Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the Beginning of the Environmental Movement in the United States


When Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published in 1962, it generated a storm of controversy over the use of chemical pesticides. Miss Carson's intent in writing Silent Spring was to warn the public of the dangers associated with pesticide use. Throughout her book are numerous case studies documenting the harmful effects that chemical pesticides have had on the environment. Along with these facts, she explains how in many instances the pesticides have done more harm than good in eradicating the pests they were designed to destroy. In addition to her reports on pesticide use, Miss Carson points out that many of the long-term effects that these chemicals may have on the environment, as well as on humans, are still unknown. Her book as one critic wrote, "dealt pesticides a sharp blow" (Senior Scholastic 1962). The controversy sparked by Silent Spring led to the enactment of environmental legislation and the establishment of government agencies to better regulate the use of these chemicals.
Miss Carson first became aware of the effects of chemical pesticides on the natural environment while working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Of particular concern to her was the government’s use of chemical pesticides such as DDT. She was familiar with early studies of DDT and knew of its dangers and lasting effects on the environment. According to Miss Carson, "the more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became. I realized that here was the 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." Thus, Silent Spring was written to alert the public and stir people to action against the abuse of chemical pesticides (Time 2000).

Impact of Silent Spring

When excerpts of Silent Spring first began appearing in The New Yorker magazine in June 1962, they caused an uproar and brought a "howl of indignation" from the chemical industry. Supporters of the pesticide industry argued that her book gave an incomplete picture because it did not say anything about the benefits of using pesticides. An executive of the American Cyanamid Company complained, "if man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth." Chemical manufacturers began undertaking a more aggressive public relations campaign to educate the public on the benefits of pesticide use. Monsanto, for example, published and distributed 5,000 copies of a brochure "parodying" Silent Spring entitled "The Desolate Year," which explained how chemical pesticides were largely responsible for the virtual eradication of diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, sleeping sickness, and typhus in the United States and throughout the world, and that without the assistance of pesticides in agricultural production millions around the world would suffer from malnutrition or starve to death (NRDC 1997).
One of the main counterarguments to Miss Carson's book expressed by the farmers, scientists, and other supporters of the pesticide industry was that farm yields would be drastically reduced without the assistance of chemical pesticides. Scientists from the Department of Agriculture argued, that the world would not be able to feed itself without pesticides (Darby 1962). George C. Decker, an entomologist at the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station, explained that:
if we in North America were to adopt a policy of let nature take its
course, as some individuals thoughtlessly advocate, it is possible that
these would-be experts would find the disposing of the 200 million
surplus human beings even more perplexing that the disposition of
American's current corn, cotton and wheat surpluses." (Time 1962).
Ironically, the attempts of the chemical industry to discredit Miss Carson gave her book even more publicity. In fact, public support in favor of Miss Carson's position was enormous. Justice William O. Douglas called the book "the most important chronicle of this century for the human race" (Business Week 1962). An article published in Business Week noted that ever since excerpts of her book began appearing in The New Yorker, "Miss Carson has had a heavy mail reaction, almost all endorsing her theme." An editor from The New Yorker said that Miss Carson's mail response was probably the largest since John Hersey's Hiroshima. All of the fanfare spawned by Silent Spring compelled the Book-of-the-Month Club to run 150,000 copies of the book just for the club's first distribution (Saturday Review 1962).
It was not too long after Silent Spring was in print that the public's awareness of the dangers associated with pesticide use impelled them to began taking steps to limit the use of these chemicals in their communities. In Squirrel Island Maine, for example, residents voted to cancel a planned aerial spraying of the island. Also, in Texas, twice as many members as usual attended the yearly National Audubon Society convention where one of the topics up for debate was discussing the effects that DDT has on wildlife (Senior Scholastic 1962). Many of these concerned citizens felt that we should discontinue using these chemicals and let the age-old balance of nature take care of obnoxious insects (Time 1962).
Around the same time that Miss Carson began receiving her fan mail, letters expressing "horror and amazement" at the chemical pesticide practices discussed in Silent Spring began piling up at the offices of the Department of Agriculture (Saturday Review 1962). The growing concerns over pesticide use prompted President Kennedy to order the President’s Science Advisory Committee to conduct an investigation to determine the dangers that these chemicals represent to humans and the environment as well as to consider if it was necessary to enact new legislation regulating the use of chemical pesticides. When the Committee's study was completed in May 1963, it vindicated Miss Carson. According to Bruce Frisch of Science Digest, the Committee found that there were immediate and long-range hazards to man and other animals and that the government had not been protecting against them or learning exactly what they were (Science Digest 1964). Eventually, after the Committee's report was issued, several pieces of federal environmental legislation were passed into law by Congress, including the ban on DDT use in the United States, which was due in large part to the issues Miss Carson raised in Silent Spring (Field 1997).

