Silent Spring at 50

by Jennifer Szweda Jordan

First published on Oct 13, 2012

Fifty years ago in 1962, the environmental call-to-arms Silent Spring was published. Its author, the late Rachel Carson, who grew up near Pittsburgh, in Springdale, PA, has been criticized over the years for the book’s role in banning DDT. But mostly she is celebrated, especially in this part of the world where institutes, state office buildings and conferences bear her name. 

Back in 1962, after Readers Digest decided not to publish Carson’s writing about the dangers of the pesticide DDT, Silent Spring excerpts first appeared in the New Yorker.  The book was instantly divisive -- a fact that Carson made light of in a 1962 speech.

“My text this afternoon is taken from the Globe Times of Bethlehem Pennsylvania. A news item in the issue of October 12th. 'After describing in detail the reaction to Silent Spring of the farm bureaus of two Pennsylvania counties,' the reporter continued, 'no one in either county farm office who was talked to today had read the book but all disapproved of it heartily.'"

Silent Spring was nonetheless hugely influential.  President John F. Kennedy followed up on her claims. His successor Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency after Silent Spring was credited with launching the environmental movement.

Yet Carson’s name and influence still evoke fierce disapproval... a new book by the conservative Cato Institute is entitled “The False Crises of Rachel Carson.” It argues that the curtailed use of DDT has cost hundreds of millions of lives from mosquito-borne malaria.

Carson raised warnings about DDT’s impact on birdlife, and it reflected evolving science of the time. The substance can thin eggshells of some bird species. A lack of birdsong was the silence referred to in the book’s title.  In a 2010 puppet show about Carson performed in Pittsburgh, student Katie Bednar had a fairly accurate interpretation of Carson’s words.

“I knew that they sprayed chemicals to kill like pesty stuff, but I didn't know that it would stop birdies from having their eggs hatch,” Bednar said.

In addition to the puppet show, recent adult plays, symphonies, and art pays homage to Silent Spring. But there was a time--leading up the 1990s, when Silent Spring practically fell off the map.  That’s according to Linda Lear, who was teaching environmental history at George Washington University. She discovered none of her students had heard of Carson. She was livid. But it changed the course of her career--she became known as Carson’s biographer for her book "Witness for Nature."

In a recent interview, Lear addresses the persistent complaints about Carson’s role in DDT’s usage.

“Rachel Carson never called for a ban on DDT. She testified to Congress and to the Senate about the misuse and overuse of chemical pesticides--chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides,...once they’re there, you can’t take them back. Her message was, 'Why should we, in our society, in our government in particular be putting out chemicals that we don’t know the final result of?'" said Lear.

Carson’s concerns were prophetic. Patti DeMarco heads the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University, Carson’s alma mater.  In an interview with WESA, DeMarco describes how Carson’s concerns about DDT touch our lives today.

“We’re still finding in the Allegheny River fish that you catch will sometimes have traces of PCBs- things that were banned years and years ago are still brought up in the fish because they circulate in the biosphere- they don’t go away and neither does DDT,” said DeMarco.

Carson’s lessons go beyond explicit warnings about DDT. Famed Harvard biologist and Pulitzer-winning author Edward O. Wilson said that Carson’s bottom line was “we just can’t go on living like this folks.”