to a full-time writing career.

Throughout the fifties, Carson became increasingly concerned by the effects of chemicals on wildlife, but when she read a 1958 letter written by a friend describing“agonizing” bird deaths following pesticide exposure, she felt compelled to shift from showing her readers the beauty of nature to warning them on the dangers of pesticides. As she wrote, “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.”[25][26]

Nearing her mid-fifties when Silent Spring was published, Carson was a profoundly private and reserved woman, concealing even the last stages of her terminal cancer from the public gaze. Although she lacked the scientific credentials of her critics, her powerful prose and meticulous accuracy jump-started a revolution in environmental thought. The realm of marine biology and biochemistry was flung open, not only to housewives and students, but also to journalists and government officials who had previously struggled to evaluate esoteric scientific arguments.

Even while faced with the threat of nuclear war, President Kennedy personally assured the press that the Department of Agriculture was examining the long-range side effects of pesticides, “particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book.”[27] Like Harriet Beecher Stowe before her, Carson was another “little woman” who led revolution by simply letting her “research and argument speak.”[28] “This will be an Uncle Tom’s Cabin of a book,” predicted E.B. White, Carson’s friend and publisher of the New Yorker Magazine.[29]  “The sort that will help turn the tide.”[30]

The tide did indeed shift as July 1962 ushered in a “noisy summer.” Surrounded by a media firestorm, Carson testified before Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee and later appeared in a CBS documentary.[31] Despite her failing health as tumors spread throughout her body, Carson remained calm and determined when countering her opponents and meticulously replied to letters seeking advice or clarification, not only from scientists but also from school children.[32] She saw herself not as an activist but as a scientist: “I don’t want to make this a Carrie Nation crusade.[33] As I see it, my job was to present the facts. Now it’s up to the public.”[34]

 

Anticipating the attacks that would portray Carson as a “crackpot and subversive,” Carson’s publisher strove to legitimize Silent Spring as a mainstream scientific work by sending advance proofs to scientific experts and leaders of society.[35] They even obtained an endorsement from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who called the book “the most important chronicle in this century for the human race.”[36]

Unsurprisingly, this did not prevent enraged pesticide manufacturers from mounting a vitriolic smear campaign even before the book’s publication. After laboriously combing through the text line by line for factual errors or misrepresentations, prolific chemical producer Velsicol threatened to sue Carson’s publisher. However, following an independent toxicologist’s report countering the alleged inaccuracies, Velsicol hurriedly dropped the case.[37] Yet the criticism continued unabated; newspapers printed parodies of Silent Spring, and Carson herself was hysterically denounced as a “spinster” who wanted the supply of food in the United States reduced to “east curtain parity.”[38]

Amid vocal criticism, CBS rescheduled its controversial documentary on Silent Spring several times. Just hours before its scheduled broadcast, three of the program’s main sponsors mysteriously withdrew their support while hundreds of identically phrased handwritten letters urged its cancellation.[39] When it was finally aired in April 1963, Carson’s cool demeanor provided a stark contrast to agriculturalist Robert White Stevens’ rash (and factually false) assurances that pesticides used according to the label directions posed no threat to wildlife or humans.[40] Remaining stoic in the face of adversity, Carson concluded that while “of course it is always tempting to answer these [criticisms] ...in the long run I believe it is better to let the course of events provide the answers.”[41]

Message and Audience

Traditionally, America’s environmental movement was highly stratified, with the prestigious Sierra and Audubon Societies almost exclusively the preserve of white middle-class men intent on protecting hunting land.[42] Silent Spring’s persuasive prose, however, cut sharply through this class divide. While the serialized extracts in the New Yorker magazine caught the attention of politicians and judges, the book achieved universal appeal through book-of-the-month clubs. Carson’s vivid descriptions of environmental destruction resonated with suburban homeowners concerned by rivers choked with dying fish and birds.

