- Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
In 1962, Houghton Mifflin published Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an instant bestseller that was critical of the use of pesticides. Controversy ensued: the chemical industry launched attacks on Carson and threatened to sue the publisher; President Kennedy’s science advisor, Jerome Weisner, established a panel to study the issue; CBS ran a special on the book; and Senator Abraham Ribicoff initiated a congressional review of environmental pollution. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, part of the PBS American Experience series, looks at the making of Silent Spring and the subsequent controversy. The film draws on archival footage from the chemical industry, Carson’s writings, interviews, speeches, letters, and photographs, and interviews with scientists, colleagues, and politicians involved in the controversy. Although the documentary touches on historical topics such as prejudice against women scientists, the growth of the chemical industry in the 1950s, and the collaboration between government, science, and industry, the focus is on Carson—her life, her fascination with nature, and her quiet determination that allowed her to challenge government, the chemical industry, and agribusiness.
Carson received a Master’s in zoology from Johns Hopkins University. After graduation, she worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service, primarily as a writer and editor. She also found success as a popular nature writer, publishing The Sea around Us and Under the Sea Wind. Her literary acclaim gave her the independence and financial security to pursue research and writing. As early as 1945, Carson wrote about pesticide use in an unpublished article, but no one was interested.
The lack of interest reflected the nation’s fascination, perhaps, with new technology, but it also reflected assurances from the chemical industry that pesticides caused no problems. In some of the film’s more captivating—albeit, disturbing— moments, chemical-industry videos, complete with the authoritative scientist in the white coat, tout the wonders and safety of pesticides. Even more disturbing, and a further testament to the nation’s confidence in chemicals, is footage of the spraying of pesticides on entire neighborhoods, sometimes with people coming in direct contact with the poison.
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Despite this confidence, and despite the chemical industry’s assurances of safety, Carson began to collect evidence that would culminate in Silent Spring. The documentary excels in demonstrating that a breakthrough in understanding—the harmful nature of pesticides—was not the result of a singular “eureka moment.” Instead, it was a slow, painstaking process that involved the work and insights of many others. For example, Carson read reports of conservation groups that documented the reduction of wildlife after the United States Department of Agriculture began a pesticide campaign to eradicate the fire ant from the South. A friend of Carson’s, Olga Owens Huckins, wrote a letter of protest to the Boston Herald after her home and bird sanctuary in Duxbury, Massachusetts, was sprayed with DDT in an effort to control mosquitoes. Most important, a Long Island, New York, lawsuit involving [End Page 75] the use of pesticides, though dismissed on technicalities, alerted Carson to the scope of the problem; court records contained volumes of testimony from experts about the hazards of pesticides. After Carson read the testimony, she contacted independent scientists knowledgeable about pesticides, as well as a few government scientists who were willing to voice their concerns. Carson synthesized this growing body of evidence and wrote about a complex topic in an engaging and accessible manner.
Although Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring places the scientific understanding of pesticides in historical context, some historians might object to the film’s implication that Carson was responsible for the environmental movement. For example, when Senator Ribicoff stated that, “If it weren’t for Rachel Carson, I never would have had these [Congressional] hearings,” Carson seems to be a lone, enlightened voice in a benighted world. However, historians are reluctant to trace the beginnings of any “movement” to a single individual, and the environmental movement has multiple origins. Conservation groups expressed concern for wildlife and the environment, for example, before the...