How The Wilderness Was Won

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In 1958 some of Carson’s friends in Massachusetts and on Long Island, angry at local mosquito-control agencies drenching their neighborhoods with DDT, persuaded her to write a protest article about the environmental consequences. Her piece was rejected by Reader’s Digest, but Carson had become convinced this was an urgent issue and she decided to enlarge her piece into a short book, even though she doubted it could ever be a bestseller like her previous one, The Sea Around Us. Her initial survey informed her that the pesticide problem was hardly a local one, and she realized that her findings and conclusions would put her on a collision course with powerful industries and much of the scientific community. DDT, like penicillin, was widely considered a boon to humankind; public health officers credited it with wiping out malaria in many areas, and agricultural experts were attributing dramatic increases in world food output to its effects. The Swiss biochemist Paul Müller had won a Nobel Prize in 1948 for developing it.

 

During most of the four years Carson took to complete Silent Spring, she was fighting a losing battle against cancer. Her search for facts became a crusade as she scrutinized the work of specialists (“a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories”) who seemed so intent on controlling nature they had no time to analyze the side effects of the products they were creating. As she became aware that the book would be in essence an argument, she decided to address it to two distinct audiences at once. It must be an ecology primer that millions of ordinary readers could understand, but it also had to command the respect of the scientific community and force the chemical industry’s scientists into a public dispute concerning the total environment.

She achieved her first goal by presenting detailed accounts of spraying fiascoes in places that ranged from a Nova Scotia forest to the rice fields of California. This section of Silent Spring connected the new “age of poisons” and “nature’s web on interwoven lives” to the everyday existence of her readers. Her second task was more difficult and time-consuming. Knowing she would face fierce counterattacks, she concluded with a fifty-five-page appendix of “principal sources” that listed more than six hundred of the thousands of documents she had gathered and digested. The appendix was her way of saying to her critics: “Here is your substantiation. Tear it apart if you can.”

Carson didn’t live to know her book would be one of the most influential of the century.

As she had anticipated, chemical and agricultural trade groups mustered their scientists and mounted an expensive public relations campaign to discredit her credentials and her conclusions. Some critics asserted that she was not a “professional scientist”; a nutrition expert at Harvard’s Medical School castigated her for “abandoning scientific truth for exaggeration” and characterized her conclusions as “baloney”; the director of research for a leading manufacturer of pesticides put her down as a “fanatical defender of natural balance.”

 

There were other, cruder attacks: Ezra Taft Benson, who had been Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower administration, wondered “why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics” and surmised that Carson was “probably a Communist.” However, President Kennedy was impressed with her presentation and had his Science Advisory Committee evaluate her findings. The dispute dissipated when, in April 1963, the prestigious committee submitted a report that vindicated her thesis.

Silent Spring provided a cautionary frame of reference for the age; the book stands today as a founding document of the ecological revolution. Translated into twenty-seven languages, it won an international audience and, like Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation initiatives, stimulated fresh currents of thought in other countries. It also fomented collaborative action by citizens and scientists that coalesced into a social phenomenon called “the environmental movement.” In a single decade ecology was transformed from a science understood by an elite into a central concern of humankind.

Cancer claimed Rachel Carson’s life in the spring of 1964. She did not live long enough to be aware that Silent Spring would rank as one of the most influential books of the century, but a laurel bestowed on her in 1963 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters must have given her some premonitory pride: It read: “A scientist in the grand literary style of Galileo and Buffon, she has used her scientific knowledge and moral feeling to deepen our consciousness of living nature and to alert us to the calamitous possibility that our short-sighted technological conquests might destroy the very sources of our being.”