Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: 50th Anniversary

William Souder, On a Farther Shore, biography of Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring marks its 50th anniversary this year with the new biography On a Farther Shore : The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder, (Crown, 512 pp) on the gentle biologist-writer who warned the nation that indiscriminate pesticide application and its overuse on crops, in particular DDT,  was having deleterious effects on birds, fish, animals and even humans.

Today, after a half-century of attacks on Carson  (1907-1964) by  those who called her research “junk science” and wrongly blamed her for malaria deaths in countries that have banned DDT, many people have  new appreciation for her truth-telling and recognition that she was a stimulus for modern environmentalism. Interview with Souder on Diane Rehm

“In this now universal contamination of the environment,”  wrote Carson in 1962, “chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life.”

Swiss chemist Peter Muller won the Nobel Prize for his development of DDT, which was widely used during World War II (to kill mosquito populations for Allied troops fighting in the Pacific Theatre and to delouse humans in Europe, including in Nazi concentration camps). After the war, DDT was used prolifically in the 1940s and ’50s as a pesticide on crops such as cotton and potatoes.  A powerful neurotoxin, it can destroy hundreds of insect varieties and remain toxic for long periods. Even today, DDT remains in the atmosphere from spraying by countries that have not banned its use (the US ban came in 1972) and lying dormant in the soil, where it can become volatile. It is bioaccumulative: Humans carry the so-called “body burden” of retaining DDT in their cells.

Souder’s essay in Slate looks at the arguments still raging over Carson and her legacy and asks: “Why do we fight? How is it that the environment we all share is the subject of partisan debate?”

Christopher Sellers’ New York Times op-ed How Green Was My Lawn looks at how the environmental movement  in the years after Silent Spring  took root in the suburbs.