Earth Day 2011: Remembering Rachel Carson
By: Karlotta Blaque
Carson, credited as the founder of the contemporary environmental movement, and author of the landmark book, Silent Spring, touched off a major controversy on the dangers of pesticides in the early 1960’s. Nearly 50 years later, the well-funded campaign of disinformation that attempted to discredit and silence Carson, continues to dog environmental science.
Environmental pioneer, Rachel Carson, a marine biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, meticulously chronicled the detrimental effects of the pesticide Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), sounding the alarm over its indiscriminate use. Her warnings sparked a revolution in environmental policy and created a new ecological consciousness. Because of her efforts, the need to regulate industry to protect the environment became widely recognized. Her research ultimately resulted in the US ban of DDT in 1972.
Better Living Through Chemistry?
Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethanewas first developed in 1939. It distinguished itself in World War II, clearing South Pacific islands of malaria-causing insects for US troops; in Europe, it was widely used as an effective delousing agent to reduce the spread of typhus. As there were no immediate side effects, it was widely assumed that the pesticide would not affect humans or wildlife. Carson believed otherwise.
Fast forward, circa 1950’s
Elm trees, widely used in cities for landscaping throughout the Midwest and New England states, began succumbing to Dutch Elm disease, a fungus spread by elm bark beetles. The disease was inadvertently imported into the US from Europe. A campaign of aerial spraying of DDT was begun to fight the spread of the disease.
An ornithologist from Michigan State University, while doing a doctoral study of robin populations, discovered evidence that linked a plummeting robin population on campus with the aerial spraying of the elm trees there. He and a colleague found that the birds were dying from the effects of DDT poisoning, after eating earthworms who had fed on the leaves of the sprayed trees.
Rachel Carson, We Still Need You to Clear the Air
Carson became increasingly troubled by the indiscriminate use of pesticides, contending that such contamination would not stop with wildlife. As she pieced together her own observations with research and information from colleagues, she saw a frightening picture of the future for man, as well as nature.
Carson’s book, Silent Spring, exposed the hazards of DDT and its effects on birds, linking it to egg-shell thinning, reproductive problems, and bird die-offs. She documented how metabolites of DDT accumulated in fatty tissues of aquatic organisms and further concentrated at the top of the food chain. Chemical residues of the pesticide contaminated lakes and streams, infiltrated the food chain of raptors, and interfered with reproduction processes. Bald eagle, osprey and peregrine falcon populations decreased as their eggs’ shells became too thin and cracked during incubation. By 1963, there were only 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the entire lower 48 states. The publication of Silent Spring, combined with the habitat protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, set the stage for bald eagle populations to make a comeback from the brink of extinction. Today, there are more than 7,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles, and that number is growing.
Carson estimated that the US alone sees 500 new chemicals to which “bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience.” She warned that insects would eventually grow immune to pesticides and, as a result, would come back in greater numbers. “Thus, the chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire.”
Despite Carson’s fearless tenacity, she was treading on new and dangerous turf. She accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation, and chastised public officials for uncritically accepting industry claims. Leaders in the chemical industry and Agribusiness mounted an organized attack on Carson’s professional integrity, mocking her and labeling her an alarmist. They even went so far as to question her sanity. She was labeled “a fanatic defender of the cult of nature.” Thousands of studies have since confirmed her work, and her studies were, in fact, officially vindicated in 1963 by the Kennedy Administration.
A Renewed Controversy
According to the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (click here), we produce pesticides today at a rate thousand of times faster than we did when Silent Spring was first published in 1962. Forty-seven years after her death, Carson’s critics continue to blame her for a half century of government regulations they don’t like, accusing her of scaring the world from useful chemicals that could be saving lives. Critics assert that she was incorrect about a link between cancer rates and pesticides, and went further to claim that her warning about the widespread use of toxic chemicals has allowed diseases like malaria to make a comeback. Rebuttals from top scientists, historians and public health officials can be found at pbs.org.
Back to the Future
It should come as no surprise that BigAgri-friendly and Pharma-beholden Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), effectively blocked a resolution honoring Ms. Carson (click here) A site hosted by the Conservative Enterprise Institute, Rachelwaswrong.org, purports that, “millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm. That person is Rachel Carson.”
The names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent
The usual culprits – Giants like Dow Chemical, Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, ConAgra, and Cargill that produce ammonium-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, and the politicians they buy, continue to chip away not only at Carson’s legacy but also, speed forward, with a focused campaign to discredit credible science in an attempt to silence voices that interfere with corporate profit margins, labeling both people and groups as enemies of prosperity and free enterprise. Carson wrote of “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make money, at whatever cost to others, is seldom challenged.”
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Ms. Carson’s legendary work, it is clear that the same obstacles face us today. Corporate-media spin, intractable politics and governmental accomplices are just as prevalent today as we approach the anniversary of the first Earth Day held on April 22, 1970. Rachel Carson alerted us to the insidious dangers of pesticides, and how they affect the intricate web of life. Her legacy lives on in every bald eagle, osprey and peregrine falcon that flies today. As we celebrate Earth Day this April 22, let us remember Ms. Carson and give thanks for her voice as a champion for the health of earth and all its inhabitants.
To learn more, please visit the Web site, Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
A documentary of Carson’s amazing life, ‘A Sense Of Wonder,’ (click here) uses the author’s own writings to provide an intimate glimpse of Carson as she is thrust into the role of controversial public figure.
National wildlife artist, Bob Hines, and Rachel Carson search out marine specimens in the Florida Keys around 1955, which Hines drew as illustrations for Carson’s third book, Edge of the Bay.
Editor’s Note – Karlotta Blaque is a lifelong naturalist, birder, hiker, and environmentalist dedicated to protecting the health of our planet and all its inhabitants. She is active on social media networks as Stonecircle, and unrepentantly Progressive. Maker of good desserts.