Rachel Carson and the birth of modern environmentalism

“The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, 
born of the Neanderthal age of biology.”

Rachel Carson

 Fifty years ago, on September 27, 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a culture-crashing exposure of chemical pollutants and their impact on Earth’s ecosystems. Carson’s book examined thirty-five birds species threatened with extinction due to chemical biocides, including organo-chlorines such as DDT.

Prior to Carson’s book, chemical companies had disregarded the impact of toxins on living ecosystems. Carson’s work brought caring about nature back to the western industrial world. Her book alerted society to its relationship with our habitat, awakened our higher angels, and launched the modern environmental movement.

Of course, the chemical corporations of her age vilified her. Today, polluters and their paid mouthpieces have spun out a new Rachel Carson smear campaign, blaming her for malaria deaths because, allegedly, we haven’t sprayed enough organochlorines around the world, when, in fact, Carson supported responsible disease control, with restraints on agricultural use, which only helped malaria mosquitoes grow immune to pesticides.

An attractive sort of person

Rachel Carson was born in the spring of 1907, on a family farm in Pennsylvania, in the United States. Her mother instilled love and curiosity for nature, with daily reading and exploring the Allegheny River valley forests. At 10, Carson published her first story, “A Battle in the Clouds,” in a local magazine.

In 1925, she graduated as the top student at her high school. She entered Pennsylvania College for Women, graduated with honors, and earned a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, where she completed a master’s degree in zoology.

As her aging parents grew ill, Carson left the university to care for them. When her father died, she abandoned her doctorate project to support her mother. Her biology mentor Mary Scott Skinker found Carson a government job writing educational radio broadcasts about nature. When she took the civil service exam in 1936, she outscored all applicants and became only the second woman ever hired by Bureau of Fisheries.

In 1937, when her older sister died, Carson became the sole breadwinner for her mother and two nieces. Later, when a niece died suddenly, Carson adopted her five-year-old son. Carson was an attractive sort of person, who put compassion and caring before her own career, and still shook the world with the breadth and significance of her life’s work.

Bringing nature to the people

Carson loved literature and wrote skillfully, but found her passion in the living world. “Biology,” she wrote to a friend, “has given me something to write about. I will try in my writing to make animals in the woods or waters, where they live, as alive to others as they are to me.”

In 1941, Carson published her first book, Under the Sea Wind, a narrative journey along the ocean floor. She completed a “sea trilogy,” by publishing two more books about ocean life. In 1951, The Sea Around Us won a US National Book Award, and in 1955 she published The Edge of the Sea, about intertidal marine ecology. 

Carson won the Burroughs Medal for natural history writing for Under the Sea, and two honorary doctorates. A documentary film based the book won the 1953 Best Documentary Oscar. With international speaking engagements and eager editors, Carson left her government job in to write full time.

Olga Owens Huckins, an avid bird researcher in Massachusetts, wrote to Carson complaining that DDT spraying had devastated her bird sanctuary. Carson agreed to help. At first, editors appeared disinterested in pesticides, but Carson persisted. She was now on a crash course with the chemical industry.

A revolution of consciousness

After World-War II, the US military funded research into synthetic pesticides, and chemical companies sought markets for the compounds. In 1957, the US Department of Agriculture attempted to eradicate fire ants with DDT mixed with fuel oil, a precursor to Agent Orange used by the US military during the Vietnam War. The US government agency produced a film, “Fire Ants on Trial,” which Carson called “flagrant propaganda.”

Meanwhile, researchers found the carcinogenic herbicide aminotriazole in the U.S. cranberry harvest. Carson attended the US Food and Drug Administration hearings, and witnessed how chemical industry lobbyists attacked data, attacked scientists, and promoted “expert” testimony to contradicted her research.

The Audubon Society had traced declining bird populations to pesticide use and recruited Carson to help. Through personal connections with government scientists, Carson gained access to confidential data, unpublished scientific literature, and interviews with scientists researching pesticides. Over four years, she consulted with biologists, chemists, entomologists, and pathologists, gathering data for her book.

Working with medical researchers, Carson documented individual incidents of pesticide exposure, human sickness and environmental impact. Cancer researcher Wilhelm Hueper classified pesticides as carcinogens. Ironically, at this time, Carson discovered a cancerous cyst, underwent a mastectomy, and began radiation therapy.

Carson biographer Mark Hamilton Lytle recalls that Carson “self-consciously decided to write a book calling into question the paradigm of scientific progress.” After Silent Spring, chemical companies no longer enjoyed a free pass to introduce toxins into the environment. Carson’s book changed the course of history, and some people were not happy about it.

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