Why Silent Spring was so Effective in Arousing Public Concern

Even though she was labeled as hysterical and extremist by the chemical industry and certain members of the media, their attempts to discredit Miss Carson by challenging her credibility as a scientist backfired. The onslaught of attacks on Miss Carson by the chemical industry were viewed negatively by the public, because the industry was seen as attacking a sincere woman who was already regarded as an accomplished writer and scientist from the fame and recognition she received for her 1951 book, The Sea Around Us. Furthermore, Silent Spring was well documented with 55 pages of references and included a list of scientific experts that had reviewed her book (Lear 1997).
Another reason that Miss Carson was so effecive in generating pubic opposition to pesticide use was her ability to incorporate into her book real-world examples of how pesticides were negatively impacting the environment. For instance, in explaining how pesticides sometimes kill many other forms of life which are not targeted, she cites as an example the significant decline in young salmon populations that occurred in Northwest Miramichi after DDT spraying was performed in the area to protect the balsam forests from the spruce budworm. In addition to killing the spruce budworm, Miss Carson explains, that DDT also killed the aquatic insects which the young salmon depend on for food and therefore left nothing for the young salmon to eat.
In another example, she explains how DDT spraying was initiated during the mid 1950s to fight the spread of Dutch Elm disease that was destroying the elm trees on the campus of Michigan State University and indirectly killed a large number of robins that fed in the area. Although the spraying was aimed at eradicating the bark beetle which was spreading the disease, all parts of the trees were sprayed with the poison. Therefore, because the leaves of the trees were also coated with the insecticide, earthworms feeding on the leaves absorbed the poison and robins which later ate the contaminated worms died of DDT poisoning.
The examples that Miss Carson wrote about in Silent Spring helped to illustrate the interrelationship of living organisms. Her writings helped Americans to understand that humans were not separate from nature, but connected to the earth as part of an interconnected web of life (Brooks 1972). In writing about the above events, Miss Carson concludes:
For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan, or the salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence. We poison the caddis flies in the stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. . . . We spray our elms and following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elmleaf -earthworm-robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life-or death-that scientists know as ecology.
Another way that Silent Spring helped to engender support against pesticides is its discussion regarding the potential impacts of these chemicals on human health. In her book, Miss Carson points out that because very little medical research has been conducted to determine what effects these chemicals may have on humans, individuals should be cautious in how they are used in the environment. Furthermore, she warns that since many of these chemicals accumulate in the tissues of living organisms, they pose potential long-term genetic and carcinogenic dangers to humans and other creatures. To bolster her argument, Miss Carson cites the opinions of several doctors and medical researchers, who believe that there is a strong link between certain types of malignant diseases and exposure to chemical pesticides.
Miss Carson was not arguing that we should ban chemical pesticides
all together, but that we should be more careful in our application of these chemicals, since all species including humans are interconnected with one another and killing one species may endanger others. Says Miss Carson: "it is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm." She explains that by trying to control these pests with chemical pesticides, we are upsetting the balance of nature. It is a battle we cannot win she says, because "as crude a weapon as the cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life—a fabric on one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways."
Miss Carson also lets her readers know that there are viable alternatives to controlling insects and other pests without the use of chemical pesticides. Miss Carson makes the argument that in many instances natural or ecological methods offer a better alternative to combating pests. She provides several examples throughout her book of cases where biological methods "have achieved brilliant success" in controlling insects and other pests. In one case, she reports how two species of beetles from southern France were shipped to the United States to control the outgrowth of the Klamath weed which had evolved into an epidemic in California. Miss Carson explains that these beetles are natural predators of the Klamath weed and in Europe they feed on it so extensively that its abundance is severely limited. Consequently, their introduction in North America has had similar results in reducing Klamath weed populations and allowing native plant species to return. Moreover, Miss Carson says that because many insects become immune to the chemicals that are used against them, scientists are forced to develop even more toxic insecticides in order to decimate these resistant pests.
According to Miss Carson, using biological solutions to control undesirable pests is a much better alternative than conventional chemical pesticides, because these non-chemical methods do not leave any poisonous residues that can contaminate and harm the environment. Accordingly, she strongly urged that more research be conducted in the area of biological control and that these alternative approaches be considered first before more toxic methods are employed.
Silent Spring not only attacked the integrity of the chemical industry, but also challenged the credibility of the government. The general public knew only of the benefits of using chemical pesticides and trusted the government that these chemicals were safe to use. However, the issues that Miss Carson raised made people more aware of the pesticide spraying that was going on in their neigborhoods. As Dr. W.C. Hueper, of the National Cancer Institute said, "anyone who has watched the dusters and sprayers of arsenical insecticides at work must have been impressed by the almost supreme carelessness with which the poisonous substances are dispensed" (Naum 1999).
The eloquent writing and imagery in Silent Spring painted a picture about what might happen to our world if we continued indiscriminately bombarding the environment with chemical pesticides:
There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings...Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change...There was a strange stillness...The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of scores of bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.
After the publication of Silent Spring, communities began to organize into groups to voice their concern to the government about pesticide spraying. In fact, many argue that Silent Spring was instrumental in launching the American and global environmental movements as well as the notion that we possess a fundamental right to a clean environment. Several environmental interest groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, and the Environmental Defense Fund were formed after the publication of Silent Spring. Environmental interest groups are able to influence the policy process by manipulating public opinion and persuading legislators and committees to support their issues. Legislators want to support issues their constituents support because it is their representative responsibility and because they want to be re-elected (Vig and Kraft 1997).
Additionally, many believe that the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, can largely be attributed to the "concerns and the consciousness" that Rachel Carson raised in her book. Pesticide regulation, once the responsibility of Agriculture Department, which not surprisingly tended to only see the benefits and not the dangers of using chemical pesticides, was moved under the authority of the EPA (Benjamin 1996). With the creation of the EPA came the passage of several pieces of environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.


Silent Spring helped to expose the hazards of chemical pesticide use and draw public attention to environmental issues that had never really been addressed before. In fact, as University of Colorado School of Law Professor David Getches points out, Miss Carson's book recently was named the most influential book of our time by a panel of leading Americans (MacDonnell 1993). One critic at the time of the book's publication correctly predicted that Silent Spring could do for the control of chemical pollution of our environment what Upton Sinclair's The Jungle did for the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 (Vogt 1962). As Al Gore explains, Silent Spring "brought environmental issues to the attention not just of industry and government; it brought them to the public, and put our democracy itself on the side of saving the Earth" (Gore 1994). The onslaught of environmental legislation that occurred after the publication of Silent Spring allowed environmentalism to find credibility in our society, and its practice to become a permanent force in public policy.

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