By Sandra Steingraber, PhD, Senior Scientist at SEHN
Rachel Carson’s book on the toxicological properties of 19 pesticides is almost as old as I am. Published sixty years ago, on September 27, 1962, Silent Spring immediately rocketed to the top of the best seller list and stayed there. I had just turned three. And yet I remember clearly, although I could not yet have deciphered the title, that this was the book all the grown-ups were carrying around that year.
Most notable among them was my adoptive father, a high school teacher, who used Silent Spring as a course text for his business class. Every afternoon, he walked home and emptied the contents of his briefcase on the coffee table, and there among the pages of student homework was the book with the bright green cover and the squiggly lines.
And Silent Spring was more than a topic of adult conversation. Because of it, my very conservative father put in a compost pile. He threw away his spray gun and began mail-ordering ladybugs for his garden. By the time I was seven, my sister and I were selling tomatoes, organic tomatoes, at a produce stand at the end of his driveway.
Meanwhile, not just backyard gardening practices were changed by the publication of this remarkable book. By the end of the decade, the pesticide DDT, which had received so much close attention by Carson, was outlawed for use in the United States. Soon after, a half dozen other highly toxic chemical pesticides featured in its chapters were likewise banned or heavily restricted.
And the reform that Silent Spring ushered in was systemic. It is the book that brought environmental concerns into the body politic, leading directly to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. It also inspired major national environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973).
In short, Silent Spring became a founding force of modern American environmentalism, and it changed the way government worked. It’s almost as if its publication took place during a time when our government was more responsive to revelations of science—willing to write new laws, amend policies, and change course in the face of new scientific revelations—than it is now.
And, as I argue in my introduction to the Library of America’s definitive edition of Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment, released in 2018, that’s at least half right. We, who are assaulted daily by rampant climate denialism and disinformation campaigns that now extend as far as the germ theory of disease, have good reasons for feeling wistful about the more exalted role that science played in the political culture during the mid-20th century.
Carson herself was aware of the fortuitous political moment in which she wrote. Its completion delayed by two years because of her breast cancer diagnosis (a fact she held in secret), Silent Spring was launched not during the Eisenhower administration but nine months after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated.
And Kennedy would quickly become its champion. In August 1962, with serialized excerpts of the book already appearing in the New Yorker magazine, reporters asked the President about the health harms of pesticides, and he praised Carson for awakening the public’s consciousness about these issues. Soon after, he convened an investigation by the Life Sciences Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee. The committee’s final report was a vindication of Silent Spring’s central argument and endorsed Carson’s call for public health protections.
In turn, less than a year later, these recommendations prompted full-blown Senate hearings. And, in the last months of her life, and wearing an unfortunate wig, Carson gave compelling testimony at them.
But there is more to the story of Silent Spring’s as prompter of science-responsive governance.
The book would not have become a publishing sensation and therefore a political force powerful enough to catch the attention of the President had the media industry surrounding Carson not repelled preemptive attacks by the chemical industry. The New Yorker magazine first stood firm against threats of lawsuits by the makers of DDT and other pesticides. So then did Carson’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin. When CBS Reports broadcast a special hour-long program about Silent Spring, two major corporate sponsors withdrew their support. CBS ran the show anyway.
As I wrote in my introduction to Silent Spring for Library of America, “Bold and courageous advocacy—and the unflinching willingness of publishers, editors, and media outlets to stand against a deep-pocketed well-lawyered industry—became another factor in the unprecedented success of Silent Spring.”
Citizen activism also played a role in creating the political momentum behind the Silent Spring juggernaut and the cultural moment in which it appeared. In 1961, as Carson was finishing the final revisions of the book, social anxiety about the nuclear arms race was mounting, and, in response, a group of Boston physicians founded Physicians for Social Responsibility to warn policymakers and citizens about the twin threats of nuclear war and the ongoing harm of weapons testing on human health. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, researchers with the Committee for Nuclear Information were speaking out about the ubiquitous presence of radioactive strontium in the baby teeth of U.S. children. These levels, which had spiked sharply during the advent of the atomic age, rose and fell in tandem with the timing of above-ground atomic bomb tests.
