A blockbuster at the time and the launching pad for the environmental movement, it's hard to believe that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson's book, “Silent Spring.”
It painted a grim picture of a world, both animal and human, being irreparably harmed by the use of chemicals — the most notorious (by her reckoning) being DDT, then widely used in agriculture, preventing billions of dollars in crop losses, and for many other insect control purposes, including worldwide mosquito programs that helped drastically reduce deaths and illness from malaria. It is estimated by the World Health Organization that DDT for malaria control saved 50 million to 100 million lives.
Despite the benefits from DDT and other chemicals, Carson eloquently prophesied a world in which these materials were so insidious that even the birds would be gone, resulting in silent springs.
While many of her contentions in “Silent Spring” have subsequently been countered by extensive scientific research, her dramatic, impassioned writings struck a chord with a generation caught up in “discovering” itself, championing causes, and proving that demonstrations and activism could spur government action. The book is still widely assigned as reading for students (most of whom likely make no effort to determine the validity of her assertions).
The furor occasioned by the book “led to environmental legislation at every level of government,” Vice President Al Gore wrote in the foreword to the 25th anniversary edition in 1994.
In its wake, the Environmental Protection Agency was created, endowed with far-reaching powers and a zealot-like determination to force every segment of American society — very much including agriculture — into compliance with its incredibly complex, voluminous, often Catch 22 regulations. It became the agency farmers most loved to hate.
Although her much-reviled DDT was, in fact, quite persistent in the environment and can still be detected in the mud of rivers and streams, many scientists, including some with the EPA, now say it wasn't the villain that it was portrayed, that after 40 decades of intense scrutiny there is no evidence it causes cancer or genetic mutations in humans or adversely affects fish and wildlife. Her claim that it kept birds from reproducing remains in doubt. Nevertheless, it was banned, and for environmental groups it's still the favorite bogeyman in their anti-chemical campaigns.
No one argues that there have not been problems and concerns with the advent of widespread chemical use, but one can only speculate how the pesticide industry would have evolved had it not been for “Silent Spring,” the creation of the EPA, and all the furor that has surrounded the use of synthetic pesticides in agriculture, public health, and elsewhere.
Would the end result have been the same — highly effective chemicals, applied in ounces (or less) per acre, with an unparalleled margin of safety, enabling farmers to produce more than ever? Who knows?
But everyone, from researchers to manufacturers to farmers, have helped insure that our springs are not silent.