Rachel Carson's book turned the environmental world on its ear 50 years ago

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Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" was published 50 years ago today, and, like few others, the book about the dangers, damage and risks of excessive pesticide use moved the world.

One of the most influential and controversial books of the 20th century, it is widely credited with sowing the seeds of the modern environmental movement that would sprout eight years later with the first Earth Day, creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and also with providing inspiration for grass-roots citizen groups seeking to protect the environment and human health.

It was, as Carson biographer Linda Lear said during a May symposium in Pittsburgh on the legacy of "Silent Spring," the ultimate "kicking the hornets nest book."

"Carson was a cultural warrior who upset the status quo and wrote in a way that made us uneasy in our own skin," Ms. Lear said at the gathering sponsored by Chatham University's Rachel Carson Institute and the National Aviary. "The book said that better living through chemistry may not be better, and if it is better, it asked the question: better for whom and at what costs?"

"Silent Spring" disparaged the "war against the Earth," she said, at a time when society "supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man."

And it called into question the then-common practice of aerial spraying or "fogging" of farm fields and residential areas with pesticides, including DDT mixed with fuel oil, to control mosquitoes, fire ants and other insect pests. It highlighted the collateral damage that such indiscriminate pesticide application was causing for a variety of animal, bird and plant species, and the risk it and other widely used chemical toxics posed to humans, especially children.

Carson was born in Springdale Borough in 1907 in a small frame home on what was then a 26-acre farm. Eileen Miller, Springdale's mayor, said Carson developed a special insight on nature while growing up in the Allegheny River valley on the edge of an industrial and smoky Pittsburgh.

"Rachel Carson saw first hand, here in Springdale, how living things interact with the environment," Ms. Miller said earlier this month at the newly renovated Rachel Carson Homestead, "and how human actions can have a profound impact on the Earth's natural resources."

"She had a conviction she could be a biologist at a time when that was not the normal trajectory for a woman," said Patricia DeMarco, executive director of Chatham's Rachel Carson Institute. "She was completely immersed in the natural world from the time she was a child."

Carson attended the Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham University, on a scholarship. After earning a master's in zoology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, she became a science writer and editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where in 1945 she first raised questions about DDT.

"Silent Spring" was the fourth book by Carson, already a critically acclaimed writer whose second book, "The Sea Around Us," won the National Book Award in 1952 -- the same year she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She also had a wide public following for her books and articles in The Atlantic and Readers Digest, even before writing the volume for which she will always be remembered.

Ms. DeMarco said Carson was the best-known biologist of her time and "the voice of our life-support system."

"There was rhythm in her writing -- she used to read what she'd written out loud to make sure it flowed properly -- and in the natural world. She understood the connection and interconnectedness of us all and knew the music of the Earth."

Ms. DeMarco said Carson displayed that understanding in "A Sense of Wonder," when she wrote about the "sounds of the insect orchestra," referring to the beat and hum of insects on a summer night.

It took Carson five years to write "Silent Spring." Excerpts appeared in three editions of The New Yorker magazine during the summer of 1962, and the book was published by Houghton Mifflin on Sept. 27. It became an instant best-seller and a "Book-of-the-Month-Club" selection and was excerpted in the Audubon Club magazine.

President John Kennedy ordered his science adviser to fully investigate her claims.

"Carson was a brilliant synthesizer of the science and scientific reports," Ms. Lear said. "She was able to explain not only how chemical pesticides work against insect pests, but also the disturbing evidence of changes they caused in the physiology of birds and fish, and the connections between pesticides and human cancers."

The "silent" in the book's title refers to the quiet spoken by a chemical pesticide-depleted chorus of bird species.

Scott Weidensaul, author of more than two dozen books on natural history, said there is no doubt that widespread and indiscriminate pesticide use had hurt egg shell formation and was responsible for declining bird populations. And much of the support for that observation came from counts of raptors -- eagles, osprey and hawks -- at Hawk Mountain, northeast of Allentown in Lehigh County.

"In the 1950s the number of young eagles had collapsed," he said at the May symposium. "By 1957, there was only one immature eagle counted for every 32 adult birds that flew past the mountain, an indication that very few young birds were being produced."

The skies and woods may have been silent, but the stir caused by Carson's book was anything but quiet.

Critics referred to Ms. Carson, derisively, as the "Priestess of Nature," and "Silent Spring" dismissively as "that book," said Ms. Lear.

J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI compiled a dossier on her, and the chemical industry, after initially thinking the book posed only a temporary public relations problem, sought to block its publication. When that was unsuccessful, the industry launched a full-scale assault on its message and messenger.

The well-funded industry campaign touted the benefits of pesticides, and said the nation would be swarmed by mosquitoes and fire ants if DDT were banned, and food crop production would suffer. It called Carson a Communist, a subversive, a food-faddist and a "spinster," then a code word for gay.

Today, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market lobbying group, continues to blame Carson and "Silent Spring" for banning DDT, which it says has resulted in millions of deaths in Africa from malaria and other insect-borne diseases. But Carson never opposed all pesticide use or advocated banning DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), and spoke of that in a speech at the national Women's Press Club in Washington. She said she did favor insect control, but noted that "modern chemical controls are badly and inefficiently based on a low level of scientific thinking."

DDT wasn't banned for domestic use in the U.S. until 1972, and American chemical manufacturers continued to produce it for export until the mid-1980s. China ceased production in 2007 and India produced DDT through 2009. Its use for disease control continues in some Third World nations.

"The focus on DDT is really irrelevant," Ms. Lear said. "The focus of 'Silent Spring' was really much larger, on the future integrity of the fabric of life. Carson recognized that chemical biocides killed indiscriminately and her concern was for the ecosystem writ large.

Unfortunately, she said, each year brings fresh evidence that Carson was "tragically right," and cited a reactive regulatory approach, lack of regulatory and political will, industry influence and a roster of toxic chemicals that has mushroomed tenfold since the 1960s.

• In her acknowledgements for "Silent Spring," Ms. Carson graciously credits many others who "first spoke out against the reckless and irresponsible poisoning of the world that man shares with all other creatures ..." She ends by offering encouragement to those environmentalists of her time, and also to those in the future who fight "the thousands of small battles that in the end will bring victory for sanity and common sense in our accommodation to the world that surrounds us."

Nineteen months after "Silent Spring" was published, Carson died of breast cancer. She was 57.

"She left us with a body of work that communicates complex science in a very simple and easy to understand way," said Ms. DeMarco of Chatham's Carson institute. "She embraced the cautionary principle, and her writings focused on preserving what we need to survive and love for what we need to protect."

region - environment - neigh_north

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. First Published September 27, 2012 4:00 AM


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