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Rachel Carson and the Awakening of Environmental Consciousness
Linda Lear, George Washington University
©Linda Lear    ©National Humanities Center
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Florida State Archives
DDT Newspaper ad, 1946
Newspaper ad
c. 1946

entire ad

Spraying DDT, Florida, 1948
Spraying DDT, Florida, 1948

Her plans were interrupted by evidence of the misuse of the powerful new chemical pesticides that had been embraced by American farmers and businessmen at the end of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and crop land were sprayed with pesticides that successfully killed insect pests. But sometimes there were other unforeseen consequences. Massive spraying against the fire ant in the South and efforts to eradicate mosquitoes along coastal farms from New York to Maine, for example, did little to eradicate the insect but resulted in dramatic damage to wildlife. Thousands of fish and ground feeding birds and animals died. Soil and the water were contaminated. Scientists also documented alarming changes in the reproductive system of some birds, especially those that fed on fish.

Ibis eggs unhatched due to DDT poisoning, 19970
Ibis eggs unhatched due to DDT poisoning, 1970

Soft egg-shells not only signaled the decline of avian populations, but also indicated serious hormonal and reproductive changes that endangered the future of certain species.

Carson began to investigate this evidence, suspecting that the use of these chemicals also posed a potential danger to human health. After nearly five years of research, she felt compelled to bring her evidence to the American public and inform them of the risks. Silent Spring told a terrifying story about the effects of chemical pesticides and by implication challenged the wisdom of government policy which allowed products on the market before knowing the longterm consequences to the living world.

This is America, 1940s, National Archives

National Archives

Silent Spring contained the seeds of social revolution. Carson wrote in a period of new found affluence and social conformity. The Cold War with its climate of suspicion and its intolerance was at its height. Big business and especially science were the authors of the new prosperity. Americans were living well and they believed that science and technology could solve any problem, and solve it quickly. DDT was cheap and easy to apply when mixed with fuel oil and sprayed by airplane. Science had conquered insect pests with a miracle chemical in the same way that it had defeated America's enemies during World War II with the atomic bomb.

National Archives
"Beneficial insects were destroyed along with the pest"
Lear/Carson Archive
Praying mantis cartoon, 1963
Praying mantis cartoon, 1963

But Carson suggested that even scientists did not always know the longterm outcome of the technologies that they used to eliminate and eradicate. She explained that these chemicals were persistent in the soil and water and the tissues of wildlife and fish. Insects soon developed resistance and new, ever more powerful pesticides were required to do the job of extermination. Beneficial insects were destroyed along with the pest and the ecological balance of nature was artificially and sometimes irrevocably altered. Carson believed the American public had a fundamental right to know what science was doing to the environment, to ask questions and to receive informed and truthful answers. "The obligation to endure," she wrote, "gives us the right to know."

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"Wilderness and American Identity" Essays
The Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement | The Challenge of the Arid West |
Rachel Carson and the Awakening of Environmental Consciousness |
Essay-Related Links

Wilderness and American Identity
The Use of the LandNative Americans and the Land
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