Message of ‘Silent Spring’ Still Resonates (Rachel Carson 1 of 2)

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Tompkins Weekly 02/04/2013

By Richard W. Franke

October, 2012, marked the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, just a year and a half before her untimely death from breast cancer and other illnesses at age 56. We in the sustainability movement today, owe a lot to Rachel Carson – to her intellectual brilliance, to her beautiful writing, to her courage and to her perseverance. And to her insistence on the people’s right to know.

Rachel Carson (1907–1964) was a zoologist and marine biologist who worked for many years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She is considered one of the finest science writers ever, producing a series of books and articles including Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955) as well as several technical reports for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rachel Carson’s masterpiece, Silent Spring is widely recognized as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. Thousands of citations to the book have appeared in scientific journal articles and popular publications over the decades. The book has been published in France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Holland, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Iceland, Portugal and Israel and has influenced environmental legislation in all those countries.

The DDT Debate, the Chemical Industry and Right Wing Attacks

Questions about the possible harmful effects of DDT make up a substantial portion of Silent Spring and for many readers Carson’s warnings about the health consequences of pesticides constitute the essence of the book. A particular concern has been the possibility that pesticides cause cancer and birth defects. Recent evidence now also implicates DDT and other POPs (Persistent Organic Polluters) in endocrine disruption – interfering with the operation of human hormones. Endocrine disruption threatens a wide range of possible human harm.

In chapter 3 of Silent Spring Carson wrote the first scientific account of the mechanisms by which pesticides interfere with life processes in language that can be understood by non specialists. Carson explicitly disavowed the total cessation of pesticide spraying. She argued instead for careful and limited usage.

Silent Spring ignited a fierce public debate over the safety of synthetic pesticides created by humans that had never existed in nature. Carson was attacked by representatives of the chemical industry. The lawyer for the Velsicol Chemical Corporation attempted to prevent publication of the book by threatening a lawsuit just before it went to the printer. Corporate and right-wing commentators have continued to attack Carson and Silent Spring up to the present. Most recently she has been accused of facilitating the deaths of hundreds of millions of Africans from malaria. Go to and read the charges against her. An extensive and detailed refutation of the right-wing charges appears in Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming, pages 216?239.  An online summary of their defense of Silent Spring can be accessed at:

And check out and to see some of the ongoing work on human health Carson’s work has generated.

In 1963 Silent Spring led in part, to the appointment by President Kennedy of a President’s Science Advisory Commission. This was followed by congressional hearings that most observers believe vindicated Carson’s warnings that some pesticides and spraying campaigns were threatening to cause environmental and health disasters.

Silent Spring was the impetus for the founding in 1967 of the Environmental Defense Fund which later led the battle to ban DDT – a ban that took effect in the U.S. in 1972. Today Rachel Carson continues to inspire people around the world who want to know what chemicals are being added to our environment, whether they have been properly tested and whether they fit into the web of life she defended in Silent Spring. Watch for Part 2: Rachel Carson and Sustainability.

This is the latest in a series of articles on the history of sustainability. Richard W. Franke is professor emeritus of anthropology at Montclair State University, a resident of Ecovillage at Ithaca and a board member of Sustainable Tompkins.

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