- Historic Sites
The American Environment
THE PICTURE IS MORE HEARTENING THAN ALL THE LITTLE ONES
October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
Such chemicals as DDT were greeted as miracles of modern science when they first became available, and their use spread rapidly. In 1947 the United States produced 124,259,000 pounds of chemical pesticides. Only thirteen years later, in 1960, production was up to 637,666,000 pounds of often far more potent pesticides.
Diseases such as malaria and agricultural pests such as the boll weevil were declared on the verge of eradication. And the “control of nature,” the final realization of the dominion enjoined by Genesis, was said to be at hand. DDT and other pesticides sprayed from airplanes blanketed vast areas, to kill gypsy moths, budworms, and mosquitoes.
But there were troubling signs for the few who looked. The pesticides were nondiscriminatory; they killed all the insects they touched. Honeybees, essential for the pollination of many crops and innumerable natural plants, were often wiped out by spraying programs aimed at other insects. Beekeepers began to fight back with lawsuits. “It is a very distressful thing,” one beekeeper wrote, “to walk into a yard in May and not hear a bee buzz.”
More than two hundred new pesticides were introduced in the years following World War II. The reason was that the older ones became increasingly ineffective. Many species of insects go through numerous generations a year and can evolve very rapidly, especially when a severe pressure such as a new pesticide is applied. In a monument to the vigor with which life clings to existence, they did exactly that.
And birdwatchers noticed a troubling decline in the numbers of some species, especially the large raptors that lived at the top of the food chains. Charles Broley, a retired banker, banded bald eagles in Florida beginning in 1939 as a hobby. He usually banded about a hundred and fifty young birds a year on the stretch of coast he patrolled. Beginning in 1947, more and more nests were empty or held eggs that had failed to hatch. In 1957 he found only eight eaglets, the following year only one.
But these troubling events were scattered, knowledge of them dispersed over a huge country and many scientific disciplines. They were no match for the chemical companies. But these, it turned out, were no match for a frail middle-aged woman named Rachel Carson.
Rachel Carson was trained as a marine biologist, but she was a born writer. In 1952 her book The Sea Around Us was published with a very modest first printing. To everyone’s astonishment—most of all hers—it became a titanic bestseller that made its author famous across America. Ten years later she published Silent Spring . It changed the world.
Within a few years of Silent Spring, the demand for action became irresistible.
Again a huge bestseller, Silent Spring detailed in lucid, often poetic, and always accessible prose how pesticides were playing havoc with the air, land, and water of the country and how their uncontrolled use was doing far more harm than good. Further, it introduced millions of Americans to the concept that the natural world was an intimately interconnected web. This web, Carson made clear, included humans quite as much as every other living thing that shared planet Earth. What killed insects would, if not handled carefully, one day kill us too. George Perkins Marsh had said much the same thing a hundred years earlier. This time the people read and believed.
The ancient paradigm from the dawn of civilization, when man was frail and nature omnipotent, was dead at last. Dead with it was what had been in theory a dream and in fact a nightmare—the control of nature. It had been, Rachel Carson wrote on the last page of Silent Spring , “a phrase conceived in arrogance.”
Within a few years the public demand for action in behalf of the environment became irresistible, and it caught a complacent government by surprise. John C. Whitaker, Nixon’s cabinet secretary, later recalled that “we were totally unprepared for the tidal wave of public opinion in favor of cleaning up the environment.”
Earth Day cleared up any lingering doubts about the public’s opinion on the matter. Federal government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency were created, and goals and timetables for air and water quality were established. We Americans set out on a crusade to rescue the land from ourselves. In many ways we shared the fervor with which the medieval world had set out to rescue the Holy Land from the infidel.