Final Essay: Rachel Carson and the Fight Against Indiscriminate Pesticide Use May 10, 2012
Prompt: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was a controversial piece of work when it was published in 1962. Explain why this was so and why Carson’s work remains the subject of some controversy today.
In her 1962 book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson details the dangers of indiscriminate pesticide use, which had “already silenced the voice of spring in countless towns in America” (Carson (1962) page 3). ‘Miss Carson,’ as many of her detractors referred to her, received ridicule from academics, industry leaders and professional journals for over a decade. Years after her death, conservative and libertarian groups such as the Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute attacked her and the apparent successes for environmentalism in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the ban of DDT to provide an example of a ‘failed’ government program. Rachel Carson revealed the dangers imposed by indiscriminate pesticide use in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. Although Carson used DDT as her focus, the chemical was an example of the numerous synthesized pesticides employed in many aspects of mankind’s daily lives. As a biologist with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson was alerted to the “numerous case reports of damage to birds and fish after DDT application” and believed that “because DDT was so effective, it unbalanced ecosystems” (Oreskes (2010) page 219). Carson expanded her research and eventually published her revealing book to alert the public and bring an end to indiscriminate use. The book made numerous claims against pesticides, illustrated the destruction caused by prior use and warned of a future in which “over increasingly large areas… spring comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song” (Carson (1962) page 88). These “elixers of death,” she warned, are less insecticides as they are “biocides” (Carson (1962) pages 15, 8), infiltrating water supplies, food supplies and organisms from the bald eagle to man. “If [Silent Spring] stimulated the public to press for unwise and ill-conceived restrictions on the production, use or development of new chemicals, it will be the consumer who suffers.” Dr. William Darby, 1962
Heralded as one of the most influential books in the environmental movement, Carson’s writing was less scientific and more thought provoking. Her often-extreme word choices and diction provided a sense of urgency for some, but drew many detractors. Doctor William Darby, a Professor of Biochemistry at Vanderbilt University, reviewed Silent Spring shortly after its publishing. According to Darby, the “dramatic description[s]” were simply a ploy to mask other scientific findings are mislead the public (Darby (1962)). Darby accused Carson of “name-drops by quoting or referring to renowned scientists out of context… [leading] the reader to conclude that the authority mentioned is in accord with the author’s position” (Darby (1962)). To further refute her claims, Darby refers to her as “Miss Carson” throughout his essay. This treatment of certainly harmed, or was an attempt to harm, her credibility in the scientific field. He continues “her ignorance or biases on some of the considerations throw doubt on her competence to judge policy” (Darby (1962)). Darby stated that “if it stimulated the public to press for unwise and ill-conceived restrictions on the production, use or development of new chemicals, it will be the consumer who suffers.” Here was an academic, in the field of biochemistry, blatantly denouncing Carson and her conclusions. In The Chemicals Around Us, a viewpoint published in Chemical Weekly in July 1962, Carson was referred to as a “crank” and that her writing style was more indicative of “a lawyer preparing a brief” (Chemical Weekly (1962))....
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