Rachel Carson and ‘Silent Spring’
I was on vacation walking down a wooded road in the Pocono
Mountains in Pennsylvania on July 20, 2019, the 50th anniversary of
the first moon walk in 1969. I was remembering Neil Armstrong on TV descending
the ladder of the lunar landing module when I was 13.
My thoughts shifted when I picked up a rock on the side of
the road which held a fossil of a brachiopod sea shell. I was standing
approximately 1,700 feet above sea level, over 100 miles away from the Atlantic
Ocean. The fossil reminded me that at various times in Earth’s history, most of
North America was submerged under ocean water.
I had read this in a book I received for my 13th birthday in
1969: The Sea Around Us, published in
1950 by Rachel Carson. The book made me ponder our planet and humanity — much
like the moon walk.
The Sea Around Us provides a
geophysical history of the Earth and describes the development of life upon it,
picking up where Darwin left off in linking life to its physical environment.
It’s rigorously researched and incorporates numerous studies and scientific
sources. It’s also enthralling literature, crafted with eloquent prose.
Millions of people have been moved by the picture taken of
the “Earthrise” over the lunar horizon by Michael
Collins, who piloted the Apollo 11 command module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz
Aldrin walked on the moon. Using data and analysis, Carson similarly viewed the
Earth from her desk as a blue biosphere, the whole of which she determined was
far greater than the sum of its parts. With no less wonderment than ancient
peoples who created myths to explain weather phenomena, land forms, and
celestial bodies, Carson comprehended the pervasive interconnection of life
with atmosphere, terrain, sea, and lunar and solar positioning.
Interestingly, few people I meet have ever heard of The Sea Around Us. Many, however, are
aware of a later book Rachel Carson published in 1962: Silent Spring. It too dealt with the connectedness of life
and its physical surrounding.
Silent Spring exposed the danger of the unregulated
use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and other pesticides.
Carson’s research showed how overuse of DDT hurt farming in the long run.
Insects adapted to the chemical and became even more impervious pests, while
DDT harmed livestock, birds, and fish, and evidence was mounting on its
toxicity for humans.
DDT eventually worked its way into the broader environment. And it was just one
of a growing number of synthetic chemicals contaminating the environment.
Silent Spring met with strong
opposition. Carson faced an onslaught of negative propaganda and threats of
lawsuits by the chemical industry. Even Time
Magazine initially dismissed Carson’s findings, calling them overly
emotional (an implied shot at her gender).
But Carson was
resolute and unflappable, as she demonstrated in her testimony before a
Congressional committee. Her remarkable courage arose from her confidence in
the objective truth, unhampered by ideology or need for self-acclaim.
It was President John F. Kennedy who in 1961 challenged Americans in a
speech before Congress, with “landing a man on the moon and returning
him safely to the Earth” before the end of the decade. The following year, on
August 29 in a press conference, President Kennedy brought Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to the attention of the
American people. (https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/JFKWHA/1962/JFKWHA-124/JFKWHA-124
Carson’s findings in Silent Spring
were later validated by President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee. The
book became a best seller and unleashed wide concern for the environment.
President Kennedy was assassinated two years after his moon-shot
speech, and never saw his vision realized at the end of the decade. Similarly,
Rachel Carson died two years after the publication of Silent Spring (from breast cancer), and never saw the environmental
movement she inspired come to fruition, including the establishment of the Environmental
Protection Agency in 1970.
Carson updated The Sea
Around Us in a 1961 edition. Her preface commented on the consequences of
dumping low level nuclear waste into the ocean, which was the practice at the
“It is a curious
situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened
by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a
sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”
Men looking back from the surface of the moon to Earth
marked 1969 as one of the greatest years in human progress. But on Earth, the
year brought tragedy to the California coast that reasserted Carson’s warning
In late January of 1969, oil gushed from a platform in the
Santa Barbara Channel onto beaches stretching from Goleta to Ventura. The
spill, the largest ever in U.S. waters at the time, impacted life on shores
from Pismo Beach to San Diego.
Rachel Carson’s prescription for environmental activism
especially suits our contemporary society which faces a looming deadline for
slowing pollution-accelerated climate change. If there was ever a time when we
needed a factually grounded, non-ideological, and courageous response to this
global challenge, it is now!