Time magazine called her book an emotional and inaccurate outburst. She was labeled a communist and vilified by the American government and throngs of chemical companies. But, to use a modern phrase for the life-changing work of Rachel Louise Carson, she persisted.
In fact, Rachel Louise Carson did more than persist with the release of her book Silent Spring in 1962. Rachel sounded a cataclysmic environmental alarm around the world and across America, questioning the efficacy, the unmeasured effects and the unintended consequences of chemical pesticide use. Thanks to Rachel, the world heard the call. Her story is a testament to the a life lived in service to truth but it also serves as a grave warning that pesticide use and this “silent spring” of danger demands our attention, more than ever, in our modern world.
Rachel seemed like an unlikely crusader as a writer turned biologist. Raised in a small farming community in Western Pennsylvania, she started her career with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and Wildlife Services. She was hired to create pamphlets and write a series of radio episodes about marine life for a program called, Romance Under Waters.
This fueled Rachel’s love of the planet and our oceans so she continued to produce more articles for publication in newspapers and magazines. It also spurred her to enthrall people with larger works, like her popular books Under the Sea (1941) and The Sea Around Us (1951). Her second book was translated into 32 languages and made the NY Times Best-seller list for 81 weeks.
As Editor-in-Chief of all Fish and Wildlife publications, Rachel became a household name as a compelling scientist and an exploratory and inviting writer. Millions of fans were drawn to her descriptive passages that appealed to our best instincts and truth:
“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.” (Carson’s, The Sense of Wonder, 1965)
Undocumented Dangers of Chemical Use
But over the course of her work, Rachel began to question the undocumented dangers of synthetic chemical use. She had gathered scientific research during her earliest work in marine biology and this provided the basis for research and documentation in Silent Spring. She also had opportunities to visit fisheries and farms, and to connect with scientists who were the first to see the impending dangers and side effects of DDT (dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane), the most widely used synthetic pesticide.
Increasingly, she felt compelled to speak up despite the controversy it would surely cause. As a naturalist, Rachel felt obligated to warn the unsuspecting public and to save what she loved most in the world, the environment. Initially, Rachel wrote about some of these concerns and even pitched an article to Reader’s Digest, who turned it down saying people wouldn’t want to know about these dangers.
When government agencies and chemical companies found out about Rachel’s work and that she was about to release a book, they lobbied to block it and threatened to sue her. Rachel was attacked in the press and by the Food and Drug Administration and other agency experts who tried to counter her claims saying she wasn’t a real scientist. When this didn’t work and Rachel’s voice began to win followers, the government offered half-truths that suggested there weren’t enough long-term studies to warrant concern.
But Rachel’s research and comments throughout Silent Spring were irrefutable. She asked us to consider our relationship to nature and the legacy of destruction for future generations.
Because the 1950s were the height of the Cold War Era it was easy to label Rachel a communist. In an age of scientific advancement, Rachel argued that humankind’s scientific advances could not be used to control nature in the name of progress as scientists and governments argued.
Like all great tragedies, it was naive and arrogant for anyone to assume that science could control the complex interrelationship we humans have with nature. Negative consequences were inevitable as Rachel noted in this passage:
“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?”excerpt from Silent Spring
Over the course of four years, Rachel quietly battled breast cancer while she continued her fight against the government and the chemical companies. She kept her illness a secret until she passed away in 1964 from breast cancer. Ironically, even in her death, Rachel’s legacy of work spoke volumes about the risk of this synthetic chemicals.
In fact, her seminary work on the unstudied, long-term effects of pesticide use continues to reverberate and take center stage today. We now know these chemicals produce a wide range of debilitating and destructive effects that have permeated everything from our air and earth to our consumer products, reproductive systems and living spaces.
The Continued Dangers of Pesticides are Real
Pesticides are pervasive, mutating toxins whose original purpose – to control weeds or kill insects that threaten our crops and our human health – have far-reaching effects. Repeated human exposure to DDT has been linked to attacks on the liver, endocrine and nervous systems. Cancer and birth defects in humans, birds and animal life are also well documented side effects, particularly after the Second World War (1939-45) when it was used to control head lice and mosquitoes.
Across Europe and throughout Africa and places like Japan after Pearl Harbor, DDT was sprayed to treat the spread of typhus, malaria and yellow fever; all of which were transmitted respectively by head lice and mosquitoes. As a non-water-soluble chemical, DDT continued to be used without any long-term studies about dangers to our water, wildlife and human health.
It’s amazing to think after all we know, pesticides are still used in increasing quantities. Case in point: the latest news from Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-partisan protection agency in the U.S. EWG scientists claim a herbicide called glyphosate (found in Round Up and other weed killers) is widely used on crops – 250 million pounds in the America alone – and exposes children to dangerous levels of carcinogens found in cereals like Cheerios and other packaged foods like Kraft Dinner.
If the epidemic rise of autoimmune diseases, is not enough to scare us into action, the knowledge that our children may be ingesting toxic levels of pesticides approved by the federal agencies in Canada and the U.S. should. Many wine and beer lovers should also take note that dangerous levels of glyphosate were found in nearly 95% of the alcoholic beverages studied in a recent report. The only beer amongst popular brands that showed no traces of glyphosate was Peak Beer Organic IPA.
This and dozens of other studies within the independent scientific community demonstrate the continued need for vigilance and underscore the value of Rachel’s work. We owe our thanks to Rachel for ushering in the creation of the environmental inquiries under President Kennedy (1963) and later, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Nixon in 1970.
But make no mistake. Our planet is still in danger:
“Pesticide use in crop production worldwide increased nearly twenty-fold from 1960 to 2000 and further increased from 1.0 billion tons in 2002 to 1.7 billion tons in 2007. China is the largest producer of pesticides and one of the most intensive pesticide users in crop production in the world. Despite the well-documented deleterious effects of pesticides on biological pest control function, the environment, and food safety, the health effects of these agents have also attracted substantial attention.” (National Center for Biotechnology Information)
Action Has Nothing To Do With Partisan Politics
Rachel’s legacy compels us to continue to fight against the non-selective use of pesticides that have the power to kill. This should not be a partisan issue for anyone, anywhere, although some critics suggest the early development of the EPA created a perception that, somehow, the protection of our world was a divided interest between Republicans and Democrats.
It’s disconcerting to know there will be more long-term complications that are only just beginning to surface and we’re already fighting the save so many endangered species affected by these toxins. The American bald eagle, a symbol used in our U.S. Presidential crest, is almost extinct because of the damage caused to their reproductive systems from DDT. When the females lay their eggs, the hard shell has been compromised and soften so much that the eggs are often crushed under the weight of the mother bird.
There are too many questions to consider in this abbreviated article about Rachel Carson but one thing is certain. Rachel was the first to start a conversation and ignite a call to action on behalf of Mother Earth. She is unquestionably one of the greatest science writers and prescient thinkers America has ever had.
Her studies set off a maelstrom of questions about powerful lobby groups and the right of every citizen to know the dangers of government-related programs and permissions that affect our water and all life on our planet. What onus do we have to fight for our shared planet and to fight interests that reap short-term financial gains that compromise the long-term sustainability and protection of our earth?
Rachel Carson was awarded the Audubon Medal before her death in 1964, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, posthumously in 1980. She’s been featured on a postage stamp and inducted into various women’s halls of fame. She is also memorialized in park, school and street named after her. But what I will respect and admire most about Rachel is her fearless pursuit of the truth and her determination to do what is best for all living aspects of our planet in the midst of great challenges. In the words of Albert Einstein,
“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”