Silent Spring celebrates 50th Anniversary

By Lindsay Lawrence
Point Park News Service

Author and scientist Rachel Carson once wrote “man’s endeavors to control nature by his powers to alter and to destroy would inevitably evolve into a war against himself, a war he would lose unless he came to terms with nature.”

These words still stand true today as this year marks the 50th anniversary of Carson’s influential book “Silent Spring.” Although she did not originally intend to do so. Carson is credited for launching an environmental movement across the country.

Rachel Carson’s legacy still lives on through The Rachel Carson Homestead located in her hometown.

“As we celebrate the anniversary of Silent Spring, it’s so important to realize how the book has inspired people to be environmentally conscious and what kind of impact it has made,” said Bob Collins, a weekend volunteer at Rachel Carson Homestead. “She really wanted to emphasize the importance of humans caring for their environment and also the consequences that we will have to deal with if we don’t.”

The Homestead association provides visitors with a museum filled with Carson’s belongings and is dedicated to her life and legacy while aiming to inspire all humans to live in harmony with nature.

“Carson is an environmental legend in my eyes because she simply presented the idea that rather than conquering nature, humans should work with its progress, not against it,” said Sue Harperson, a maintenance volunteer at the Rachel Carson Homestead.

When Carson was born on a small farm in Springdale in the summer of 1907, there was not a lot of information about the side effects of pesticide use available. As a child, she was interested in literature involving plants, animals and, especially, the ocean.

She was so inquisitive about the natural world around her that in 1925 she enrolled at the Pennsylvania College for Women, today known as Chatham University, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology.

She later obtained a masters degree in zoology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.

Following graduation in 1936, Carson became the second woman ever to be hired by the United States Bureau of Fisheries, today known as the Fish and Wildlife Service, and she served as a junior aquatic biologist.

Over the next few decades, Carson published three environmental books, but her main interest was researching the chemical DDT, a revolutionary pesticide at the time.

After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the chemical was lauded as the “insect bomb” for exterminating pests. It was only beginning to undergo tests for safety and ecological effects.

After four long years of researching the dangers of overusing pesticides, “Silent Spring” was finally published in September of 1962. It presented several notions that prompted congress to ban a number of harmful pesticides, such as Lindane, one of the key components of Agent Orange, DDT, and other destructive agricultural chemicals.

According to the official history website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “There is no question…that Silent Spring prompted the Federal Government to take action against water and air pollution — as well as against the misuse of pesticides — several years before it otherwise might have moved.”

Other than prompting the creation of the EPA, one of the biggest issues “Silent Spring” is credited for is the banning of DDT, a poisonous pesticide, which was first used to kill malaria-causing insects for American troops during World War II and later used to exterminate other various agricultural pests such as mosquitoes.

When the book was published in 1962, the DDT production business was booming. By 1963, U.S. companies produced approximately 90,000 tons of DDT.

Shortly thereafter however, through Carson’s advocacy, safety speculations against the chemicals were brought to the public’s attention.

Even though there were many critics, Rachel Carson had enough powerful advocates to make a difference. Among those powerful advocates was President John F. Kennedy, who in 1963 prompted the Presidential Science Advisory Committee to further the research of the harmful effects of DDT.

This led to the official banning of DDT in 1972.

This book remains so prevalent, that over a half of a century later, Matthew Opdyke, a Point Park University environmental science professor, is among many professors who incorporate “Silent Spring” into their curriculum to celebrate Carson’s legacy. With the knowledge he has gained on “Silent Spring”, he says there are plenty of recognizable outcomes 50 years later.

“The biggest outcome is banning DDT. We’ve heard in the media about the resurgence of bald eagles. They realized that DDT was weakening the egg shells for the eagles which essentially did not allow them to reproduce,” Opdyke said. “Once they banned DDT use in the US, bald eagles came back. We are seeing numbers greater than what we saw 50 or 60 years ago.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the bald eagle was officially removed off of the endangered species list in 2007.

Another major outcome over the past 50 years is there has been more of a concerted effort towards researching pesticides in America to make sure they are viable before they are released into the atmosphere.

However, outside of the U.S. there is still a lot more work to do to prevent harmful pesticide use.

While it was lauded for affecting change, many of the insecticides and herbicides in “Silent Spring” are still in use, but in some cases under different trade names.

“In terms of on-going issues, we have a lot more to do,” said Opdyke. “Although some chemicals have been banned from use in the United States, some are still used in developing areas of other countries.”

Other places such as Central America and South America have not yet banned DDT just because they don’t have the money to research other methods. They are still stuck with DDT to treat malaria.

Over the past 50 years, some might question whether or not enough has been done to stop harmful substances, such as pesticides, from contaminating humans and animal’s natural resources.

Dr. Opdyke believes there can never be enough done to stop this cycle but there are many methods to enforce a healthy environment for humans, animals and insects alike.

“There are several alternatives to chemical pesticides and mainly that’s increasing or protecting the predators of those insects that are causing those problems. We have to have greater control on invasive species coming from other countries,” Opdyke said. “Then we have to start looking at the predators that remove those pests. Those are the two biggest issues that we need to focus on. Until we learn to fight these pests with different predators that are present, we are just going around in circles.”

Rachel Carson Homestead Volunteer, Sue Harperson believes that “Silent Spring” has made a positive impact on the way people treat the environment but there is certainly more work to be done.

“Overall in the past 50 years, ‘Silent Spring’ has opened many Americans eyes to the dangers of pesticide use but there is always room for improvement,” Harperson said. “Farmers and other agricultural workers need to convince the public to protect the habitats of predators, such as wasps or bees that are beneficial to our environment. Let’s hope 50 years from now Carson’s legacy will live on just as strongly as it does today.”