Oceanographer and author Carl Safina recalls, “I almost threw up” after reading Silent Spring as a teenager. “I got physically ill when I learned that ospreys and peregrine falcons weren’t raising chicks because of what people were spraying on bugs at their farms and lawns. This was the first time I learned that humans could impact the environment with chemicals.”[43]

On April 4, 1963, Health secretary Abraham Ribicoff echoed these sentiments in Congress, lamenting that “as last night’s CBS telecast clearly showed, there is an appalling lack of information on the entire field of environmental hazards. We face serious questions, but are woefully short of answers.”[44] Suddenly, government bodies were inundated with complaints from irate viewers demanding pesticide regulation, and conservation groups reported record growth.[45] Across the US, more than 40 bills were drafted against pesticide use by the end of 1962. Carson had succeeded in propelling a new public demand for reform.[46]

On April 14, 1964, just a year after testifying at a US Senate Committee convened by Ribicoff in response to Silent Spring, Rachel Carson died of cancer. However, her work continued to spark debate both at home and worldwide. Public pressure led to a flurry of environmental legislation, with the Water Quality and Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Acts of 1965 passed within weeks of each other.[47]

By 1970, public opinion had shifted dramatically; over 50% of Americans now considered air and water pollution a national priority, compared with just 17% in 1965. Fear of environmental apocalypse replaced the looming Communist shadow. In 1969, United Nations Secretary-General U Thant gave the planet just ten years “to avert environmental disaster,” while Under Secretary of the Interior Russell E. Train warned that if environmental destruction continued unabated, humanity “wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in hell [of surviving]."[48]

Outraged by the deaths of ospreys in Long Island, a vocal group of scientists and lawyers sought to prohibit DDT spraying through the courts, successfully winning an injunction against the local Mosquito Control Commission in 1966 and preventing contamination of the birds’ habitat.[49] Charismatic lawyer Victor Yannacone quickly realized the potential of litigation to disrupt pesticide use and created the National Resources Defense Fund (NRDF) to provide individuals with the legal resources to contest pesticide use.

”Using litigation like no environment movement has done before or since,” the NRDF filed over 40 lawsuits, cutting lead emissions in California, stalling the development of an Alaskan pipeline, and outlawing the use of carcinogenic fire retardants in children’s pajamas. The efficacy of this strategy continued until the early eighties, when President Reagan's appointees to the bench took a harsher line on environmentalists.[50]

As Cold War anxiety waned, the “hurricane” that Carson had unleashed swept through Europe. Silent Spring was translated into 12 languages, with the French edition going into its third reprint after just six weeks.[51] During a 1963 British House of Lords debate, “almost every speaker” mentioned Silent Spring; the most dangerous pesticides were banned three years later. Meanwhile, the Swedish government ordered an immediate moratorium on the chemical Dieldrin after discovering mothers’ breast milk contained concentrations of DDT sufficient to cause biochemical changes in lab animals.[52] Environmental books, newspaper articles and radio talk shows followed, and the translation of Silent Spring introduced the word “biocide” to both the Swedish and Finnish languages.[53]

Outreach Activities

Throughout the late sixties, disaster fuelled the environmentalists’ fire. Mexican children were poisoned with pesticide-contaminated pastries; crop-sprayers crashed as pilots inhaled fatal quantities of insecticide; and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River burst into fifty-foot flames as surface oil ignited.[54] Yet as environmental issues became more pressing, politics became more divided. Splits emerged between the conservationists of the past and student-led environmentalists committed to nuclear disarmament and ending the Vietnam War. While young environmentalists doused industry spokesmen with black soot and deposited dead squid outside the offices of chemical manufacturers, more staid “polite revolutionaries” considered these tactics unacceptable.[55]

As Nixon ushered in the “environmental decade” marked by sweeping reforms, the factions reconciled their differences to celebrate the first “Earth Day” in the early spring of 1970.  Inspired by the anti-Vietnam War “teach-ins” organized to inform and mobilize students, Earth Day originated as a humble proposal for a “National Teach-In on the Environment” from Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. Believing that “young people could change the direction of the nation,” Nelson and his staff worked 16-hour days to help local schools, housewives, and activist groups arrange and coordinate events.[56]

Senator Nelson originally selected Harvard law student Denis Hayes to organize a peaceful mass protest, but as media and public interest in the event spiraled, “it began to be carried by its own momentum” and “became its own event.”[57] Companies eagerly arranged displays, advertisements, and events to celebrate, while sympathetic high-profile members of the conservative Wilderness Society provided financial backing. As Alaska Senator Ted Stevens complained, “Suddenly out of the woodwork came thousands of people talking about ecology.”[58]

