Rachel Carson's Loud Legacy
In the wake of the recent United Nations Climate Summit in Dubai at which nearly 200 nations agreed to work toward weaning the world from fossil fuels, it is worth looking back 61 years, to another environmental milestone: the publication in 1962 of “Silent Spring.”
Rachel Carson’s book documented through painstaking research how our species was poisoning not simply fellow creatures but ourselves in the bargain. It inspired a national epiphany and jumpstarted the fledgling environmental movement. Many observers consider it the most influential book of the past century.
Within a year of its publication Carson was testifying before the U.S. Congress, the subject of an hour-long CBS TV documentary, and informing national environmental policy. President John F. Kennedy was among the millions of readers who catapulted “Silent Spring” to the top of the bestseller lists. He established a special advisory panel to explore the issue of pesticide pollution that would confirm Carson’s findings.
Other impacts took longer to emerge. The 1960s witnessed a burst of environmental legislation such as the Wilderness Act of 1964 and in 1970 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established. It would take a decade for DDT to be banned, after it was documented to being the cause of the near extinction of the bald eagle and other birds of prey.
What Carson instilled in America’s consciousness was that chemical pesticides like DDT were not just killing insects but non-target creatures as well, such as songbirds. A 1958 letter from a Massachusetts woman inspired Carson to launch intensive research for “Silent Spring.” The woman described in vivid detail how a mosquito-control campaign in her town left her yard littered with dead birds.
Before becoming an environmental author in the 1940s, Carson had worked as a marine scientist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She was consistently ahead of the curve in understanding modern threats to Mother Earth. In her 1951 book “The Sea Around Us” she was one of the first to identify climate change, writing, “The evidence that the top of the world is growing warmer is to be found on every hand. The recession of the northern glaciers is going on at such a rate that many smaller ones have already disappeared.”
Carson’s detailed research was leavened by her eminently readable prose and her grasp of the context of her subject matter: humankind didn’t see itself as a part of the natural world and thought it could control and manipulate nature without consequences. As she told Congress in 1963, “Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves.”
Despite Carson’s warnings, pesticides are still widely used today. Their residue is found in groundwater, soil, rain, and even in the upper atmosphere. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pesticides are part of our daily diet: in 70 percent of fruits and vegetables, 60 percent of wheat samples, and 99 percent of milk samples. Unsurprisingly, the body fluids of nearly all American adults and children contain residue from pesticides.
Rachel Carson died in 1964 from breast cancer and didn’t see many of the positive results of her work. There were pesticide deniers from the moment her book was published, led by the chemical industry, and she would not doubt be disappointed that more hasn’t been done to protect people and other species from chemical poisoning and other environmental hazards. She also would be saddened to see that since 1970 North America has lost from various causes three billion birds, or nearly one third of America’s and Canada’s aggregate avian population.
The recent climate summit notwithstanding, whether humankind will do better in rising to the challenge of accelerating climate change is far from clear. Recent data suggests not: Global coal consumption rose to an all-time high in 2022 and fossil fuel use overall is at record levels. The eleven warmest years on record worldwide have all occurred since 2010—with 2023 being the warmest year of all.
Knowing something is a problem and fixing it are two separate things. As Carson asked in a 1963 speech, why do we behave “not like people guided by scientific knowledge, but more like the proverbial bad housekeeper who sweeps dirt under the rug in the hope of getting it out of sight?”