Carson closely followed this research and had corresponded with those speaking out. By documenting how nuclear radiation from atomic bomb testing could drift across entire continents, fall to the earth, ascend through the food chain, and find its way into the bones and teeth of children, anti-nuclear activists prepared the way for Carson’s own message about the widespread dangers of pesticide drift, especially from aerial spraying projects.
The messaging of the anti-nuclear campaign—with its focus on invisible, insidious, uncontrollable contamination—opened a space in the culture for Silent Spring to fill. Indeed, Carson made explicit the parallels between radioactive fall-out and drifting pesticides, urging her readers to direct the same sense of outrage and urgency to the unforeseen consequences of the pesticide crisis as they did to dangers of atomic warfare.
And this rhetorical strategy served her well. She ends Chapter Three with this question:
“We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation; how then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in chemicals that we disseminate widely in our environment?”
Photos above of frac’ers dumping their waste (radioactive?) on foodlands and public roads in Alberta, Canada.
Citizen activism also opened a space for Carson to compile her science. In her acknowledgements section, Carson credits a 1958 letter sent to her by a Massachusetts gardener and bird-lover, Olga Owens Huckins, as the starting point for her book. This letter was full of painful details about the bodies of dead songbirds she had discovered around the DDT-contaminated birdbath in her backyard.
What Carson does not say about Huckins is that she was, as well as an amateur birdwatcher, a member of an ad hoc citizen group called the Committee Against Mass Poisoning, and her letter to Carson was part of a larger campaign to halt the aerial spraying of pesticides via lawsuits and protests. Further, the committee took a human rights approach to environmental harm, pointing to the absence of the informed consent of the citizenry at a time when little was known about the long-term effects of pesticide exposure on wildlife and human beings.
Huckins condemned the aerial spraying of pesticides, on the grounds of bad governance, calling “inhumane, undemocratic, and probably unconstitutional.”
Carson amplified this assertion in Silent Spring: “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons, distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”
More crucially, the Committee Against Mass Poisoning had filed a lawsuit that eventually landed in the Supreme Court, where it lost on a technicality. Marjorie Spock, sister of celebrity Benjamin Spock, was one of the plaintiffs and, as such, had compiled mountains of reports and studies on the risks and harms of pesticides, as well as the transcripts of various legal proceedings, and the names of expert witnesses. These research materials she shared openly with Carson.
So, yes, Rachel Carson was an introverted biologist and a solitary author whose compilation of scientific evidence and lyrical writing style in a book called Silent Spring inspired modern U.S. environmentalism and set into motion systems of governance more responsive to environmental human rights grievances, vestiges of which remain today. But behind her and around her and blazing the trail for her were organized groups of citizen activists variously fighting against the nuclear arms race and the mass spraying of chemical pesticides.
Refer also to:
2022 09 14: What would Rachel Carson say? 15:16 Min.
Pre-frac’ing, I shared my property with 50-60 mating pairs of gold finches every spring and summer, and many other song birds. The birds’ song and antics filled my heart with joy and made living with PTSD bearable. Visitors were always amazed.
Part of my kitchen window view, before frac harms by Encana/Ovintiv ramped up. There were many more gold finches in the same tree not captured in this photo.
Post-frac’ing, I observe fewer song birds every year. I rarely see finches on my property anymore, and hear dramatically reduced bird song – some spring mornings there is no bird song, which fills me with dread.
Frac’ing is a cruel invasion of environment, home, well-being and health.
Nikiforuk connects dots from coast to coast in the United States and Canada, making a bold case for this claim:
“Men do not understand the courage of ordinary women.”
The Society of Environmental Journalists is proud to present the winners of the 2015-2016 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. SEJ’s journalism contest is the world’s largest and most comprehensive awards for journalism on environmental topics.