The chemical revolution: Rachel Carson forced chemists to take nature into account
Share with others:
During this 50th anniversary year of the publication of Rachel Carson's seminal book, "Silent Spring," I've read many fine articles, editorials and speeches by Pittsburghers justly crediting this pioneer for inspiring the environmental movement, nationally and internationally.
What is seldom discussed is how her work has influenced chemists and the chemical industry. She made such an impact that on Friday the American Chemical Society, Chatham University and others will honor "Silent Spring" as a National Historic Chemical Landmark! This represents a paradigm shift in understanding.
To fully understand the impact of Carson's work on the discipline of chemistry, we need to revisit the world as she saw it in the 1940s and 1950s.
In the summers, trucks drove through neighborhoods spraying DDT to control mosquitoes as kids ran behind playing in the spray. Government officials authorized aerial spraying of neighborhoods with DDT to eradicate gypsy moths, fire ants and Dutch Elm disease. Housewives sprayed their kitchens to control flies, silver fish and cockroaches. Town officials sprayed swimming pools and doctors sprayed children directly with DDT to prevent polio. There was even a brand of pink and blue wallpaper with DDT to keep mosquitoes out of baby's nursery.
Why did this happen?
During and after World War II, people were very threat-conscious. People addressed problems by extinguishing threats rapidly, directly and, if need be, aggressively. Government officials, scientists, farmers, doctors and many other professionals turned to heavy and widespread applications of chemical compounds such as DDT, dieldrin and aldrin to combat malaria, eradicate polio, control household insects and to stop gypsy moths and Dutch Elm disease from devastating neighborhood shade trees. Officials and scientists knew these chemicals were powerful and thought they would provide immediate solutions to profound problems -- and often they did.
But Rachel Carson saw things differently. Born in 1907, in Springdale, Pa., Carson saw her hometown change radically. Acutely observant of nature, Carson's walks through pristine fields and forests and along the Allegheny River as a child became a heartache in her 20s as she saw pollution foul the air and waterways.
She continued to watch what was happening to the environment as she earned a master's degree in zoology and worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the mid- to late-1950s, when colleagues spoke of birds and fish dying in places such as Clear Lake Junction, N.Y., in Iowa, Maine and Long Island, she didn't ask questions only about the animals themselves, she also asked how their habitats had changed.
Rachel Carson thought systemically. She wondered: Can chemicals travel through soil, water and air? Might chemicals be transferred from mother birds to their eggs? Can chemicals accumulate in body tissue? Maybe the effects on humans don't show up for a long time, even decades.
Once Carson helped people see these connections, public opinion shifted. People tend to take action when they see a problem they care about and understand.
Carson's work was a paradigm shift, as momentous for our culture as the Italian Renaissance. She disagreed with the commonly held view that humans had "dominion" over nature. She saw people as part of nature and equally at risk. She never suggested that pesticides shouldn't be used, but she insisted that their effects be thoroughly studied so as to leave no one ignorant about their risks or dangers.
Carson's brilliance is revealed time and again in "Silent Spring": "We have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife and man himself. Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life. There is still very limited awareness of the nature of the threat. This is an era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits."
Today, Carson's systemic, ecological approach provides the backbone for green chemistry, which has become a major force worldwide. Now, chemists choose processes that create less waste, use less water and resources, solve problems without being more powerful than necessary and develop products that degrade and metabolize in concert with nature.
For example, chemical manufacturers often use enzymes so processes can function at lower temperatures and use less energy, plant-based specialty chemicals are replacing petroleum-based plastics, and drugs are being manufactured more efficiently using highly reactive alkalis that have been processed to powders to make them safer to use.
Creating sustainable approaches to chemical manufacturing is critical, but many chemists also have shifted to discovering solutions for environmental problems. The overwhelming imperative for our time is to deal with climate change, which is causing severe weather disruption seen globally in heat waves, droughts, melting glaciers and violent, destructive storms.
Rachel Carson's legacy should guide our thinking. We can create new electric car batteries so we can replace vehicles dependent on fossil fuels. We can design buildings that use less energy to heat and cool. We can create products that actually use, rather than produce, carbon dioxide.
We must employ science to understand the complex environmental effects we are having and witnessing. And we must be smart enough and care enough to do things differently.
Rachel Carson would be glad to know that we are still watching, listening and learning.
First Published October 23, 2012 12:00 am