In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a manifesto against the irresponsible use of chemical pesticides. She's remembered fondly now, but historian Gary Kroll says that at the time, Carson was considered nothing short of subversive.
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BOB GARFIELD: One scientist whose framing changed the way our country thought of nature and business was Rachel Carson. RACHEL CARSON: We spray our elms, and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now-familiar elm leaf/earthworm/robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life or death that scientists know as ecology. BOB GARFIELD: In 1962, the biologist Rachel Carson published her seminal ecological work Silent Spring about the widespread and irresponsible use of chemical pesticides. At the time, the brash scientist was likened to Carrie Nation, wielding her reverence for nature like an axe.
Now, in the centennial of her birth, and a week from Earth Day, she is revered as the mother of modern environmentalism. In the face of all we don't know about science, Carson called for humility and caution and, above all, a sense of wonder.
Late in her life, Carson wrote an essay for Woman's Home Companion called Helping your Child to Wonder. In it, she urges, quote, "If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in."
Gary Kroll has written about Rachel Carson. He's an assistant professor of environmental history at Plattsburgh State University, and he joins me now. Gary, welcome to On the Media. GARY KROLL: Thank you for having me, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Please refresh our memories about her central premise. It involved the pesticide DDT and how it lingered in ecosystems, even if it didn't necessarily do so in the human body. GARY KROLL: Well, it comes out of a court case, really, in the late 1950s, that was out in Long Island, where you had a whole bunch of people that were being sprayed indiscriminately on farms, on people's little gardens. And it was the USDA that was trying to eradicate various pests. And they wanted to file a suit to pass an injunction.
And a gentleman named Robert Cushman Murphy, who was a naturalist at the American Museum of Natural History, contacted Carson and said, hey, why don't you get involved with this. So she started with a very small piece, in 1958, I believe, and it just spiraled into a much bigger book about how pesticides that come out of the post–war research period are being used a little too carelessly. BOB GARFIELD: Now, Silent Spring appeared in various forms. At first it was a series of magazine pieces in The New Yorker which morphed into a book of the same title and, still later, showed up as a TV documentary, I believe, on CBS. GARY KROLL: Right, the CBS Report's version is, in my mind, the most interesting because, you know, in many ways it's not just Rachel Carson's Silent Spring; it's also Eric Severeid and the producers of the film.
That final format, you really do see this kind of contest between science and anti-science, where you see this [LAUGHS] wonderful gentleman – he works for American Cyanamid. And he's in this white lab coat with these thick glasses. He looks like a splendid scientist, and he would talk about why Rachel Carson is woefully ignorant on certain issues. And then the film would cut to Rachel Carson, and she's sitting in a rocking chair and talking about the arrogance of science.
And what strikes out very, very clearly from the documentary is the interviews with the government officials, the health officials and the USDA, the many people who really had tremendous ignorance that they admitted: We do not know the long-term effects on the human body. We do not know the long-term effects on the water supply. There's this one scene where you hear constantly, we don't know, we don't know, we don't know. BOB GARFIELD: Now, there is a great temptation to say, ah, Silent Spring, 1962, it took the radical notion of environmentalism and made it mainstream. GARY KROLL: Mm. BOB GARFIELD: But you say –– not so fast on that one, huh?
GARY KROLL: The mainstreaming of environmentalism actually doesn't happen until 1970. We look at the first Earth Day – April 22nd, 1970 – and it's at that point where this environmentalism that in the 1960s was quite radical, that kind of falls to the wayside, that militantism, that radicalism. And it becomes almost popular to be an environmentalist in the 1970s. And the moment of this radical ecology coming to fruition dies, in a way, and it becomes the job of governments and schools to take care of the environment. BOB GARFIELD: If Silent Spring did not necessarily represent the mainstreaming of environmentalism, it did seem to be on the leading edge of something else, and that is just the permission to question authority in the society. It was clustered around Ralph Nader suing General Motors and - GARY KROLL: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - the Vietnam War. Do you believe that it was pivotal in the whole way that American society regards its own assumptions? GARY KROLL: Yes, I do. You put your faith and your trust in people. You put your faith in the government and the USDA in the 1950s, let's say. BOB GARFIELD: And American Cyanamid. GARY KROLL: Exactly, yes, exactly. Science and the government and American corporations, you put your faith in there. And then what she says – and this is very startling, very startling for many readers in the 1960s – don't trust them. They haven't earned that trust yet. They may someday. And she really wants them to earn that trust, but they haven't done it yet, and they may be hurting the public body. BOB GARFIELD: If Rachel Carson were around today to see how the ecological movement has evolved, do you think she'd be proud, satisfied, disgusted? What? GARY KROLL: I ask myself that question every single day. And I think she would look at children and their wonderful sense of optimism, and she would be just absolutely overjoyed with what we do with teaching environmental ethics when our kids are young.
And then when she sees us getting older, I think that's where her remorse would build in, and she would say, my goodness, why can't we act as children again, and why can't we just enjoy that sense of wonder that she liked to talk about so much. So, she certainly would have a mixed reaction. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Gary. Thank you so much. GARY KROLL: It's been my pleasure, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Gary Kroll is an assistant professor of history at Plattsburgh State University and author of a new book titled Exploration and Science. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.