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A Heroine in Defense of Nature

Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos
Rachel Carson, Southport, Maine, 1962

Late in the summer of 1962 President John F. Kennedy held a press conference that Rachel Carson’s most recent biographer, William Souder, claims brought “something new” into the world. Amid weighty discussions of Supreme Court justices, Soviet intentions at the UN, and news of increased Soviet shipping to Cuba, the president fielded a rather unusual question about pesticide use and whether government agencies would look into it. He replied:

Yes, and I know that they already are. I think, particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book….

A few weeks later, as the Cuban missile crisis unfolded, Silent Spring began its climb to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. The long fight to control the use of pesticides had begun. There was a significant victory in 1972, when DDT, which had been found to pollute the atmosphere and soil while entering the food chain and helping to cause death by cancer, diabetes, and other diseases, was banned in the US. Other less dangerous pesticides continue to be used in great quantities in the US, often for the benefit of lawns and flower gardens. Significant health concerns, especially in children, result from such uses, prompting the province of Ontario, Canada, to ban these pesticides in 2009. In 2012 a review in British Columbia recommended tighter restrictions on their use, while a ban is under discussion in Manitoba. In developing countries the use of pesticides continues largely unregulated; around a million human victims still suffer acute poisoning annually.

September 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring (in his August press conference Kennedy was referring to advance extracts of the book published in The New Yorker). It’s a fitting moment to review Carson’s achievements, and Souder’s new biography provides an excellent starting point. He argues that Silent Spring marks the birth of the “bitterly divisive” concept of environmentalism. Before it, environmental politics was characterized, he says, by the “gentle, optimistic proposition called ‘conservation,’” which concerns the wise use of resources and has broad appeal across the political spectrum. Environmentalism, in contrast, can be politically polarizing because it involves a clash with vested interests. The president’s remarks at his 1962 press conference are especially important for Souder because he believes they initiated a conflict within the US government, between those who sided with pesticide manufacturers such as Ciba and those concerned about the destructive uses of widespread aerial spraying of dangerous chemicals.

Arguably, the greatest casualty of this conflict was Rachel Carson herself. She would be falsely labeled a Communist by her enemies, and investigated by the FBI. The chemical industry and its allies spread lies about her—such as that her research was tainted, and that she wished to ban pesticides entirely—that would persist long after her untimely death in 1964. In fact, she advocated sensible uses of pesticides that would protect crops but not destroy animal life and poison the environment. Sadly, I still meet people whose assessment of Silent Spring and its author is influenced by these accounts, despite the fact that they’re half a century old and entirely discredited.

Rachel Carson was the most unlikely of revolutionaries. A fifty-five-year-old spinster who lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her cat and adopted grandnephew at the time of Silent Spring’s publication, she was not someone who habitually rocked the boat. Before her book became popular, she worked for years as a writer of government publications for the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior. In fact Silent Spring marked a sharp departure from her earlier books, which were best-selling, lyrical feats of nature writing—homages to the oceans and the seashore. Carson was, however, a meticulous researcher and careful writer, and despite the fact that she was not an expert on pesticides and their effects, Silent Spring contains few errors. Moreover, the timing of its publication was such that it reinforced fears that humanity’s leaders were recklessly gambling with the fate of the earth.

When Silent Spring was published I was just seven years old and living in Australia, so my firsthand sense of the danger of the times is limited. But I’ll never forget how my mother cried as she listened to the radio and heard of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. She saw him, I’m certain, as someone who was keeping her and her family safe in a world that seemed to be going mad. And it was not just the missile crisis. A series of nuclear tests was being conducted in Australia and other countries, and some scientists warned of the dangers. Most of the tests involved hydrogen bombs—the most devastating weapon ever invented—which were being exploded in the atmosphere with unpredictable and often terrifying results.

The very first of these devices was tested by the US on November 1, 1952, on the island of Elugelab in Micronesia. The resulting fireball was more than three miles wide, and it developed into a mushroom cloud twenty miles high and one hundred miles across. When the atmosphere cleared, observers saw a crater 160 feet deep and a mile across where a verdant tropical island had once stood. More powerful devices were soon wreaking destruction far in excess of expectations. In 1954 one such bomb, detonated in the Marshall Islands, produced an explosion two and a half times greater than predicted—the result of a lithium isotope that was thought to be inert but that amplified the reaction so much that the weapon was a thousand times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. President Eisenhower said that the scientists were “surprised and astonished” at the result, and were now rethinking the precautions needed for future tests.

