September 27 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, a book written by marine biologist Rachel Carson. In her famous tome, Carson warned about the harmful side effects entering the environment through our use of pesticides. She predicted the disappearance of entire species and outbreaks of illnesses in humans due to such toxins. Silent Spring is often credited for the 1972 banning of the use of DDT in the United States and for inspiring its many readers — including President John F. Kennedy — to organize the modern environmental movement.
But getting her voice and her message heard wasn’t easy for Carson. Because she was a female scientist in a time before science’s gender gap began to close and because she lacked a PhD and a professorial position, she was vilified in the press as a “hysterical woman” unqualified to write such a book. Even more disturbing was the huge attack on her findings and lawsuit threats instigated by the chemical industry, most notably American Cyanamid, Monsanto Company, and Velsicol. Unfortunately, Carson died of breast cancer less than two years after the book’s debut.
Although today it may seem as if we’ve finally heard Rachel Carson — given the DDT ban and other strides, such as the creation of the Clean Air Act of 1963, the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and the Clean Water Act of 1972 — I sometimes wonder if lately we haven’t once again turned a deaf ear to those who would try to warn us about the harm we’re causing wildlife and the environment. Climate change researchers, fracking opponents, and those who speak of the lasting detrimental effects of oil spills are often dismissed as “alarmists.”
If Rachel Carson could pen a follow-up book, it might be titled Silent Summer, Fall, and Winter.
Going against the flow
Today, what I call the “Carson Effect” is still very much in evidence. Just look at the fossil-fuel industry’s continuing assault on climate change scientists, despite the fact that the world continues to warm. And how many times have we heard that the Gulf of Mexico is well on the way to recovery and its fish safe to eat, when we know that the effects from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill will be felt for generations to come?
There are other, smaller bits of evidence that point to the fact that Rachel Carson’s lessons have been forgotten, those that fail to make the big headlines that issues such as global warming and oils spills do. Tyrone Hayes of the University of California, Berkeley, has suffered Carson-like abuse for demonstrating the low-dose impacts of the herbicide atrazine in both the laboratory and in nature. Syngenta, atrazine’s manufacturer, has bankrolled a multimillion-dollar campaign, hiring “experts” to lie about the herbicide and dishonor Hayes. I, myself, have watched with great concern as the atrazine levels in my home’s well water have risen, year after year.
In another example, it has been found that a large number of wild alligators in a Florida lake that has been polluted with an endocrine-disrupting pesticide now have developmental abnormalities leading to sterility. And a recent, thorough review of the literature documented that this pesticide is also having an effect on human beings.
Flying in the sky
Silent Spring begins with a fable of a chemical-choked world in which birds no longer sing. So I think of Rachel Carson, especially in the fall, when the skies of Wisconsin — where I live — fill with birds. This is the time when Canada geese migrate to the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, sandhill cranes fly over the just-harvested cornfields, and bald eagles congregate near the open waters of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers. It always makes me happy to hear the honks, Pleistocene rattles, and chirps of these particular birds, since all of them almost went extinct due to factors such as overhunting and DDT. I also hear way up there the voice of Rachel Carson — and the voices of those who dare to speak against environmental abuses.
I hope on September 27, you hear some of them, too.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
At Natural Habitat Adventures, we’ve been inspired by the writings of Rachel Carson and other environmentalists. We believe it is our duty to take action to fight against the forces that threaten our natural environment. To this end, we became the world’s first carbon neutral travel company back in 2006. Each year, Natural Habitat donates thousands of dollars to support carbon-reduction projects around the globe. Learn more about our Carbon Pollution Reduction and sustainable tourism programs.