Historian Nancy Unger takes a new look at the book that launched the modern environmental movement.
Mitt Romney wants to open up more federal lands and waters to drilling for oil and natural gas. His party is pushing, in the name of freedom and economic opportunity, to roll back a variety of environmental protections. Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, are seeking to ease pesticide regulations; some are even questioning the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) ban on DDT, reopening a controversy that stretches back half a century.
Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. This critique of America's dependence on chemical pesticides is widely hailed as one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
At the time of its publication, however, both the message and the messenger were roundly denounced. During a period of unprecedented prosperity and technological advances, Carson—a woman!—had the temerity to tell Americans that they were stunningly oblivious to the environmental dangers they were creating. She charged public officials with being far too trusting of the chemical industry and its false assurances of safety. In particular, Carson denounced this nation's vast reliance upon pesticides, especially DDT.
"How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even
to their own kind?" —Rachel Carson
Silent Spring pointed out long-term consequences of chemical use that far outweighed the immediate benefits. The book's title came from the opening chapter, "A Fable for Tomorrow." This vignette described an American town in which all life, from song birds to children, had been silenced by killer chemicals unwittingly unleashed by the scientific community. "Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion," Carson warned. "How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?"
Silent Spring was denounced in the popular press. In a scathing review, Time magazine dismissed it as "hysterically overemphatic." When The New Yorker serialized Silent Spring, a California reader complained to the magazine's editor that "Miss Rachel Carson's reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her communist sympathies."
Carson, a Johns Hopkins University graduate and longtime Maryland resident, was initially dismissed contemptuously by most in the scientific community as well. Robert White-Stevens, a former biochemist and spokesman for the chemical industry during the 1960s, called her "a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature." He warned the public, "If man were to 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."
When reputable scientists rose to defend Silent Spring, President John F. Kennedy ordered his Science Advisory Committee to investigate. Carson's painstaking research on the presence of DDT throughout the food chain and the health risks it posed to humans as well as wildlife was impossible to refute. Shortly before her death from breast cancer in 1964 at age 56, Carson suggested to the Senate Committee on Commerce that a commission be established to deal with pesticide issues. The Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970, one year after domestic use of DDT was restricted. On June 14, 1972, it formally banned DDT for agricultural use within the United States. The rest of the world followed suit at the Stockholm Convention in 2001.
Today, Carson's emphasis on the interconnectedness of all life is no longer dismissed as feminine sentimentality but accepted as scientific reality. Through her lyrical writing and sound science, Carson made the public aware that efforts to manipulate and control nature can have ultimately detrimental effects. A New York Times bestseller, Silent Spring inspired scientists around the world and played a major role in launching the global environmental movement. Still in print, the book also serves as a compelling refutation of Republican efforts to undercut the EPA and bring back DDT. It remains a powerful testament to what one person, through one book, can do to change the world.
Nancy C. Unger is associate professor of history at Santa Clara University. Her new book is Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History (Oxford University Press, 2012).