The mass testing of nuclear weapons in the early 1960s had been unexpected. A moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing had been agreed on in 1958, but in the summer of 1961 the Soviets abruptly recommenced their program. The US then resumed testing, and by 1962 a nuclear weapon was being exploded somewhere in the world every few days. By August 1963, when the moratorium was again put into effect, over fifty nuclear devices had been detonated in the atmosphere in a little over twelve months. The scale of the tests, and the extent of radioactive fallout they generated, were unprecedented. Soon, high levels of radioactivity were turning up in food, particularly the fish and milk that were being consumed by children across the US.

The earlier round of testing should have warned everyone of the grave dangers involved, for almost as soon as nuclear testing had begun, disturbing phenomena had been observed far from the test sites. In the early 1950s the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York, started seeing streaks and blips on its unexposed X-ray film. It turned out that the radiation that was spoiling the film was emanating from its cardboard packaging, which had been made in Iowa and Indiana. The manufacturers drew their water supply from rivers flowing out of the Midwest, which were hundreds of miles downwind of the Trinity nuclear test site in Nevada; yet they still carried sufficient radiation to contaminate the cardboard.

Evidence of widespread radioactive contamination was becoming public at about the same time that people were becoming aware of what a nuclear war might entail. At first the US government acted as if it could protect its citizens in the event of such a conflict. But in 1957 Sputnik raised the possibility that an attack on the US might eventually come from space, and by the 1960s the Soviet and American nuclear arsenals could be deployed, en masse, on long-range missiles. As Souder puts it:

Armageddon…could now be envisioned as two great shadows rising from the earth simultaneously and passing each other in opposite directions…curving toward the end of all things in a white-hot hell of thermonuclear doom.

These changes made America’s civilian defenses appear puny indeed. As early as the late 1950s the nation’s leaders were giving up on protecting civilians in the event of nuclear war. “You can’t have this kind of war,” President Eisenhower said. “There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.” For American schoolchildren, this must have been a truly terrifying time, for they were regularly being drilled for the end of the world. Souder writes:

If a teacher suddenly yelled “Flash!” every kid over the age of five knew that meant to “duck and cover” by whirling to the floor and crouching beneath his or her desk, arms wrapped tightly around heads to wait patiently for the shock wave to arrive. There were also panic-inducing policies concerning who was to go where in the event there was a warning of an imminent attack. For many kids, this meant that if you lived close enough to school to run home in less than fifteen minutes you could do so—and presumably then at least die with Mom and Dad. Those who lived farther away were to stay put and let death visit them at school.

As the result of work done by farsighted citizens half a century ago, we’re now in a position to assess the long-term effects of radioactive fallout on human health. In 1958 a group called the Greater St. Louis Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information began collecting baby teeth from children living in the area. A study completed more than half a century later, in 2010, showed that men who had died of cancer in middle age had more than twice the amount of the radioactive isotope strontium 90 in their baby teeth as those who were still alive. As with so many environmental toxins, the effects of radiation on human health plays out over decades.

Carson recognized an “exact and inescapable” parallel between radioactive fallout and pesticide poisoning, and there can be little doubt that the public was primed to hear her message because of its concerns about nuclear weapons. Indeed, Americans were already becoming aware that pesticides had the power to poison humans and their food chain in a manner similar to radiation. In 1959, a widespread scare over the use of cranberries erupted just days before Thanksgiving, the result of spraying them with a cancer-causing pesticide. Cranberries were withdrawn from sale.

Then, in 1961 devastating news of another chemical catastrophe was beginning to emerge from the UK. Thalidomide had been prescribed to alleviate morning sickness, and women who took it during a critical sixteen-day period of their pregnancy gave birth to children with devastating deformities of the limbs. The US had been spared the scourge by the dogged persistence of a lone scientist at the FDA, who had managed to stall Thalidomide’s approval until the drug’s full effects were discovered. The horrors of Thalidomide surely added to the unease many felt at the ever-growing application of new chemicals.

Rachel Carson had been born into a poor family in Pennsylvania in 1907, and it was only as a result of winning a $100 scholarship in a statewide competition that she received an education, attending the Pennsylvania College for Women. She had always been interested in biology and writing, and it was at PCW that she was given the opportunity to develop her skills. Her greatest influence there was her biology teacher, Professor Mary Skinker. “I have always wanted to write,” Carson confided to a friend “but I don’t have much imagination. Biology has given me something to write about.”

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