Writing about Silent Spring is a humbling experience for an elected official, because Rachel Carson’s landmark book offers undeniable proof that the power of an idea can be far greater than the power of politicians. In 1962, when Silent Spring was first published, “environment” was not even an entry in the vocabulary of public policy. In a few cities, especially Los Angeles, smog had become a cause of concern, albeit more because of its appearance than because of its threat to public health. Conservation — the precursor of environmentalism — had been mentioned during the 1960 Democratic and Republican conventions, but only in passing and almost entirely in the context of national parks and natural resources. And except for a few scattered entries in largely inaccessible scientific journals, there was virtually no public dialogue about the growing, invisible dangers of DDT and other pesticides and chemicals. Silent Spring came as a cry in the wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly written argument that changed the course of history. Without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all. Not surprisingly, both the book and its author, who had once worked as a marine biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, met with considerable resistance from those who were profiting from pollution. Major chemical companies tried to suppress Silent Spring, and when excerpts appeared in The New Yorker, a chorus of voices immediately accused Carson of being hysterical and extremist — charges still heard today whenever anyone questions those whose financial well-being depends on maintaining the environmental status quo. (Having been labeled “Ozone Man” during the 1992 campaign, a name that was probably not intended as a compliment but that I wore as a badge of honor, I am aware that raising these issues invariably inspires a fierce — and sometimes foolish — reaction.) By the time the book became widely available, the forces arrayed against its author were formidable. The attack on Rachel Carson has been compared to the bitter assault on Charles Darwin when he published The Origin of Species. Moreover, because Carson was a woman, much of the criticism directed at her played on stereotypes of her sex. Calling her “hysterical” fit the bill exactly. Time magazine added the charge that she had used “emotion-fanning words.” Her credibility as a scientist was attacked as well: opponents financed the production of propaganda that supposedly refuted her work. It was all part of an intense, well-financed negative campaign, not against a political candidate but against a book and its author. Carson brought two decisive strengths to this battle: a scrupulous respect for the truth and a remarkable degree of personal course. She had checked and rechecked every paragraph in Silent Spring, and the passing years have revealed that her warnings were, if anything, understated. And her courage, which matched her vision, went far beyond her willingness to disturb an entrenched and profitable industry. While writing Silent Spring, she endured a radical mastectomy and then radiation treatment. Two years after the book’s publication, she died, of breast cancer. Ironically, new research points strongly to a link between this disease and exposure to toxic chemicals. So in a sense, Carson was literally writing for her life. She was also writing against the grain of an orthodoxy rooted in the earliest days of the scientific revolution: that man (and of course this meant the male of our species) was properly the center and the master of all things, and that scientific history was primarily the story of his domination — ultimately, it was hoped, to a nearly absolute state. When a woman dared to challenge this orthodoxy, one of its prominent defenders, Robert White Stevens, replied in terms that now sound not only arrogant but as quaint as the flat-earth theory: “The crux, the fulcrum over which the argument chiefly rests, is that Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist, believes that man is steadily controlling nature.” The very absurdity of that world view from today’s perspective indicates how revolutionary Rachel Carson was. Assaults from corporate interests were to be expected, but even the American Medical Association weighed in on the chemical companies’ side. The man who discovered the insecticidal properties of DDT had, after all, been awarded the Nobel Prize. But Silent Spring could not be stifled. Solutions to the problems it raised weren’t immediate, but the book itself achieved enormous popularity and broad public support. In addition to presenting a convincing case, Carson had won both financial independence and public credibility with two previous bestsellers, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea. Also, Silent Spring was published in the early years of a decade that was anything but silent, a decade when Americans were perhaps far readier than they had been to hear and heed the book’s message. In a sense, the woman the moment came together. Eventually, both the government and the public became involved — not just those who read the book, but those who read the news or watched television. As sales of Silent Spring passed the half-million mark, CBS Reports scheduled an hour-long program about it, and the network went ahead with the broadcast even when two major corporate sponsors withdrew their support. President Kennedy discussed the book at a press conference and appointed a special panel to examine its conclusions. When the panel reported its findings, its paper was an indictment of corporate and bureaucratic indifference and a validation of Carson’s warnings about the potential hazards of pesticides. Soon thereafter, Congress began holding hearings and the first grassroots environmental organizations were formed. Silent Spring planted the seeds of a new activism that has grown into one of the great popular forces of all time. When Rachel Carson died, in the spring of 1964, it was becoming clear that her voice would never be silenced. She had awakened not only our nation but the world. The publication of Silent Spring can properly be seen as the beginning of the modern environmental movement.
