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 …