The Carson Effect

September 15, 2012
In 1981, Rachel Carson was honored seventeen years after her death by appearing on a 17-cent First Class ‘second ounce’ commemorative postage stamp. U.S. POSTAL SERVICE.



How Silent Spring Shaped (and Still Shapes) Modern Environmentalism

Half a century ago, at four o’clock on the afternoon of August 29, 1962, President John F. Kennedy stepped to a lectern at the State Department for a press conference. By the time he was finished the modern environmental movement had begun.

Kennedy started that day by announcing the retirement of Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter. He then took questions about farm policy, tensions in Berlin, and whether he would meet with Nikita Khrushchev during the Soviet premier’s upcoming visit to the United Nations in New York. Kennedy was also asked about less routine matters. There were several vaguely portentous questions about a recent increase in shipping traffic from the Soviet Union to Cuba.

Near the end, a reporter brought up an unusual subject, but one that had lately been on everyone’s mind: “Mr. President, there appears to be a growing concern among scientists as to the possibility of dangerous long-range side effects from the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides. Have you considered asking the Department of Agriculture or the Public Health Service to take a closer look at this?”

“Yes,” the president answered quickly, “and I know that they already are. I think, particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book, but they are examining the issue.”

In this moment something new came into the world, as the gentle, optimistic proposition called “conservation” began its transformation into the bitterly divisive idea that would come to be known as environmentalism. The president’s promise of an investigation into the contamination of the environment by a widely used and economically important class of products had no precedent. And like the worrisome line of Soviet ships heading to Cuba, the possible dangers of pesticides would soon be seen as posing an existential question: Was mankind on the brink of extinguishing itself?

The next day Kennedy appointed Jerome Wiesner, his science adviser, to head a commission that would examine the claims in “Miss Carson’s book.”

Unlikely figure at center of firestorm

Miss Carson was, of course, Rachel Carson — unknown to many people now, but in those days among America’s most celebrated and beloved writers. Carson had written three lyrical books about the sea before the book to which President Kennedy had referred, the bristling, anti-pesticides polemic Silent Spring. Technically, it was not yet actually a book, as publication was still a month away at the end of September. But three long excerpts from  Silent Spring had appeared in the New Yorker magazine in June.

By the time of Kennedy’s press conference the New Yorker articles had raised public alarm in the United States and abroad — and prompted the chemicals industry to launch an angry and concerted effort to discredit Silent Spring and destroy its author.

The woman at the center of this firestorm scarcely seemed capable of becoming such a polarizing figure. Rachel Carson was 55 years old and had spent most of her adult life in the company of her mother — writing, bird-watching, and visiting the seashore. Petite, soft-spoken, and nearly apolitical, she now lived quietly in a leafy suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland with a cat and her orphaned ten-year-old grand-nephew, Roger Christie, whom she had adopted.

As a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service writer and editor early in her career, Rachel Carson (right) spent many hours visiting refuges to gather material for the agency’s publications, often accompanied by wildlife artist Bob Hines (left) who illustrated her third book, The Edge of the Sea. PHOTO COURTESY USFWS.

Carson earned a masters degree in zoology at Johns Hopkins University, but had never worked as a scientist. In the gloom of the Great Depression, she instead found a job as an information specialist with the federal government’s Bureau of Fisheries, an agency later merged with the Biological Survey to form the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1951 her book The Sea Around Us made Carson’s literary reputation — it stood atop the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-nine weeks and won the National Book Award — and she left government service.

Every spring Carson and Roger drove north to Southport Island on the Maine coast, where she owned a cottage on a rocky bluff overlooking Sheepscot Bay. Here Carson passed her summers in reflection, gazing at the ebb and flow of the sea, collecting marine specimens in the tidal pools along the shore, and visiting, often deep into the fog-shrouded nights, with her neighbors Dorothy and Stanley Freeman. In the fall, she went home.

A slow writer who revised endlessly, Carson had worked on Silent Spring for almost four years — though she had worried for much longer than that over the new pesticides developed at the outset of World War II and in the years immediately after. One of the best known and most widely used of these compounds was a molecule of chlorinated hydrocarbon called dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane — DDT.

Although it had been first synthesized in 1874, no practical application for DDT was found until 1939, when a 40-year-old chemist named Paul Muller, who worked for Geigy Drug Industries in Basel, Switzerland, discovered that it killed insects. DDT was immediately deployed against an outbreak of potato beetles in Switzerland. It was astonishingly effective — highly toxic and long-lasting, DDT’s fatal properties lingered on anything it touched. And because doses that killed insects appeared harmless to warm-blooded animals, including humans, DDT was soon used against lice, ticks, and mosquitoes that transmitted human diseases.

