Rachel Carson – And the birth of modern environmentalism

by Rex Weyler

September 27, 2012

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 Earths ecosystems. Carsons book examined thirty-five birds species threatened with extinction due to chemical biocides, including organo-chlorines such as DDT.

Prior to Carsons book, chemical companies had disregarded the impact of toxins on living ecosystems. Carsons 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 havent 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, Rachel 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 masters 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, Rachel became the sole breadwinner for her mother and two nieces. Later, when a niece died suddenly, Rachel adopted her five-year-old son. Rachel 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 lifes work.

Bringing nature to the people

Rachel 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 on the book won the 1953 Best Documentary Oscar. With international speaking engagements and eager editors, Carson left her government job 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 contradict 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. Carsons book changed the course of history, and some people were not happy about it.

Industry attacks backfire

When Silent Spring appeared in 1962, the chemical industry attacked her data, her analysis, her personality, and her scientific credentials. The chemical industry sponsored articles promoting pesticide use and anonymous attacks on Carson, foreshadowing the computer trolls who now attack important environmental articles. A pro-industry review referred to her as a hysterical woman, typical of the sexist attacks.

Carson biographer Linda Lear reports in Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, that former Secretary of Agriculture and Mormon fundamentalist Ezra Taft Benson suggested to President Dwight Eisenhower in a letter that since Carson was attractive but unmarried, she was probably a Communist.

DuPont (DDT and 2,4-D manufacturer) and Velsicol Chemical Company (chlordane and heptachlor manufacturer) threatened lawsuits against Houghton Mifflin, The New Yorker and Audubon magazine, in attempts to suppress Silent Spring.

The chemical company American Cyanamid proved particularly aggressive. Company biochemist Robert White-Stevens wrote, 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.

American Cyanamid became known for environmental abuses in the US where its wastewater pools accumulated toxins, carcinogens, and teratogens, which cause birth defects and deformities. American Cyanamid abandoned toxic waste sites in New Jersey, such as the 575-acre Bridgewater site that leaked benzenes and other chemicals into the Raritan River and on residential sites.

In Silent Spring, Carson recounts laboratory animal tests in which DDT has produced suspicious liver tumors. Scientists of the Food and Drug Administration who reported the discovery of these tumors were uncertain how to classify them, but felt there was some justification for considering them low grade hepatic cell carcinomas. Dr. Hueper now gives DDT the definite rating of a chemical carcinogen.

The chemical lobbyists retaliated with insults. In one of his more livid moments, Robert White-Stevens called Carson, A fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.

Erroneous attacks claimed that Carson sought elimination of all pesticides, including those used for disease control, deceits still repeated today. Carson, however, encouraged sensible chemical disease control. She wrote clearly about this in Silent Spring (p. 266):

No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting.

Since indiscriminate agricultural use of DDT had strengthened the malaria mosquitoes, Carson wrote that pressure on the pest population should always be as slight as possible.

In retaliation, Monsanto distributed brochures mocking Carson and parodying Silent Spring. However, in the end, the chemical industry campaign backfired. Their attacks on Carsons book increased public awareness regarding pesticides and public health. In 1963, a television special, The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson reached some 15 million people.

The book inspired a congressional review, a US President’s Science Advisory Committee report that backed Carson’s scientific claims, and inspired the US Environmental Protection Agency. US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called Silent Spring the most important chronicle of this century for the human race.

As her book changed the course of history, Rachel Carson struggled with her cancer and radiation therapy. In the spring of 1964, the cancer reached her liver, and she died on April 14 at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Rachel Carsons courage ignited an ecological awareness that burns to this day. She reminded the world:

For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan, or the salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence. We poison the caddis flies in the stream and the salmon runs dwindle We spray our elms and following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm-leaf-earthworm-robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life-or death-that scientists know as ecology.

Rex Weyler

By Rex Weyler

Rex Weyler was a director of the original Greenpeace Foundation, the editor of the organisation's first newsletter, and a co-founder of Greenpeace International in 1979.

Rex's column reflects on the roots of activism, environmentalism, and Greenpeace's past, present, and future.

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