Why Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring Still Resonates Today

September 22, 2022 | 10:00 am
Silent Spring/Rachel CarsonUS Fish and Wildlife
Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

This month marks 60 years since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book provides strong scientific evidence of the enormous harms pesticides such as DDT pose to public health and the environment. It continues to be a source of inspiration for writers, scientists, and the public today. It galvanized the environmental movement and it pushed the federal government and Congress to carry out scientific research on pesticide contamination and to act on that research.

While every toxic chemical named in the book was either banned or severely restricted in the United States by 1975, Carson’s underlying message of the need for strong science-based policymaking to protect us from the harms of toxic chemicals is still especially applicable today. As Carson put it, “If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals—eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones—we had better know something about their nature and their power.”

The need for science-based decisionmaking about toxic chemical exposures is particularly acute for marginalized communities—such as Black, Indigenous, people of color, low-income, and rural communities—that often face the brunt of the harms from environmental hazards due to the long and cruel legacy of systemic racism and white supremacy. This equity-focused lens is missing from Carson’s book. It was first brought to the forefront by the dedication of leaders in civil rights and worker rights, such as Martin Luther King Jr and Cesar Chavez; later, it was taken up by members of impacted communities and coalesced into the environmental justice movement. It is important to acknowledge this oversight in Carson’s work, and in the subsequent regulatory infrastructure designed to regulate chemicals, and to commit ourselves to do better in today’s world by working to identify and address these environmental injustices.

As we continue to press our government to take stronger actions to study, regulate, or ban the tens of thousands of potentially harmful chemicals, it is helpful to take a moment to reflect on what Carson’s 1962 book can teach us about today’s world.

Carson was a badass federal scientist

Rachel Carson spent most of her professional life as a marine biologist and writer for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. According to the book’s foreword, the inspiration for Silent Spring came directly from Carson’s time there. While working for the agency, she and her scientific colleagues became alarmed by the widespread use of DDT and other long-lasting poisons in agricultural control programs.

These concerns are still alive today. In our 2018 survey, for instance, a number of scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service expressed alarm at how science was sidelined or politicized for issues like endangered or threatened species protection. We are currently surveying scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service this year, as well as scientists at six other agencies to see if and how these concerns may have changed during the current administration.

While reading Silent Spring, I was struck by how Carson brilliantly used her training as a federal scientist to make a case for science as a foundation for policymaking. In chapter ten, for instance, Carson describes the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) disastrous attempts in 1957 to control the invasive fire ant species. The plan was to carry out a massive pesticide spraying operation on 20 million acres across nine southern states. One of the pesticides used was heptachlor, a probable cancer-causing chemical that can damage the nervous systems of humans and other animals.

When federal and academic scientists published studies showing that the pesticide-spraying operations were causing enormous population drops in poultry, livestock, pets, and other wildlife, the USDA “brushed away all evidence of damage as exaggerated and misleading.” Carson pointed out that the USDA also failed to study whether these pesticides were safe. “In short, the Department of Agriculture embarked on its program without even elementary investigation of what was already known about the chemical to be used—or if it investigated, it ignored the findings.”

Carson also explicitly called out the hypocrisy inherent in government agencies at the time. Scientists were employed to work at federal agencies, but there was no requirement that agencies use their scientific work when making decisions about pesticides. “Much of the necessary knowledge is now available but we do not use it. We train ecologists in our universities and even employ them in our governmental agencies but we seldom take their advice. We allow the chemical death rain to fall as though there were no alternative, whereas in fact there are many, and our ingenuity could soon discover many more if given opportunity.”

Industry wanted her silenced

Rachel Carson bravely voiced her scientific opinion despite an onslaught of opposition from industry representatives who knew that the truth she was reporting would imperil sales of their products. Even before the book’s release, industry representatives and their political allies strongly condemned Silent Spring and carried out a substantial disinformation campaign to discredit it that included: threatening the book’s publishers with a libel lawsuit, raising $25,000 to fund a public relations counterattack (an enormous amount of money in 1962), and issuing a slew of advertisements and letters to the editor describing the benefits of pesticides.

Industry’s main argument was that if pesticides such as DDT were banned, restricted, or even regulated, the entire agriculture system would collapse. And yes, they really were that hyperbolic. In 1963, an executive of the American Cyanamid Company stated, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” Two industry-funded chemists worked to misinform the public by claiming that bird populations actually increased after the introduction of DDT—a claim that was overwhelmingly refuted by the scientific community.

But perhaps most insidiously, some in the chemical industry targeted Rachel Carson personally. Her critics painted Carson as a probable communist (e.g., disloyal and unpatriotic) and as an unscientific, nature loving, “hysterical” woman. As one agricultural expert told a reporter who was covering the main congressional hearings prompted by the book, “You’re never going to satisfy organic farmers or emotional women in garden clubs.”

As we examined in a scientific study published last year, disinformation campaigns by industry have a long and aggressive history of manipulating the science-policy process. Industry has found that casting doubt on science, sidelining science, and harassing scientists are all powerful ways to shape regulatory policymaking to their benefit and to increase their profit margins.

Chemical safety requires science-based decisionmaking

In a swift response to Silent Spring, then-President John F. Kennedy set up a special panel called the “Life Sciences Panel” in the government’s Science Advisory Committee to study the health impacts of pesticides and investigate Carson’s research. At that time, the Science Advisory Committee provided scientific advice to the president, similar to the current President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (It was later disbanded and replaced by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.) The panel’s report strongly supported Carson’s findings. Carson’s book also prompted congressional hearings and led to the first overhaul of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act in 1964, closing a major loophole called “protest registration” that industry was using at the time to keep pesticides on the market even when science showed they were causing enormous harm to public health and the environment.

Carson’s book also helped prompt the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the main law that regulates chemicals today and requires the testing of new chemicals for safety. Unfortunately, however, this law has not fixed the problems that Carson pointed out in 1962: the chemical industry continues to deploy many of the same tactics from 60 years ago and continues today to undermine our ability to use science-based measures to regulate chemicals.  

Today, UCS is continuing Rachel Carson’s legacy by fighting industry disinformation and advocating for strong science-based protections on toxic chemicals such as PFAS and ethylene oxide. Our government has a fundamental duty to use science to protect us from environmental harms. Like Carson, we need to speak truth to power and hold our government to account to ensure that all communities, particularly underserved communities, are protected from these harms using the best available science.