For me personally, Silent Spring had a profound impact. It was one of the books we read at home at my mother’s insistence and then discussed around the dinner table. My sister and I didn’t like every book that made it to that table, but our conversations about Silent Spring are a happy and vivid memory. Indeed, Rachel Carson was one of the reasons I became so conscious of the environment and so involved with environmental issues. Her example inspired me to write Earth in the Balance, which, not coincidentally, was published by Houghton Mifflin, the company that stood by Carson through all the controversy and that has since earned a reputation for publishing many fine books about the environmental dangers facing our world. Her picture hangs on my office wall among those of the political leaders, the presidents and the prime ministers. It has been there for years- and it belongs there. Carson has had as much or more effect on me than any of them, and perhaps than all of them together. Both a scientist and an idealist, Carson was also a loner who listened, something that those in places of power so often fail to do. Silent Spring was conceived when she received a letter from a woman named Olga Owens Huckins in Duxbury, Massachusetts, telling her that DDT was killing birds. Today, because Carson’s work led to the ban on DDT, some of the species that were her special concern- eagles and peregrine falcons, for example- are no longer at the edge of extinction. It may be that the human species, too, or at least countless human lives, will be saved because of the words she wrote. No wonder the impact of Silent Spring has been compared to that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both rank among the rare books that have transformed our society. Yet there are important differences. Harriet Beecher Stowe dramatized an issue that was already on everyone’s mind and at the center of a great public debate; she gave a human face to an already dominant national concern. The picture of slavery she drew moved the national conscience. As Abraham Lincoln said when he met her, at the height of the Civil War, “So you’re the little lady who started this whole thing.” In contrast, Rachel Carson warned of a danger that hardly anyone saw; she was trying to put an issue on the national agenda, not bear witness to one that was already there. In that sense, her achievement was harder won. Ironically, when she testified before congress in 1963, Senator Abraham Ribicoff’s welcome eerily echoed Lincoln’s words of exactly a century before: “Miss Carson,” he said, “you are the lady who started all this.” Another difference between the books goes to the heart of Silent Spring ’s continuing relevance. Slavery could be, and was, ended in a few years, although it has taken another century and more to even begin to deal with its aftermath. But if slavery could be abolished with the stroke of a pen, chemical pollution could not. Despite the power of Carson’s argument, despite actions like the banning of DDT in the United States, the environmental crisis has grown worse, not better. Perhaps the rate at which the disaster is increasing has been slowed, but that itself is a disturbing thought. Since the publication of Silent Spring, pesticide use on farms alone has doubled to 1.1 billion tons a year, and production of these dangerous chemicals has increased by 400 percent. We have banned certain pesticides at home, but we still produce them and export them to other countries. This not only involves a readiness to profit by selling others a hazard we will not accept for ourselves; it also reflects an elemental failure to comprehend that the laws of science do not observe the boundaries of politics. Poisoning the food chain anywhere ultimately poisons the food chain everywhere. In one of Carson’s few speeches, and one of her last, tot he Garden Club of America, she acknowledged that things could get worse before they got better: “These are large problems, and there is no easy solution.” Yet she also warned that the longer we waited, the more risks we ran: “We are subjecting whole populations to exposure to chemicals which animal experiments have proved to be extremely poisonous and in many cases cumulative in their effect. These exposures now begin at or before birth and – unless we change our methods – will continue through the lifetime of those now living. No one knows what the results will be, because we have no previous experience to guide us.” Since she made these remarks, we have unfortunately gained an abundance of experience, as rates of cancer and other diseases that may be related to pesticide use have soared. The difficulty is not that we have done nothing. We have done some important things, but we have not done nearly enough. The Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970, in large part because of the concerns and the consciousness that Rachel Carson had raised. Pesticide regulation and the Food Safety Inspection Service were moved to the new agency from the Agriculture Department, which naturally tended to see the advantages and not the dangers of using chemicals on crops. Since 1962, Congress has called for the establishment of review, registration, and information standards for pesticides – not once, but several times. But many of these standards have been ignored, postponed, and eroded. For example, when the Clinton-Gore administration took office, standards for protecting farm workers from pesticides were still not in place, even though the EPA had been “working on them” since the early 1970s. Broad-spectrum pesticides such as DDT have been replaced by narrow-spectrum pesticides of even higher toxicity, which have not been adequately tested and present equal or even greater risks.