Hearing Rachel Carson on the 50th Anniversary of “Silent Spring”

Candice Gaukel Andrews September 20, 2012 6
Sandhill cranes

In 1936, only about 25 pairs of nesting sandhill cranes were left in Wisconsin, along with a few small breeding enclaves in other Great Lakes states. Today, the population is in good shape. ©John T. Andrews

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

Silent spring book cover

“Silent Spring” was published by Houghton Mifflin on September 27, 1962.

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.

Bald eagle

Wisconsin banned DDT in 1970, and the federal government prohibited its use beginning in 1972. In that year, Wisconsin had just 82 pairs of bald eagles. Today, there are more than 1,150. ©Bob Leggett

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,

Candy

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.

6 Comments »

  1. Mauverneen Blevins September 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    Reposting on FB – it’s a lesson we still haven’t learned. The story that just came out about arsenic in rice – shouldn’t the story be how it got there? Scary, to say the least.

  2. Susanne September 22, 2012 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    Excellent article and wake-up call. I remember being SO depressed when I read that book and studied marine biology in Hawaii (1972) and my prof said it was all too late. So good to hear some of our birdies are coming back. I live in an aviary here in Oz now tho the black cockatoo counts are down in WA! Now I’m going to read about your carbon reduction! Thanks

  3. R. Baker September 22, 2012 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    ….loved reading this as a child!

  4. Maria de Fatima Botelho Sardinha September 23, 2012 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    Thanks for giving us this rememberance.

  5. Thomas Szelog September 23, 2012 at 4:00 pm - Reply

    Hi Candice,
    I enjoyed your commentary and agree with your observations. I often wonder what Rachel Carson would say and think if she were here today? And, how would she feel about having a National Wildlife Refuge named in her honor? One would think she’d be honored; however she advocated for the protection of clean air and water in order to protect nature and wildlife. Although a National Wildlife Refuge implies that it protects animals, since the word refuge is defined as a state of being protected, ironically it does not in fact provide protection against the hunting of animals. What would Ms. Carson think about the fact that wildlife in the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge can be hunted?

    The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge website says, “A safe haven for wildlife.” Yet, the website includes the following information about hunting:
    The refuge will be open to the following hunting season:
    1. Deer: Firearm and Archery
    -Fox & Coyote may be taken with bow or shotgun with Deer permit during the Firearm Season
    2. Migratory Birds – (Duck, Geese, Woodcock, Snipe)
    3.Upland Game Birds-(Ruffed Grouse, Pheasant, Quail)
    4. Special Falconry Season

    You are absolutely correct in that Rachel’s lessons have been forgotten. Plus, we haven’t figured out how to find a balance between the true protection and preservation of ecosystems and wildlife habitat, recreation, and commercial development.

  6. Denise October 1, 2012 at 5:07 am - Reply

    And now you must read the book And the Water Turned to Blood, about another vilified female scientist.

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