Rachel Carson


(This 845th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 3, 2007.)


Rachel Carson


Last Sunday was the hundredth birthday of Rachel Carson. Younger readers may not even know who Carson was and I take this opportunity not only to fill them in but also to remind the rest of us how important was this fine woman.


It is nearly impossible to quantify such things, but I would wager that Rachel Carson has already saved the lives of over a million of us humans. And whether or not I am right in that count, few -- aside from such stalwarts as Texas representative and former pest controller, Tom DeLay -- would question that she single-handedly saved the lives of many billions of birds, mammals, fish and beneficial insects.


Rachel Carson was the author in 1962 of Silent Spring, the single book that is most often credited as the source for the environmental movement.


Carson graduated from Chatham College and received an MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University. Along the way she studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. Upon graduation she joined the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries as a scientist and editor and rose to become editor-in-chief for the Fish and Wildlife Service.


Linda Lear, who write the excellent biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, continues her story (on the website www.rachelcarson.org): "She wrote pamphlets on conservation and natural resources and edited scientific articles, but in her free time turned her government research into lyric prose first in Under the Sea-Wind. In 1952 she published her prize-winning study of the ocean, The Sea Around Us followed by The Edge of the Sea. These books made Carson famous as a naturalist and science writer for the public.


"Disturbed by the profligate use of synthetic chemical pesticides, Carson reluctantly changed her focus in order to warn the public about the long term effects of misusing pesticides. In Silent Spring she challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world.


"Carson was attacked by the chemical industry and some in government as an alarmist, but courageously spoke out to remind us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem. Testifying before Congress in 1963, Carson called for new policies to protect human health and the environment. Rachel Carson died in 1964 after a long battle against breast cancer. Her witness for the beauty and integrity of life continues to inspire new generations to protect the living world and all its creatures."


Young people today do not realize how widespread was pesticide use after World War II. I recall as a young boy walking through a fog of DDT being sprayed in our neighborhood by a tank truck. "No problem," we were told over and over again not only by the chemical industry but also by our government.


No problem indeed. Never mind that DDT and related pesticides nearly wiped out many birds like the bald eagle and the osprey, and decimated populations of honey bees and fish. They were also charged with causing in mammals (including us) cancer, hormone changes, liver and fetal damage and decreased fertility.


As if that wasn't bad enough, the chemicals were not controlling the targeted insects. The bugs were winning. They rapidly developed immunity and the dosages had to be increased in both strength and quantity. This was a boon to salesmen but not to us.


Carson was extremely careful to check out her information sources with top scientists. But even so the attacks on her were vicious. Huge amounts of money were involved for industrial giants like DuPont and every effort was made to silence her. Thank goodness her thinking prevailed.


Well, almost. We now have government officials weakening scientific reports while gutting mercury, clean water and power plant standards.


As Elizabeth Kolbert says in the current New Yorker, Carson's "hope was balanced by doubt. Her immediate topic was pesticides, but her deeper subject was human arrogance -- the delusion that altering the world means controlling it."


I urge everyone to read or reread Silent Spring as a book that means as much today as it did when it was written 55 years ago.-- Gerry Rising



Note: I received several strongly critical messages in response to this column, including a typical one which claimed that Carson was responsible for more deaths than Pol Pot. One of the points made was that the World Health Organization (WHO) had now approved use of DDT. It does happen that a new WHO administrator approved such use in 2006; however, her course correction was very brief. According to the Wikipedia article about DDT, WHO continues to rate DDT as "acutely toxic" and "in 2007, clarified its position, saying it is 'very much concerned with health consequences from use of DDT' and reaffirmed its commitment to phasing out the use of DDT."