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Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the Environmental Movement
Thesis: In Silent Spring Rachel Carson starts an environmental movement by informing the public of the dangers of pesticides, which causes a shift in views towards pesticides and the harm they do to the environment.
DDT is WW II insecticide designed to rid the troops of disease carrying insects such as lice and mosquitoes (Graham 56). Paul Hermann Muller, the chemist who invented DDT, was even awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology Medicine. However no research was done on the environmental impact of the chemicals. DDT soon became the miracle pesticide used everywhere until concerns began to surface as animals began dying off.
The problem with DDT is that it does not break down into harmless chemicals, so the dangerous compounds are passed through the food chain (Graham 15). Because DDT is fat soluble, it is ingested by an animal and then stored in its fat. As DDT passes through the food chain, the amount in the animal increases. When DDT is sprayed on a crop field, insects feeding on the crops will ingest the DDT. These insects are eaten by larger insects, which are eaten by song birds, which are eaten by birds of prey.
An example of the accumulation of DDT can be seen in California’s Clear Lake during 1957. Although the water only contained .02 parts-per-million of DDT, small fish could have 2,000 parts-per-million and birds could have even more (Graham 15). On a wider scale the population of birds of prey was decreasing. DDT was again the culprit. The effect that DDT had on raptors was that it would not kill the adult birds but would weaken the egg shells and cause them to break; this causes the adults to be unable to reproduce and a decrease in population. This effect was what first seized Rachel Carson’s attention and brought her to write Silent Spring (Kidd, Kidd 102). “The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became. I realized that here was the material for a book. What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important” (Carson).
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962 and was immediately meet with criticism from farmers and pesticide companies; this was known as the “Noisy Summer” (Henricksson 71). “Many farmers and others in the business of agriculture were convinced that a ban of DDT would harm their prosperity” (Kid, Kid 104). Upon Reading Silent Spring, John F. Kennedy had the Science Advisory Committee look into the pesticide issue. The results the committee discovered were a turning point in the battle against pesticides: “It acknowledged the benefits of chemical pesticides, but it condemned the overuse and careless application of pesticides. It also acknowledged the accuracy of Rachel Carson’s scientific research and endorsed her position” (Henricksson 80). When the report was published in May 1963, Rachel Carson now had the support she needed from the Government. This galvanized a major environmental movement. This resulted in a paradigm shift to occur between the years of 1962 to 1980. Laws were passed to protect the environment. In 1967 the Environmental Defense Fund, EDF, was determined to ban DDT in the U.S after noticing to the decline in birds of prey and the research in Silent Spring.
By 1972 DDT was banned in the United States only ten years after the publication of Silent Spring. Sadly Rachel Carson, who died in 1964, never witnessed her triumph. But in her wake was an environmental movement that had only just begun. In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, was formed by President Nixon, but “it was Rachel Carson’s call for an ‘independent board’ in the government that brought the EPA into existence” (Henricksson 80). The EPA’s role was to monitor the environmental policy of the United States by enforcing laws passed by Congress. The EPA picked up where Rachel Carson left off, “An article in the EPA Journal referred to the organization as ‘the extended shadow of Rachel Carson’” (Henricksson 80).
The EPA was not the only program brought about by the influence of Silent Spring. The National Environmental Policy Act was enacted in 1969 focused on assessing the environmental impact of any governmental project. Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed the first Earth Day which occurred on April 22, 1970. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Toxic Substances Control Act were all passed by 1976, all with the intention of protecting the environment (Harlan 118). Rachel Carson’s call to protect the environment is still being heard today by our politicians. In 1996 President Clinton enacted The Food Quality Act which requires the EPA to again review the effects of pesticides (Milestones). Vice President AL Gore cites Rachel Carson as an inspiration in his book An inconvenient Truth. When Gore was a child his mother read Silent Spring to him and his sister Gore 10). Gore writes, “The book’s lessons made a huge impression on us. The way we thought about nature and the earth was never the same (10).” Now AL Gore is one of the main spokespersons of a new environmental war, global warming.
Initially DDT was considered a miracle pesticide because it was cheap and efficient. At this point the environmental effects were unknown. Rachel Carson brought these effects to the attention of the public in Silent Spring. Originally met with controversy she soon won over the public’s opinion, with the government backing up her research. The government followed suit with agencies and acts that protected the environment, like the EPA. Rachel Carson’s message affected legislation then and now. Environmentalists like AL Gore cite Rachel Carson as an influence to their work. When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring she was the catalyst that started the Environmental Movement, and her ideas are still being used in today’s Environmental Movement.
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