Sometimes in order to see change and revolutionize, it is necessary to challenge an idea.
In 1962, that is exactly what Rachel Carson did with the publication of her book, Silent Spring, which was written to exploit pesticide companies and expose the dangers of the harmful chemicals they use. The pesticide, DDT, was being heavily used during that time as an insecticide and Carson bravely shared her findings about the intense destruction this chemical was causing to not only the environment and animals but also humans. Her passion for environmentalism and love for animals and nature were a driving force when deciding to pursue the task of creating this book and alerting the public of the serious health issues that the pesticide companies were negligently causing.
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DDT is a synthetic insecticide that was originally created to combat and control cases of malaria, typhus, and other human diseases caused by insects. This chemical became popularized during the second half of World War II because of the alarming amount of cases of malaria in soldiers. Due to its powerful ability to kill off hundreds of kinds of insects just by one application, its popularity grew rapidly and began being used across the country to spray crop farms, gardens, livestock, homes and more. During this time, there were no known concerns surrounding the pesticide and the scientist who discovered its powerful use, Paul Hermann Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for uncovering the powerful effects it has against insects.
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In 1945, Carson became aware of tests that were being conducted on DDT not far from where she lived and became interested in the subject and originally wanted to investigate to write a piece about it for Reader’s Digest, where her idea was turned away. Years later, Carson’s curiosity on the subject at hand resurfaced and she decided she was going to make the public aware of the harmful effects of DDT and pesticides in general through her book Silent Spring. The book starts with its most memorable chapter, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” which depicts a nameless town and describes the vibrant lands filled with lush fields of grass and grain, bloomed orchard trees, maple and birch trees that set a blaze of color across the fields, along with animals scurrying throughout. She then goes on to describe a “strange blight” that crept over the town as if an evil spell had fallen over them. The town began experiencing sudden deaths in adults and children, the songs of birds have stopped being sung, if a bird was seen, it was trembling violently, it became a silent spring. Hens would lay eggs, but no chicks would hatch, pigs would have babies, but they were small and would only survive a few days, there were no bees to pollinate trees to get fruit, and streams were rendered lifeless since all the fish have died. Carson then explains that there isn’t a town that she knows that all of these misfortunes have happened, but there were a substantial number of cities that had experienced some, if not many of these detrimental outcomes of the use of DDT. Throughout the book, she explains how DDT has entered and contaminated the food chain by accumulating in the fatty tissue of animals and humans that cause cancer and other genetic damage. The chemical even had the power to remain toxic within the environment even after being diluted by rainwater.
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Throughout history, people have not had the capability to manipulate the environment in the way that we have seen with advancing sciences. With growing knowledge and understanding, scientists have been able to create these different kinds of chemicals that can cause significant change or damage. Carson describes the pace at which new pesticides are being created as “heedless” as a remarkable 500 new synthetic chemicals are introduced in the United States each year. In Silent Spring, she draws attention to this chemical by not calling it an insecticide, but a biocide. She uses the term biocide because the poisons being used are not just targeting “pests,” they have been harming and killing all kinds of living things. Carson also expressed the concern that “the biocides had begun a war with life itself, a war whose effects will be felt by humans in unexpected ways.” She believed that it was the beginning of ‘man’s war against nature’ and has also expressed her idea that ‘If humankind poisons nature, nature will, in turn, poison humankind.’ Sincere concern was expressed considering the lack of research that is conducted to examine the potential negative effects of these kinds of chemicals. Carson draws on the fact that people use Arsenic as a pesticide while an expert on environmental cancers, Dr. W.C. Hueper said that this cancer-causing chemical is used with “supreme carelessness.” Along with these ideas, Carson explains how even aerial spraying these chemicals can affect human and animal life. Professor Rolf Eliassen at MIT confirmed that drinking water is filled with pollutants and scientists do not fully understand the effects of the mixture of chemicals. It is explained that water can become contaminated through the spray mixing with agricultural runoff water, fish swimming upstream, and chemicals getting in the groundwater. An example Carson told of how powerful this contamination can be is about wildlife refuges in Northern California and Oregon that experienced a mass poisoning of migratory birds because the chemicals were in the water that the plankton, waterfowl, and fish that the birds ate. Although Carson highlights the many negative effects of pesticides throughout her book, she is not against the use of pesticides, she just wants to encourage the idea of safer use, with more extensive research and expressed a need for humans to act more responsibly.
Following the exploitation of the carelessness of these pesticide and chemical companies, Carson was expecting some backlash but received much more than what she thought she would. By starting the biggest environmental movement, she was criticized by every angle. An executive of the American Cyanamid Company stated, “If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and disease and vermin would once inherit the earth,” disregarding the idea that she is not against the use of pesticides. Monsanto also published thousands of copies of a brochure titled “The Desolate Year” which was written as a parody of Silent Spring that described a world where pesticides had been banned and famine, disease, and insects ruled. Carson also received remarks that questioned her sanity because of the beliefs she expressed and some even stooped to call her a communist because of her challenging and outlandish ideas. She was prepared for this backlash though and followed up with 55 pages of notes and a list of names of experts who had read and approved of her manuscript. After the book was published, the president at the time, John F. Kennedy, demanded the President’s Science Advisory Committee to examine the issues that Carson had presented. As a result, DDT was researched further and eventually banned for its harmful effects.
Through the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was successfully able to raise the public’s awareness and concern for what kind of chemicals they face on a daily basis. She was able to create a fond care for environmentalism and a desire for conservation. By fiercely speaking out against these chemical companies and exploiting the harmful side effects like cancers, genetic damage, contamination of the food chain, as well as deaths of entire species, Carson was able to revolutionize the way that these industries need to be regulated.