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Environmental Factor, October 2012

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“Silent Spring” turns 50

By Eddy Ball

Marine biologist Rachel Carson

In “Silent Spring,” Carson wrote, “As crude a weapon as the cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life — a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways.” (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Sept. 27 marked the 50th anniversary of the book credited with jump-starting the environmental movement, “Silent Spring,” by marine biologist Rachel Carson. It is a tribute to the power of this book, which has sold more than six million copies in 30 languages, that environmentalists valorize it and critics demonize it nearly as enthusiastically today as they did a half century ago. 

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With its publication in 1962, “Silent Spring” made the public aware of the dangers of overuse of pesticides, just at the time when DDT was beginning to lose its efficacy, as insects grew more and more resistant to the chemical. Carson actually advocated a middle ground approach to insect control, to protect people from diseases such as malaria.

“No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored,” she wrote in “Silent Spring.” “The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse.”

“The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story — the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts,” Carson warned.

Carson’s argument had a nearly immediate impact at the highest levels of government, as President Kennedy issued the declaration that led to high-level study and vindication of Carson’s argument, leading to the ban of DDT in the U.S. in 1972.

Among the many leaders that Carson’s book influenced, including former Justice William Douglas and former Vice President Al Gore, who both wrote introductions for subsequent editions, was teenage scientist Linda Silber, who would assume leadership of NIEHS in 2009. NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Silber Birnbaum, Ph.D., has said that Carson’s powerful description of a silent spring, when overuse of pesticides has killed off birds, may well be one important reason her prediction hasn’t come true.

Rachel Carson Natural Wildlife Refuge

In 1970, Carson’s previous employer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, presented a fitting posthumous tribute to the author of “Silent Spring,” when it dedicated the Rachel Carson Natural Wildlife Refuge in Maine. “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts,” she wrote in her famous book. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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