Silent Spring and Us: the Science Odyssey that Roused a Nation


History, not epitaphs, is often the real measure of a scientist, especially one as controversial as Rachel Carson, a woman without a PhD in Postwar America. Her book, Silent Spring, spoke with unprecedented concern about the use of the pesticide DDT (chlorinated hydrocarbons), which killed not only insects, but infected birds, fish, and human beings. With enjoyable and informative prose, Carson questioned the profit-driven chemical industry and the twisted priorities of a government that ignores the ecological balance, putting every species, among them humanity, into greater danger. Her book aroused the public consciousness; it was the impetus for rethinking the relationship between humans and their natural surroundings at the time of its publication, in 1962. Today, its influence is still inestimable.

(Seney Natural History Association/CC BY)

Bald eagles found dead and studied for pesticide residue in 1963, soon after the debut of Silent Spring. As national icons, their fall in numbers was worrisome. Carson blamed DDT. (Seney Natural History Association/CC BY)

In her book, Carson illustrated the calamity of DDT, citing real-world examples, which made her standpoint both convincing and recognizable. For instance, she incorporated the decline of young salmon population in the Northwest of Canada’s Miramichi River, as the consequence of DDT overuse; setting the spotlight upon the severity of the issue. It drummed up spontaneous public opposition. (The president’s Science Advisory Committee concluding, uncontrolled spraying could be a “greater hazard” than radioactive fallout). But equally deserving of praise is that she, as a scientist, was able to explain to the public the philosophy of a nature-human bond that is interconnected, not separate, leading to a widespread consensus on a nature-focused worldview, rather than the traditionally anthropocentric one. Carson revealed our Achilles’ heel, warning “we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.” But she also laid out feasible alternatives, including natural methods for pest control: when an invasive beetle from Japan plagued America and the insecticide used to combat it proved lethal to humans, Carson called to introduce the beetle’s natural predator, a now common practice.

Carson’s book has received much ovation for its literary aspects; deemed to be brilliantly written, in a poetic style, it’s analytically organized with occasional use of imagery and emotion. She illuminated, with constrained anger, a series of cases all over the country, one after another, which deepened the reader’s thinking and instilled a sense of moral obligation among the public. However, owing to the limited knowledge of the Sixties, Carson’s book has been criticized for its lack of evidence on the long-term effects of DDT; its dearth of reliable data- both on numbers and severity of health risks-related to the general population, nationwide or global. More exploration of what toxicologists call dose-responses, the consequence of different levels of exposure on organisms, would be necessary, and most importantly, accurate thresholds related to what Carson is measuring, known as variable endpoints, in order to overcome the negative comments on Silent Spring’s statistics. No agreement has ever been reached to date amid the media and scientific communities on the accuracy of her work. Nevertheless, the condemnation for her book and herself can not change her significance in popularizing modern ecology.

Organizer Frank Eggers rallies against pesticides. In 2008, Marin County renewed sprays to combat an invasive species of Moth. Weeks later, over 600 people grew ill. Eggers, a former mayor of Fairfax, once made his town pesticide-free. (Kevin Krecji/CC BY)

Organizer Frank Eggers rallies against pesticides. In 2008, Marin County renewed sprays to combat an invasive species of Moth. Weeks later, over 600 people grew ill. A former mayor of Fairfax, Eggers once made his town pesticide-free. (Kevin Krecji/CC BY)

Half a century after Silent Spring, re-readings and eulogies endure, with the continuing trends of the Green movement. From the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 1970, to the rising concern of chemicals’ potential brunt in international conventions and conferences, we have Rachel Carson and her book to thank. Having sold more than two million copies, Silent Spring has inspired generations of activists and awakened an array of scientific advocates to further investigate DDT and other chemicals. Fifty years later, Carson should be credited with sowing the seeds of awareness and launching these endeavors. And Silent Spring has reached broad swaths of the world, Translated, and circulated in dozens of languages, and set the course for a tide of Green movements, rising and thriving, for decades.

Despite the advances within technology from the time Carson lived, many factors are still shared with today’s dilemmas in toxicology. As Carson pointed out in her book, “while the quantities so received by human infants would normally be small, they are not unimportant because children are more susceptible to poisoning than adults;” a public concern in her era that remains in our own. Currently, the focus has shifted to synthetic chemicals, namely high-tech consumer products we stick to everyday, rather than industrial-strength pesticides, such as DDT. (The impact of DDT remains an issue in countries like India, and never disappeared). Compared with the situation a half century ago, we are confronting much more exposures of new, unpredictable chemicals, such as nano-material, while our chemical management policies are struggling to cope. And with the progress in toxicology, there are still gaps in a variety of tests for substance hazards, health and safety.

(USDA photo by Steve Ausmus/CC BY)

Not all bad: Entomologist Chris Gelden uses pesticide dust to kill flies for the US Department of Agriculture. In 2006, the World Health Organization recommended using pesticides to kill malaria-carrying insects. (USDA photo by Steve Ausmus/CC BY)

If we are to build a safer future, the establishment of EPA and other Clean Acts cannot be the end. Faced with tons of consumer electronics and chemical manufactures, of which the potential for dangers have never been fully understood, we’re now obliged to battle a more arduous, perseverant challenge compared to the past. More policy framework needs to be developed, along with forceful regulations, to push potential toxic chemicals off the market. Advocating for more biodegradable products is as important as it was when Carson published her book.

And we continue to make progress. We have grown to embrace the notion of ‘green chemistry,’ weighing trade-offs of new materials or innovative technologies, and more telling measures of ‘sustainable development’ have dominated the recent global agendas. Moving towards an environmentally friendly life style, the legacy of Silent Spring will continue to flower.

Yanjie Zhao is a MA candidate for Biology at NYU, with a concentration in Public Health.

Top Photo: A Burmese farmer burns paddy afflicted by grasshoppers. Poorly-used pesticides eradicated other insects, causing the pests to spread. (Foreign and Commonwealth Office photo by Piers Benatar/CC BY)

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