Rachel Carson (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
By Katlyn Manka
Planet Forward Intern/Marymount University
"Silent Spring,” the book that led to the eruption of environmentalism in the ’60s and resulted in a government ban of the pesticide DDT, is widely remembered as having a deep impact on America. Even today, 53 years after its publication on Sept. 27, 1962, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” remains a controversial work.
You might recognize “Silent Spring” by the attention it brought to the role of DDT in the thinning egg shells of osprey and other predatory birds including our national symbol, the bald eagle. I remember this because it was a topic brought up in the classroom many times over my years in school, but like many other students, I never knew that the issue was so well-known because of the impact of “Silent Spring.”
According to Carson’s biography entry in EPA Journal, “Silent Spring” has often been compared to “Uncle Tom's Cabin” because of “the uproar it caused and the influence it exerted.” Another journal article, aptly named “The Birth of the EPA” proceeds to credit Carson’s work as the catalyst that brought together the group of people that would become the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the attention Carson garnered through her publication of “Silent Spring” has not been entirely positive, and she has been hammered by criticism so severe that Carson has been compared to Adolf Hitler. This is because DDT was so effective at killing malaria-causing mosquitoes that cases of the illness rose significantly when countries stopped using the pesticide. Such criticisms tend to ignore the fact that Rachel Carson was right about the hazards of DDT because of its impact on the spread of malaria.
Despite Carson’s efforts, heavy pesticide use in the U.S. is still a hot-button issue, especially when it comes to the birds and the bees. Her critics also blame the discontinuation of DDT for the emergence of new and possibly worse pesticides. One group of pesticides, called neonicotinoids, is considered to be 6,000 times more toxic than DDT despite working differently. Even more alarming, countries banning these pesticides have found farmers now have difficulty repelling the pests that have returned to their crops, forcing them to pull out yet another harsh chemical.
Carson’s mission in fighting heavy pesticide use and disregard for the environment is still ongoing, though many farmers now make use of available alternatives to pesticides. This issue is one reason why organic shopping has become so popular — revenue from organic food sales in the U.S. has grown from 3.4 billion in 1997, when the Organic Trade Association began recording sales, to $35.9 billion in 2014, or a 956% increase (yes, really) in less than 20 years. And it's also why NGOs like the Environmental Working Group, the nonprofit behind the dirty dozen and clean fifteen lists, exist to educate consumers.