Saturday, May 27, 2006

Silent Spring

"Carson -- a believer in Atlantis, by the way -- writes as a mystic as well as a scientist; her style is Thoreavian in this way. She links our existence to the cosmos, and makes the sea's great mysteries explicable. She plumbs the depths." -- R. Sullivan, on Carson's "Sea" books.

Rachel Carson, born on this day in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, was the catalyst for the environmental movement which erupted in the 1960s in the U.S. with her book Silent Spring (1962), an exposé on pesticides and their effects on wildlife.

A graduate of the Pennsylvania College for Women and Johns Hopkins, Carson studied aquatic life, becoming one of the first 2 women staff biologists at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in 1935. She proved to be an excellent writer, her 1937 article in Atlantic Monthly, "Undersea," becoming the basis of her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941). By 1949, she was chief editor of the publishing programs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her second book, The Sea Around Us (1951) was a bestseller and won the National Book Award. The attention that book brought to her led to her receiving a Guggenheim fellowship, which permitted her to take a leave of absence and write another book, The Edge of the Sea (1955). Her niece’s 5-year old son, Roger Christie, became the inspiration for a 1956 magazine article, "Help Your Child to Wonder" which was later turned into a children's book; the following year her niece died and Carson adopted Christie.

For all these accomplishments, Carson would be little remembered today were it not for an inquiry from her friend Olga Huckins, who had witnessed the destruction of wildlife in her bird sanctuary after spraying with pesticides, about the potential dangers of the pesticide DDT. Using data from prior studies, Carson wrote a moving indictment about the lack of responsible oversight in the pesticide industry. DDT had been created by Paul Muller, who won a Nobel Prize in 1948, as a result of biological warfare experiments. When it began to be used on insects in farming during the 1940s and 50s, crop yields increased dramatically; DDT was, as a result, considered to be a miracle of modern science.

As Carson wrote in Silent Spring, "Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song"; and the evidence suggested, she said, that pesticides such as DDT were slowly killing bird flocks. For Carson, however, the issue was not DDT, but the false notion of "control of nature" which chemical manufacturers were trying to exploit, a "phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man . . . It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science had armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth."

Pesticide companies, aided by such organs as Time magazine, called Carson a hysterical alarmist, but her poetic conjecture awakened the nature consciousness of American readers, leading President Kennedy to form a special panel to study the effects of pesticides on the environment. This led to the eventual creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and to the ban of DDT in 1972 and its derivatives by 1975. Far from being an alarmist, scientists now believe that her descriptions of the potential dangers of pesticides were understatements. Carson died of bone cancer on April 14, 1964 in Silver Spring, Maryland, eight years before the DDT ban.



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