After months of meticulous planning, Earth Day culminated with 20 million Americans marching to demand environmental action on April 14, 1970.[59] Many events lasted weeks, and around ten thousand schools participated, with an estimated 35,000 speakers, including religious leaders and artists, addressing the crowds.[60]

Within months, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed, and two years later, the use of DDT was finally prohibited in the US. Just before 1970, 1972 and 1974 elections, the small but powerful lobbying group Environmental Action publicized a “Dirty Dozen” list highlighting the Congressmen with the worst environmental voting records. With their reputations irreparably damaged by the negative publicity, seven lost their seats shortly after the first Earth Day, while another four were ejected two years later, including a powerful twelve-term representative who headed the House Interior Committee.[61] Further demonstrating this shift in American politics, a new wave of environmental legislation was passed throughout the seventies, from the Endangered Species Act to the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Although the early environmentalists’ lofty ideals of emission-free cars, zero air pollution, and environmental preservation remain far from fulfilled, Rachel Carson’s work has left a lasting impact. DDT is no longer present in Americans’ body fat, mercury has disappeared from the Great Lakes, and the carcinogenic isotope Strontium-90 has virtually vanished from bones.[62]  The percentage of American children with elevated levels of lead in their blood has dropped from 88 to 4 percent; carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide emissions have been halved since 1970; and 2010’s cars were 98 percent cleaner than those of 1970.[63]

Carson’s impact has also been felt around the world. In 2001, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants placed heavy restrictions on the use of DDT, limiting its use to malaria control purposes only. Within seven years, 160 countries had ratified the convention, and by 2012, only six countries were using DDT.[64]

These achievements, however, are only part of Carson’s legacy; Silent Spring sowed the seeds for a transformation in societal attitudes on the environment, both in the United States and around the world. Her message that all parts of the natural world are interrelated, and that humanity should strive to live in balance with nature, continues to resonate. “It's impossible to do justice today to Rachel Carson's impact”, recalls journalist Bill Moyers.[65] As her posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom is inscribed: “Always concerned, always eloquent, she created a tide of environmental consciousness that has not ebbed.”[66]

 

 

Learn More

 

News and Analysis

 

Griswold, Eliza. "How "Silent Spring" Ignited the Environmental Movement." New York Times Magazine 21 Sept. 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/magazine/how-silent-spring-ignited-the-environmental-movement.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1348844855-KKHQ/RCQNVM/zVwiu7lfCA&

"Timeline: The Modern Environmental Movement." Public Broadcasting Service. N.p., 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/earthdays/

McKie, Robin. "Rachel Carson and the Legacy of Silent Spring." The Observer, 27 May 2012. Web. 5 May 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/may/27/rachel-carson-silent-spring-anniversary

Stoll, Mark. "Rachel Carson's Silent Spring: A Book that Changed the World." Environment and Society Portal. N. p.1 Jan. 2012. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. http://www.environmentandsociety.org/exhibitions/silent-spring/overview

Atwood, Margaret. "Margaret Atwood: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, 50 years on." The Guardian, 7 Dec. 2012. Web. 5 May 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/dec/07/why-rachel-carson-is-a-saint

"Rachel Carson." Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 5 May 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rachel_Carson

 

Books

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Thorndike, Me: G.K. Hall, 1997.

Souder, William. On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012.

Jameson, Conor Mark. Silent Spring Revisited. London: Bloomsbury Pub., 2012.

Graham, Frank. Since Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1970.

Gottlieb, Robert. Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993. Print.

Dowie, Mark. Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995. Print. p 34

Lytle, Mark H. The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

 

Multimedia

And No Birds Sing: Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. Franny Armstrong. BBC, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ptgb4

Rachel Carson's Legacy: The Silent Spring Series: Exploring Ethics. Dir. Mitchell Thomashow. University of California Television, 2013. Film. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDicpd4Ry8E

Pesticides-DDT-Rachel Carson-Silent Spring, 2013. Film. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ipbc-6IvMQI

From Silent Spring to Silent Night.Tyrone Hayes, 2007. Film. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4lijvIjpRw

Rachel Carson Remembered. Bill Moyers. PBS, 2007. Film. http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09212007/watch.html

 


Footnotes

[1] Souder, William. On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012. Print.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gottlieb, Robert. Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993. Print.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lear, Linda J. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: H. Holt, 1997. Print. p. 395.

