Rachel Carson's legacy, 50 years on

Fifty years ago this month, a marine biologist published a book about birds and pesticides, an unlikely pairing with an unlikely result. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, brought worldwide attention to the chemical industry’s impacts on nature and ecosystems. By all accounts, it launched the modern environmental movement — along with a half-century of controversy, and counting.

Silent Spring wasn’t Carson’s first book; years earlier, she had written two others, about oceans. As early as the 1940s, she became concerned about the impacts of pesticides, and in the 1950s focused on a U.S. government program to eradicate fire ants using aerial spraying of an organochlorine insecticide best known by its shorthand: DDT. The insecticide already had been used with great success during World War II to control malaria and typhus among civilians and troops.

That concern led her to write Silent Spring. The title, originally intended for a chapter in the book about birds, became a metaphor that suggested a bleak future for the natural world. It was serialized in The New Yorker starting in June 1962. In September, it was published as a book. It became a New York Times bestseller and facilitated the banning of DDT in the U.S. a decade later.

It also spurred heightened public concern about chemicals, bordering on, some would say, chemophobia.

Up to then, chemicals were seen as progress. Dupont captured the zeitgeist best with its 1930s advertising slogan “Better Things for Better Living ... Through Chemistry.” During World War II, chemical companies produced a cornucopia of innovations, including from neoprene to nylon, used in the military effort and, afterwards, in consumer products. Some of this was showcased at Dupont’s “Wonderful World of Chemistry” exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

Carson’s book brought much of that goodwill to a screeching halt. She railed against what she saw as indiscriminate and profligate use of pesticides. She wrote:

These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes—non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the "good" and the "bad," to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in the soil—all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides,” but “biocides.”

Carson asked: “How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the whole environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”

The book had its impact. A nation once enamored of chemicals and their benefits grew uneasy and suspicious.

There are those that to this day blame Carson and her book for oversensitivity to chemicals, which, they say, do much good to eradicate disease. Her harshest critics call her a mass murderer for having caused a ban on DDT to kill malaria-spreading mosquitoes in developing countries. But that's simply untrue. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants allows the use of DDT for that use — and that use only.

Nonetheless, Silent Spring was only the first of what would be several punches to the chemical industry’s gut. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire, a flare-up of oil-soaked debris — a two-hour blaze that lasted for decades as a symbol of chemical contamination. In 1976, a legacy of toxic dumping by a chemical company in Niagara Falls, N.Y., was found to contaminate homes and schools and sicken residents in a neighborhood called Love Canal. Then came the Bhopal disaster in 1984, in which a leak of methyl isocyanate at a Union Carbide plant in India killed more than 10,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands more.

Next page: Are chemicals an essential industry?