• Stephen Birchard

My Nomination for Woman of the Century: Biologist Rachel Carson. Here's Why . . .

Updated: Aug 28


It was called the Green Revolution; the period during the 1950’s and 60’s when agricultural production skyrocketed. In the noble effort to eliminate world hunger, improvements in technology were used to dramatically increase the amount of food produced per acre of land. New seed varieties, better irrigation, larger and more efficient machines to sow and reap the plants, and new chemical fertilizers were all factors in this transformation. The results were spectacular. The American Midwest became known as the “Breadbasket of the world”.


But there was a dark cloud hovering over this agricultural boom. When vast areas of land are used to grow a single species of plant, such as wheat, corn, or beans, there is a biological danger that threatens to destroy the plants. In fields or forests not touched by humans, there is a rich mixture of plants, animals, and insects that form a food chain acting as a natural control of each organism’s population. It’s the way nature has worked for millions of years. When natural areas are transformed into farm fields, this “balance of nature” is destroyed. Without the diversity of normal fauna, insects are free to take advantage of the huge amount of food in the fields and the lack of natural predators. They reproduce by the thousands and quickly destroy the crops.


The chemical industry had an answer to this problem; develop artificial chemicals, called pesticides, to kill the destructive insects and protect the crops. Agents like DDT, a chlorinated hydrocarbon, were produced and sprayed on fields in massive quantities. The results were dramatic. Pesticides became an integral part of the agricultural revolution and their use was commonplace the world over. In 1945 100 million pounds of pesticides were produced; in 1960 it was up to 600 million pounds. In 1952, 11% of corn fields were treated with pesticides; in 1982 95% of them were treated. The agricultural revolution continued to gain steam, and there seemed to be nothing that could slow it down. But there was a problem.


The chemicals were manufactured with the sole purpose of killing insects, and they were successful. But no one asked a simple question: are they safe? Even when evidence of toxicity became evident, chemical companies and the government turned a blind eye because the economic benefits of the agents were so great. It took the efforts of an agricultural and political outsider to make people aware that the environment was being systematically poisoned.


Rachel Carson

Her name was Rachel Carson. She was a biologist working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Besides her training in biology, she was a brilliant writer and had already published popular books about the environment. Her last book, completed shortly before her death from breast cancer, was titled “Silent Spring”, and it changed the world.


In the book Carson wrote in no uncertain terms what was happening; pesticides and herbicides were poisoning the earth. The chemicals were being applied over huge areas of the globe before anyone understood their long-term effects on the environment. Insect pests were being killed, but so were beneficial insects, fish, birds, and even people. Workers handling the chemicals started dying from neurologic disorders, cancer, and other diseases.


Crop dusting with pesticides
Crop dusting with pesticides. (The U.S. National Archives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The toxic substances invaded all corners of the globe: soil, rivers, oceans, and ground water. DDT was found to concentrate in fat so that when fish were contaminated from the water the toxin transferred to the fat stores of whatever ate them including bald eagles, other animals, and people. DDT was even found in mother’s breast milk; unborn babies were being exposed to the toxins.


The initial reaction to Silent Spring was one of skepticism and denial. The chemical industry continued to proclaim that the pesticides were safe. Carson was criticized by her detractors. Because she was not a university professor or a member of the upper echelon of the scientific community, she was considered an uninformed extremist who shouldn’t be taken seriously. But she struck a chord with the general public, and as biographer Linda Lear writes in the introduction of the book, “Carson’s outsider status had become a distinct advantage. As the scientific establishment would discover, it was impossible to dismiss her.”


Silent Spring quickly gained popularity and became a New York Times bestseller. Carson’s plain language and convincing arguments of the dangers of pesticides resonated with her readers. The book is now seen as the beginning of the environmental protection movement. President John F. Kennedy ordered investigations into Carson’s claims and it became clear that the chemical industry and governmental bodies were completely ignorant of the problems her book so eloquently described. The grass roots ecology movement led to the ban of DDT in the US, formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and an annual celebration of the natural world called “Earth Day”.


The flag that symbolized Earth Day.
The Earth Day Flag (John McConnell (flag designer)NASA (Earth photograph), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

But there is still much work to be done. Pesticide and herbicide usage is still rampant, and the effects are far reaching. Populations of important pollinators, like bees and butterflies, are rapidly decreasing likely due to deadly chemical applications on farms and suburban lawns. Studies are finding high pesticide levels in dogs’ blood and urine when chemicals are applied to lawns, causing cancer of the urinary bladder and lymph nodes. Children in these households are also at risk since they spend so much time playing on the ground. Is it really worth these dangers to have a perfect lawn?


Carson did not advocate complete cessation of pesticide usage in agriculture. She recognized that judicious use of chemicals in combination with other pest controls such as biological control was necessary until safer methods were found. But her central message remains: humans are not separate from nature and do not have license to poison it. We are just one element of the natural world and as such we need to preserve it, not just because it is beautiful, but because humans and nature are a continuum of life itself. When we protect nature, we protect ourselves.


Rachel Carson taught us that we cannot accept a “silent spring”. We can live on the earth without destroying it and continue to hear the joyous symphony of song that nature provides.

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