Reviewed by Ed Lengel
With all of the attention currently being given to the dangers of global warming, it’s important to remember how much progress we have made in protecting–and in some cases regenerating–the environment in the past fifty years. My father, who grew up in Reading, Pa., in the 1940s, remembered swimming with other boys in the Schuylkill River even though the water was black with industrial pollutants. Newsreels from the same era show soldiers returning from World War II receiving showers of DDT—a chemical pesticide that became as ubiquitous as the carcinogenic fireproofing material asbestos.
As a child, I cannot help but remember the famous “crying Indian” commercial released on television in 1970 as part of the Keep America Beautiful campaign and rebroadcast innumerable times thereafter. The commercial was no empty, feel-good gesture; it addressed a real problem throughout the country. I like to remind younger people that in those days, roadsides were littered with far more garbage than they are today, and that unregulated private dumps were quite common. Household recycling was unheard of. I also remember playing in abandoned, unguarded industrial sites in southeast Pennsylvania, then entering its long rust belt blight. But these were just personal experiences; in reality, the United States at the end of its long industrial boom in the 1970s was littered with environmental disaster zones, and badly polluted waters and skies. Many animals such as the brown pelican verged on extinction thanks to the noxious effects of chemical pollutants like DDT. On beach trips in the 1970s, sighting a pelican was shocking.
The “crying Indian” commercial, released in the same year as the first observed Earth Day, nevertheless represented a hopeful sign that change was underway. Ten years before, the general public would have found the commercial and the Earth Day observance incomprehensible, if not laughable. What had happened in between? More than anything else, the publication in 1962 of the book Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. A fifty-five-year-old native of the decaying industrial epicenter of Pittsburgh, Pa., Carson had spent an already-remarkable career as a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service and nature writer when she decided to focus her attention on the effects of DDT.
Although she became increasingly aware of the toxic effects of DDT and other pesticides—commonly deployed in aerial spraying campaigns by federal and state government agencies to control moths, mosquitos, and other pests—as early as the 1940s, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that she decided to conduct extensive research to expose pesticides’ devastating environmental toll. Her work was far from private and coincided with generally unsuccessful local attempts to block or at least downsize these spraying campaigns. As a result, Carson and her work came under strident attack from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as large chemical companies, which conducted their own heavily biased and well-publicized research touting the importance of pesticides and denying their harmful effects.
In a tragic irony, Carson developed breast cancer and other health problems as she neared completion of her book, which otherwise might have been released a few years earlier. The title, brilliantly evoking the elimination of birdsong and the pollution of waterways, magnified the book’s impact. Most of Silent Spring’s contents focused on how pesticides and other chemicals destroyed animal life, especially birds. In time, Carson predicted, the problem would only become worse as pests developed immunities, forcing the use of heavier concentrations of toxic chemicals. The fallacies of self-justifying and industrially funded USDA research on the subject were easily exposed. But Carson also entered trickier territory in suggesting—albeit without claiming proof—that these chemicals were also carcinogenic for humans.
Carson didn’t demand a full ban on DDT. As expected, chemical industry representatives immediately pounced on the book and its author in hopes of discrediting Carson and her research. Heavy publicity by a sympathetic press—which had become increasingly eager to take on large corporations and unregulated capitalism—and support from the scientific community, however, ensured Silent Spring’s wide public reception and success. Carson, who died in 1964, didn’t live to witness the impact of her work. And indeed, it took time. Only in 1972—a decade after the book’s publication—did the U.S. government decide to start phasing out DDT. And progress since then has been incremental, though very real. I often think of Silent Spring when I visit the seaside now and see brown pelicans diving for fish just offshore. I have to wonder if we take the birds for granted.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.