Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s powerful, 1962 non-fiction book documenting the damage caused by widespread and indiscriminate use of pesticides, has been on my TBR for a long time. I considered it something I simply had to read if I was going to continue to claim to be a science lover and environmentalist. I thought this would mostly be review for me since I’m already aware of the harm that DDT has caused. For one thing, I’m involved with an organization that supports conservation efforts around the island fox, a small fox native to the California Channel Islands that was indirectly driven to the brink of extinction by DDT. (Very brief summary: Fish-eating bald eagles died off on the islands due to the damage DDT did to their eggs; non-native golden eagles moved in to fill the void and started eating the foxes and an introduced pig species; the diurnal foxes, who had not known any natural predators, became easy meals, and their numbers dwindled to unsustainable levels, down to 15 individuals on two of the six islands where they are found.)
So I thought this book would be interesting but not necessarily super enlightening. I was shocked by the extent of the damage pesticides were causing at the time this book was published.
Carson, a former marine biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, spent four years researching and gathering examples of environmental damage caused by pesticides. The documented examples are horrifying, and I’m sharing just a smattering:
- A sample of drinking water from an orchard area in Pennsylvania that had been sprayed with pesticides was tested on fish in a lab. The water sample contained enough pesticides to kill all of the test fish within four hours.
- In Michigan, an aerial spraying campaign to control Japanese beetles led, within days, to widespread reports of dead and dying birds and squirrels, violently ill cats and dogs, and an outbreak of chest and throat irritations. The spraying had been done over populated areas with no warning given to the public, and when the FAA became inundated with calls about low-flying planes over the Detroit area, police asked radio and television stations to inform the public about what was happening and to tell them it was safe. The City-County Health Commissioner later claimed that the dead birds must have been killed by “some other kind of spraying” and the human symptoms were caused by “something else.”
- A 1957 program to eradicate fire ants, based on manufactured hysteria without any supporting evidence of actual fire-ant damage, resulted in massive losses, including: in Hardin County, Texas, opossums, armadillos, and raccoons all but disappeared; in Alabama, half of the birds on a tract of land that was treated were killed, with those species living on the ground suffering “100 per cent mortality”; in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, 90% of the dead birds analyzed were found to contain residues of the pesticides; in Wilcox County, Alabama, farmers reported losses of livestock, poultry, and pets, with one farmer saying he had buried 19 cows. It was even found that a calf could be poisoned by its mother’s milk if the cow had been grazing on treated areas. At this time, there were no restrictions against selling milk from dairy cows that grazed in treated fields to the public.
These incidents often happened in spite of protests from state conservation departments, national conservation agencies, and ecologists. In the case of the fire ants, the entire program seemed to be motivated by a desire to support the pesticide industry. Supporters of the program claimed widespread damages by fire ants without any data to back them up. In a true, “Won’t someone think of the children” move, supporters pointed out that fire ants sting so you wouldn’t want them on a playground, as if poisoning millions of acres of land is the only solution to that problem. As Carson stated, “[The] solution of an obvious and often trivial problem creates a far more serious but conveniently less tangible one.”
As depressing as this book is, the tremendous positive effect it had can’t be understated. While it definitely received some severe criticism at the time of publication, the scientific community was able to back up Carson’s claims, and she won in the court of public opinion. The book not only led to the banning of DDT for agricultural use, it may have helped influence the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, spawned the environmental grassroots movement, and even encouraged more women to study science.
Critics at the time falsely claimed that Carson wanted to ban all use of pesticides, and 60 years later some even try to blame her for the millions of deaths from malaria that happen outside the United States. But Carson’s arguments were solely directed at extensive and haphazard application of pesticides on agricultural land. She encouraged the study of alternative methods of insect control, stating that “. . .the really effective control of insects is that applied by nature.” The chemicals we use to kill insects also kill the insect predators, which is a pretty insane way to control their populations. Critical reminder for your neighbors: rat poison is also owl poison, fox poison, and skunk poison.
This topic is still highly relevant, not just in terms of similar practices or attempts to weaken the environmental protections put in place in the United States in the 1970s. DDT is still sitting in barrels on the seafloor off the California coast, threatening California condors, sea lions, dolphins, fish, and anything else in the food web. We’ve been mitigating the problem for the last 60 years, but it hasn’t gone away.
Carson wrote, “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species–man–acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.” On the surface, that is a depressing thought, but as I consider what one woman did in the 1960s to bring awareness of this crisis to the public, I’m mildly hopeful. Until I started researching, I didn’t know that Carson died of cancer-related complications just two years after the publication of Silent Spring. I’m grateful that she left such a lasting legacy, and hope that we can honor her by being vigilant defendants of the natural world.