[7] Souder, p.238.

[8] Carson, Rachel, and Lois Darling. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. Print.

[9] Gottlieb.

[10] Darby, William. "Silence, Miss Carson." Chemical & Engineering News 40 (Oct. 1962): 60-63. Print.

[11] Griswold, Eliza. "How "Silent Spring" Ignited the Environmental Movement." New York Times Magazine 21 Sept. 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/magazine/how-silent-spring-ignited-the-environmental-movement.html

[12] Graham, Frank. Since Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1970. Print.

[13] Carson.

[14] Carson.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Lucas, Caroline, and Natalie Bennett. "UK government's opposition to regulation is putting bees at risk."The Guardian: Environment Blog. N.p., 15 Mar. 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2013/mar/15/uk-government-opposition-regulation-bees-risk

[19] Carson.

[20] Gottlieb, Robert. "Reconstructing Environmentalism: Complex Movements, Diverse Roots." Environmental History Review 17 (4): 1-19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3984644

[21] Griswold.

[22] Carson.

[23] Carson.

[24] Payton, Brian. “Rachel Carson (1907-1964).” NASA Earth Observatory. Web. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Carson/Carson2.php

[25] Gottlieb.

[26] Lear, pg. 328.

[27] Souder.

[28] Mart, Michelle. "Rhetoric and Response: The Cultural Impact of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring." Spring/Summer 2010. Web. 30 Apr. 2014. http://pi.library.yorku.ca/ojs/index.php/lh/article/download/35786/32507

[29] Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, was an American anti-slavery novel written by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896). It became the best-selling novel of the 19th century and had a great influence that helped to fuel the abolitionist movement in the years before the Civil War.

[30] Lear, Linda J. "Rachel Carson's Silent Spring." Environmental History Review 17 (2): 23-48.1993. 28 Apr. 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3984849

[31] Graham.

[32] Souder, p.16.

[33] Carrie Nation (1846-1911) was a radical leader of the 19th-century American temperance movement that sought to ban alcohol. She was known for attacking taverns with a hatchet.

[34] Mart.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Graham.

[38] Dowie, Mark. Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995. Print.

[39] Graham.

[40] Lear. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature.

[41] Graham.

[42] Dowie, p.34.

[43] Griswold.

[44] Graham.

[45] Lear. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature.

[46] Graham.

[47] "Timeline: The Modern Environmental Movement." Public Broadcasting Service. N.p., 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/earthdays/

[48] Lewis, Jack. "The Birth of EPA." EPA: United States Environmental Protection Agency. N.p., 16 Mar. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. http://www2.epa.gov/aboutepa/birth-epa

[49] Dowie.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Graham.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Stoll.

[54] Graham.

[55] Gottlieb.

[56] Rome, Adam. "The Genius of Earth Day." Environmental History 15: 194-205. JSTOR. Web. 5 May 2014.

[57] Gottlieb.

[58] Lewis.

[59] Gottlieb.

[60] Rome.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Dowie.

[63] Cardoni, Salvatore. “Top 5 Pieces of Environmental Legislation.” ABC News. 2 July 2010. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/top-pieces-environmental-legislation/story?id=11067662&singlePage=true 

“Amateur Guide for Air Quality Testing.” Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center, NASA. http://disc.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov/education-and-outreach/additional/science-focus/locus/index.shtml/amateur_guide_for_air_quality_000.shtml

[64] Eskenazi, Brenda et al., “The Pine River Statement: Human Health Consequences of DDT Use,” Environmental Health Perspectives 117 (September 2009). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2737010/

Kardas-Nelson, Mara. “DDT’s pesky proponents.” Al Jazeera, 21 April 2014. http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/lifelines/2014/02/ddts-pesky-proponents-2014228126865738.html

[65] Stoll.

[66] Stein, Karen F. Rachel Carson: Challenging Authors. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2012. p.108.

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