Rachel Carson’s Message Is More Urgent than Ever
Has it really been half a century since Rachel Carson gave us Silent Spring and made sure that moving forward we could no longer claim ignorance when it came to chemicals? The country girl who grew up outside of heavily polluted Pittsburgh, became a marine biologist and went on to write one of the most seminal environmental titles has become little more than a sanitized “great woman in history.” She’s good fodder for a book report, the right question to a Jeopardy answer. But though Carson was reserved, and knew how to keep her secrets, she was no quiet lady. The fact of DDT and the damage it was doing to the environment flipped a switch in her. She got angry—and channeled that anger into a vision of a world run amok by chemicals.
In the book’s most-quoted chapter, “A Fable For Tomorrow,” Carson describes a future where life is cut short, from birds and fish dying, to human beings falling prey to mysterious illnesses. This would be the legacy of DDT, Carson predicted, a chemical being sprayed across the land in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s that killed insects indiscriminately. “As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life—a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways,” Carson writes. “These extraordinary capacities of life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no ‘high-minded orientation,’ no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper.”
Before Carson’s book, faith in the almighty good of chemicals ran so deep that children grew up chasing DDT trucks, playing in their fumes. Her book called attention to the carelessness of industry and a government far too cozy with the chemical industry and the long-term consequences of these exposures—most of which have come to pass. DDT was banned in 1972, after tests revealed that it damages the liver, the nervous system and the reproductive system and causes liver cancer. And as Carson warned, once applied, DDT would remain, causing harm for generations to come. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency writes that today “Fish consumption advisories are in effect for DDT in many waterways including the Great Lakes ecosystem.”
We cannot celebrate Carson’s legacy without assessing whether we’ve learned her lessons. Post-Carson, we have an Environmental Protection Agency and an Endangered Species Act. We have the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. We have not yet updated the grossly outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 which grandfathered in more than 60,000 chemicals, but recent movement in Congress suggests that the time for reform may finally be near. In July, the Safe Chemicals Act—which would replace TSCA and force all chemicals to undergo the same rigorous testing—passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and could be moving toward a vote. That, and that alone, may be the only way to honor Carson in the 21st century and ensure that the full scope of her apocalyptic vision never comes to pass.