Production of DDT was ramped up during World War II to speed it to combat zones for use as a de-lousing agent, particularly on refugees streaming out of Nazi-occupied territories. When the U.S. Army sprayed more than a million civilians with DDTand successfully halted a 1943 typhus epidemic in Naples, the new pesticide was hailed as a panacea against the insect-borne diseases that plagued mankind. In 1948, Paul Muller won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. At the award ceremony, DDT was declared a major discovery that illustrated the “wondrous ways of science.”

Not everyone was sure of that.

Parallels drawn between pesticides, radioactive fallout

Rachel Carson had been worried about DDT since 1945, when she helped write a series of press releases alerting the public to threats it posed to wildlife that had been discovered in tests of the miracle insecticide carried out by the Fish and Wildlife Service at Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland. Scientists at Patuxent warned that enthusiasm for DDT should be tempered with “grave concern.” Like any poison, DDT, the researchers said, was a “two-edged sword” that was likely to cause extensive collateral damage in widespread use.

The studies continued, and by 1947 Patuxent had a staff biologist whose sole job was to investigate “DDT problems.” Carson, who routinely supplemented her income with freelance work, pitched a story about the dark side of DDT to the Reader’s Digest. But the magazine passed.

Meanwhile, as the Fish and Wildlife Service was monitoring the effects of aerial DDT spraying on forest ecosystems in Maryland, the United States exploded three nuclear devices — one at Alamogordo, N.M., in the test of a bomb called “Trinity,”and two in Japan, where the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leveled and somewhere between 150,000 and 250,000 people died. During the Cold War of the 1950s and early 1960s, a number of countries — but principally the U.S. and the Soviet Union — continued to conduct atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons. A moratorium was agreed to in 1958, and such tests were suspended until the summer of 1961, when the Soviet Union announced it would resume its atmospheric program. Over the course of the next three months, the Russians exploded thirty-one nuclear devices, including one 3,300 times more powerful than “Little Boy,” which had been dropped on Hiroshima.

Fearful of the Soviets gaining an advantage and under pressure from Congress and the public, President Kennedy, who had campaigned on a pledge to enact a permanent ban on testing, reluctantly re-started American tests in the spring of 1962. Between April and November the United States exploded 35 nuclear devices in the atmosphere — about one every five days. When a comprehensive ban ended the era of atmospheric testing in August of 1963, a total of 521 nuclear devices had been exploded above ground — 199 of them by the United States.

A by-product of these tests was the debris carried on high-altitude winds that eventually returned to earth as radioactive fallout — notably the isotopes strontium-90 and iodine-131. High concentrations came down in the central United States, where people, especially children, were exposed through the consumption of milk from cows that were pastured in areas where fallout landed.

Radiation exposure was understood to be a potential health hazard, but for years there was no scientific agreement as to how serious this might be. In 1957, a group of prominent scientists who believed radioactive fallout had as yet done little to harm humans, nonetheless urged the United Nations to seek an international limit on atmospheric testing. The Atomic Energy Commission disagreed. The government’s position was that atmospheric testing could continue as it had for decades without — in the words of the New York Times — “posing any danger to mankind.” Then came the spate of testing in 1962, and by the following spring strontium-90 levels in milk had doubled in some areas.

Invisible and ubiquitous, undetectable without special instruments, radioactive fallout was a strange and terrifying thing — a poison whose effects might not be experienced for years or even decades following exposure. It was the same for DDT, which was also discovered in milk.

Carson recognized a parallel between pesticides and radioactive fallout that was “exact and inescapable.” Our species, Carson reasoned, having evolved over thousands of millennia, was well-adapted to the natural world, but was biologically defenseless in an unnaturally altered one. Pesticides and radiation, apart from their acute toxicities, were also mutagenic — capable of damaging the genetic material that guides the machinery of living cells and provides the blueprint for each succeeding generation.

Carson believed that widely dispersed and persistent substances like DDT and radioactive fallout — which contaminated the environment not in isolated, specific places, but instead throughout the entirety of the global ecosystem — were the inevitable and potentially lethal developments of the modern age, each one a consequence as she put it bluntly in Silent Spring, of the “impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature.”

Parable of a town, entombed

Carson began Silent Spring with a short, foreboding fable that would become one of the great set-pieces in American literature. In it Carson imagined a nameless town “in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” This idyllic place, flanked in every direction by lush farm fields and cold, clear-running trout streams, was home to an abundance of wildlife — foxes and deer and especially birds, an aviary so rich during the migrations of spring and fall that people travelled great distances just to see it. So it had been, Carson wrote, since “the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.”

