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How Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring inspired the first Earth Day — and how hard the powers that be fought to stop it

How Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring inspired the first Earth Day — and how hard the powers that be fought to stop it
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The red imported fire ant is an invasive, baneful little pest of the family formicidae, native to South America and introduced to the U.S., it’s believed, by cargo shipped from Argentina to Mobile, Alabama. Understandably fed up with the fire ant and the havoc it wreaks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture mounted a campaign in 1957 to eradicate it completely, and so drenched more than a million acres of land with dieldrin and heptachlor, two potent pesticides the EPA now classifies as carcinogens. “Wildlife and livestock exposed to the poisons, through direct contact or polluted water, began to suffer an often fatal nervous disorder,” the biologist E.O. Wilson wrote of the aftermath. “Many bird populations were decimated.”

The ants themselves survived. Today we call them invicta, which means “undefeated.”

Rachel Carson, in her book Silent Spring, describes this fiasco as “an outstanding example of an ill-conceived, badly executed and thoroughly detrimental experiment in the mass control of insects, an experiment so expensive in dollars, in destruction of animal life, and in loss of public confidence in the Agriculture Department that it is incomprehensible that any funds should still be devoted to it.” There were lots of other ways, even in the 1950s, for ants to be dealt with — “effective and inexpensive methods of local control,” Carson points out, “have been known for years.” Besides which, the fire ant, environmentally speaking, really isn’t so bad. Still the government elected to fight them, and using “the most expensive, the most damaging and the least effective program of all.” The only reason Carson could see was money. The pesticide makers, of course, stood to gain a lot.

So persuasive are the arguments she lays out that Silent Spring became an instant sensation, as well as an immediate call to action.

Carson was born at the turn of the century in the small town of Springdale, Pennsylvania, along the Allegheny River. Her home was wedged between coal-fired power stations, in an area known to be a hotbed of industrial production — and therefore all but steeped in industrial waste: the air choked with smog, the river mired in oil. Carson was particularly disturbed, as a child, by the smell all around her, which drifted over from a nearby glue factory. It was the kind of indelible impression that leaves a mark for life, and it would determine Carson’s interest in the environment and human effect on it from a young age.

In her late 20s, she began writing articles for the Baltimore Sun about the state of oyster beds in the Chesapeake, railing against the devastation being committed by pollution and urging political regulation. In 1951, she wrote The Sea Around Us, an anthology of historical and scientific essays about the ocean, serialized to massive acclaim in the New Yorker. Her writing, accessible and, as it’s often described, “lyrical,” made her a crossover success, a kind of literary-scientific superstar. Carson had a very deep understanding of biology — not a popular field at the time, as it was felt to be trivial next to physics or chemistry — and a way of putting things simply, articulating complex ideas in terms laymen could comprehend. Yet despite her popularity, no one was prepared for what Carson was to write next.

It was only by the skin of its teeth that it survived criticism, fury and vigorous litigation.

She called it Silent Spring. It started, like The Sea Around Us, as a series of articles in the New Yorker, running through the summer of 1962 before being bound together between hard covers that September. Those few months were all it took for the work to become a radical cause célèbre. Silent Spring is about the wildly hazardous composition of chlorinated hydrocarbons and phosphorus insecticides, which at the time were as ubiquitous throughout the U.S. as they were woefully understudied. More broadly, it’s about what Carson calls “the right of the citizen to be secure in his own home against the intrusion of poisons applied by other persons.” The tone of the book is best captured by the Albert Schweitzer quote it takes as its epigraph: “Man has lost his capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.”

Silent Spring is the kind of book that makes you wince in disgust several times per page. It’s impossible to read, even 50 years later, without getting upset; it makes you loathe the hubris, the monumental greed and stupidity, that made pesticide use common. “For the first time in the history of the world,” she writes, “every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.” She makes you hate those responsible, and mistrust forever the politicians who did nothing to stop it. But more than anything, she makes you reject ignorance — she makes you yearn to learn. A famous Jean Rostand quote she invokes is key: “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.”

Carson’s disclosures about the dangers of pesticides were, as you might imagine, damning. They quickly inspired regulations banning or severely restricting use at every level of government. But the importance of Silent Spring ran deeper because it cast doubt on the integrity and intelligence of those we trust to hold such things accountable. In 1962, remember, the U.S. was enjoying a period of economic prosperity. The country had been assured that chemicals such as DDT were the holy grail of modern agriculture and pest control; if they were wrong — or worse, lying — how could they be trusted again? “Carson had attacked the integrity of the scientific establishment, its moral leadership, and its direction of society,” her biographer, Linda Lear, explains.

More than anything, she makes you reject ignorance — she makes you yearn to learn.

And the scientific establishment was not about to take it lying down. The chemical companies, under the aegis of a pesticide trade group called the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, spent upwards of $250,000 — the equivalent of more than $2 million today — on a campaign to discredit the book and besmirch Carson’s reputation. They hired a PR firm to do the dirty work. “It was clear to the industry that Rachel Carson was a hysterical woman whose alarming view of the future could be ignored or, if necessary, suppressed,” Lear writes. And suppress is what they certainly tried.

The fight against Carson took a three-pronged approach. The first used Carson’s popularity against her, cleverly: because she wrote the book for a mainstream audience rather than for peers in the scientific community, her adversaries argued, the material itself was unscientific, and consequently less sound than, say, a proper study conducted for a scientific journal, several of which the chemical companies hastily assembled by the scientists they had on their payroll. The second hinged on pedigree: Carson did not have a PhD or a tenured teaching gig. Her work, the companies put forth, was really just simplistic fluff for laymen; she didn’t have the authority, as a mere career biologist with a masters, to advance the case she had tried to in the book. And the third came down to gender: Carson didn’t know what she was talking about because she was a woman. Silent Spring was simply “hysterics.”

But the most ridiculous — and ridiculously typical — effort to reverse the influence of Silent Spring came courtesy of Monsanto, the “agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology” company founded at the beginning of the 20th century. In addition to shelling out for negative reviews of the book in various periodicals, Monsanto spent a small fortune assembling and distributing a brochure written as a full-blown parody of Silent Spring, with which the company hoped to capitalize on some of Carson’s rhetorical panache and win back hearts and minds to its cause. The pamphlet is a florid masterpiece of dunderheaded propaganda: “the garrote of nature rampant began to tighten,” we learn, as we are invited to imagine a terrifying world without pesticides. (“So went the fresh, clean vegetables. So went the sweet corn…”) It’s one of the funniest things ever, not for the reasons intended.

Of course, the chemical companies lost the battle to Carson in the end — a whole range of once-accepted pesticides were swiftly eliminated from the world, and once the book came to his attention, John F. Kennedy launched federal investigations into the validity of its claims, instigating widespread change. More than any single regulatory change, the importance of what Carson accomplished with Silent Spring can be found in a change of public consciousness. She made the world more aware of the environment, and of the damage that can be inflicted if we don’t look out for it with vigilance. That transformation is nowhere better honoured than by Earth Day.

Now, almost 50 years after Silent Spring inspired it, Earth Day keeps Carson’s own vigilance alive — and as much as the day is about raising awareness and protecting the environment, it should serve to remind how close the chemical companies came to thwarting it.

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