Nowhere was the new thrust of environmental thinking taking place in the 1960’s more prominent than with one person who—figuratively speaking—stood head and shoulders above all. Eschewing the limelight, Rachel Carson preferred instead to nestle down—always immaculately-coiffed—behind her microscope in her government lab while relying on her writings to tell the public about her keen insights into the natural world.
Rachel Carson’s multiple passions for researching and then documenting Earth’s natural resources were on display throughout her long career as a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
If asked to select the most heroic environmental feat of the 20th Century, it would be difficult not to vote for publication of Carson’s book, Silent Spring. Not only did this landmark publication initiate the eventual eradication of DDT—arguably the deadliest chemical ever used on the face of the Earth—it also saved many of our iconic birds of prey from extinction. Thanks to Silent Spring, bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, and ospreys still fill our skies with their dramatic flights of wonder and derring-do.
Born in 1929 in the rural river town of Springdale, Pennsylvania, Rachel Carson inherited her lifelong love of nature from her mother. Her education included stints at Massachusetts’ famed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (then Marine Biological Laboratory) and Baltimore, Maryland’s prestigious Johns Hopkins University where she earned her Master’s Degree in Zoology in 1932.
Most people don’t realize that Carson was actually quite famous as an author before Silent Spring came along. While employed as a scientist and editor with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, she wrote three books in her “spare time” that lauded the environmental treasures of our oceans, including her prize-winning and best-selling title, The Sea Around Us.
In Silent Spring, Carson’s revelations about the myriad horrors of synthetic pesticides—laced with DDT—literally scared money out of people’s pocketbooks and forced letters to Congress out of their pens. Prophetically summarizing what may very well be said about our contemporary society after 2050, Carson wrote that, “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 concerns for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.”
As you might expect, the publication of Silent Spring was also met with a bitterly negative reaction from the corporate world. The resistance started with the small-time farmers and moved all the way up to the mega-giants—the Monsantos—of the agricultural world. This antagonistic pushback also went sideways to the corporate chemical conglomerates—the DuPonts and the Union Carbides—who were used to getting whatever they wanted wherever and whenever they wanted it.
In particular, the chemical companies threatened to sue Carson over her “inflammatory statements” in Silent Spring. They argued that her “outlandish opinions” were crippling American agriculture while also threatening human health. As a chemical-industry spokesman bluntly stated at the time, “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.”
Carson’s most vehement critics even tried to push her to the far left of the political spectrum, arguing that she was consorting with unsavory parties who were trying to undermine American agriculture and free enterprise. While the word “Communist”—the most potent of insults in the decade following the scourge of McCarthyism—wasn’t used directly, it was certainly implied. Monsanto even published and distributed 5,000 copies of a brochure, entitled The Desolate Year, which parodied Silent Spring by describing a bleak world wracked by famine, disease, and uncontrolled hordes of insects which existed because chemical pesticides had been banned.
But nothing deterred Carson from the four years of her life she unerringly dedicated to writing her now world-famous book. She endured all of the witheringly negative personal attacks with dignity and professionalism, ensuring the American public that what she was saying deserved to be heard and heeded. In fact, she completed Silent Spring while she knew she was dying from then untreatable breast cancer. Now that’s the penultimate description of a hero—giving your life for a cause!
Eight years after her untimely death in 1964, Ms. Carson ultimately succeeded in her quest when—in 1972—the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally banned DDT nationwide while completely vindicating her writing in Silent Spring[i] of any negative impacts. Today, Silent Spring is credited with generating a groundswell of grassroots activism that eventually opened the door for the massive environmental movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Critical reaction to Silent Spring in 1962 also set the stage for the pitted battles between industry and environmentalism that have persisted over the next 50-plus years. No matter the subject (air pollution, water pollution, endangered species protection, etc.) industry always follows the same basic strategies: question the science, attack the scientists’ credibility, and warn of unbearable economic loss. In fact, from this battle over deadly pesticides to the carcinogenic effects of tobacco in the 1970’s to today’s feuding with the fossil fuel companies over Climate Change, the same “experts” have been brought forth to perpetuate their bloated rhetoric and denigrate the scientific findings.
While the battle plans aren’t always successful, there’s no denying that the US has become cleaner and healthier since the publication of Silent Spring. But as we all now know, the fight is far from over—as the current polarized debate over Climate Change solutions certainly demonstrates.
Our new Climate Change heroes would do well to use Rachel Carson as their role model for advancing their causes. She so believed in her goal of ridding the Earth of deadly pesticides that she persisted in her mission in the face of withering opposition and outright personal humiliation from a chemical/agricultural conglomerate that bullied everyone just to get what they wanted.
Indeed, the fervor and passion of Rachel Carson are certainly prerequisites for pushing through the significant political, cultural, and lifestyle changes that will be required for counteracting the ongoing Climate Change crisis. Using a persuasive piece of literature to turn the tide of public opinion is also an effective strategy for our Current Heroes to emulate.
Text excerpted from book: “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change” written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger and published by Prometheus Books. Photo credit: Copyright Shutterstock (3)
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change”, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — “COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America” — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.