But then a “strange blight” invaded the area. It was like an “evil spell” that brought with it unexplainable sickness and death to livestock. Chickens laid eggs that did not hatch, cattle and sheep turned up dead, pigs gave birth to stunted litters that lived only days. The fish in the rivers died and the trout anglers stayed away. People, too, fell ill. Some died, leaving their families grieving and their doctors perplexed. The roadsides, formerly lush with bushes and wildflowers, were now brown and withered, “as though swept by fire.” Here and there, a mysterious white powder clung to the rooftops and lay in the gutters of the houses in the town, deadly traces of something that had “fallen like snow” from the skies only weeks before. And everywhere there was an ominous quiet, a silence that closed off the town and its surroundings from the living world as if the area had become entombed.

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example — where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly.

It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

Impact immediate, as was counter-attack

The furor over Silent Spring began at once. In the weeks following publication of the first excerpts in the New Yorker, moody stories expressing shock and outrage began appearing in newspapers across the country. Some compared the book to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and predicted an earthquake of change in the way pesticides were used. Most reports nervously welcomed Carson’s dire warning about chemical contamination of the environment, although many also acknowledged a rapidly building counterattack from trade groups and a chemicals industry that decried Carson’s book as unscientific and one-sided, arguing that she took no account of the economic and health benefits achieved through the use of pesticides.

Some of Carson’s detractors imagined her in league with a lunatic fringe that included food faddists, anti-fluoridationists, organic farmers, and soft-headed nature lovers. A major pesticide manufacturer threatened Carson’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin, with a lawsuit if Silent Spring was issued without changes, saying they believed and would attempt to prove that Carson was a front for “sinister influences” in the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites that were intent on undermining America.

The Department of Agriculture meanwhile told the New York Times it was being deluged with letters from citizens expressing “horror and amazement” that the agency permitted the wide use of such deadly poisons. The Book of the Month Club announced Silent Spring as its main selection for October, proof that Carson was still expected to be popular even though she’d hit a nerve. A newspaper in London reported that “a 55-year-old spinster has written a book that is causing more heart-searching in America than any book since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle forced Chicago to clean up its abattoirs.”

In October of 1962, just after  Silent Spring arrived in bookstores, American intelligence discovered that the Soviet ships recently traveling to Cuba in large numbers were delivering missiles, launch equipment, and the personnel needed for construction of a base capable of initiating a nuclear strike against the United States from only ninety miles away. By the time Silent Spring had made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list on October 28, Cuba was under a naval blockade and the U.S. and the Soviets were on the brink of war. War was averted — the Soviets backed down in the face of U.S. resolve and removed the weapons from Cuba — but public anxiety about the nuclear age remained high, joined now by a new worry about chemicals contaminating the environment.

Defining fault lines of environmental divide

The hostile reaction to Silent Spring contained the seeds of a partisan divide over environmental matters that has since hardened into a permanent wall of bitterness and mistrust. There is no objective reason why environmentalism should be the exclusive province of any one political party or ideology — other than the history of the environmental movement beginning with Silent Spring.

The labels for Carson rained down on her like fallout: subversive, anti-business Communist sympathizer, health nut, pacifist, and, of course, the coded insult “spinster.” The fight against  Silent Spring came from the chemical companies, agricultural interests, and the allies of both in government — the massed might of the establishment. The fierce opposition to Silent Spring put Rachel Carson and everything she believed about the environment firmly on the left end of the political spectrum. And so two things — environmentalism and its adherents — were defined once and forever.

In 1960, at the halfway point in writing Silent Spring just as she was exploring the connection between pesticide exposure and human cancer, Carson was herself stricken with breast cancer that had already metastasized by the time her surgeon performed what he falsely told her was a “precautionary” mastectomy. Carson endured a series of brutal radiation treatments that slowed but could not halt the advance of her disease.

Somehow, she finished Silent Spring and lived long enough to see it vindicated — first in the spring of 1963, during an hour-long installment of  CBS Reports in which Carson convincingly answered her critics, and then in the report of President Kennedy’s commission on pesticides.  Eric Sevareid, who had anchored the CBS Reports program on Carson, reported in a follow-up that the presidential commission had confirmed that pesticides were, in fact, a “danger in the air, and in the waters and the soil, and the leaves and the grass.”

Happy at this outcome but exhausted, Carson confided in a letter to her friend Dorothy Freeman a feeling that her work was at an end, as would be her life before long. “I’m just beginning to find out how much I wanted sleep,” Carson wrote. “It is delicious to give in to it.”


Rachel Carson died on April 14, 1964.

SEJ member William Souder is the author of two previous books: A Plague of Frogs and Under a Wild Sky, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. This essay is excerpted from his latest book, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (© 2012 by William Souder, published by Crown Trade, a division of Random House, Inc.). The book will be published in September on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Carson's book, Silent Spring, in 1962. Souder lives in Grant, Minn.


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