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Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


In 1962, scientist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring to alert the public to the dangers of DDT, a pesticide that was widely used to control mosquito populations. Silent Spring begins with a bucolic description of an American town. One spring, “some evil spell” seeped into the community, silencing birds and bees, leaving flocks of chicken dead, cattle and sheep ill, and even humans and their children sick. By creating this fable, Carson hoped American readers could begin to visualize the effects of DDT. In addition to indicting businesses that produced DDT, Silent Spring critiqued the government for its failure to consider the consequences of spreading DDT from farms to neighborhoods across America. Carson’s work brought her criticism from leaders in the sciences, agribusiness, and the chemical industry. Because of this controversy, Silent Spring became the centerpiece of a national debate, sold more than 600,000 copies in its first year, and succeeded in reaching the mainstream audience that Carson had intended. When it was published, the suggestion that scientific advances like pesticides could be damaging to the environment was a radical idea. Thanks to Carson’s message, President Kennedy set up a special panel of his Science Advisory Committee to study the problem of pesticides. Today, the publication of Silent Spring is considered a fundamental step in the development of the environmental movement.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who published this source and what was her purpose in doing so?
  2. How did the author structure her work to ensure it reached a mainstream audience?

The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.
During the past quarter century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life. Strontium 90, released through nuclear explosions into the air, comes to earth in rain or drifts down as fallout, lodges in soil, enters into the grass or corn or wheat grown there, and in time takes up its abode in the bones of a human being, there to remain until his death. Similarly, chemicals sprayed on croplands or forests or gardens lie long in soil, entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death. Or they pass mysteriously by underground streams until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells. . . . The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.
To adjust to these chemicals would require time on the scale that is nature’s; it would require not merely the years of a man’s life but the life of generations. And even this, were it by some miracle possible, would be futile, for the new chemicals come from our laboratories in an endless stream; almost five hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone. The figure is staggering and its implications are not easily grasped—500 new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience.
Among them are many that are used in man’s war against nature. Since the mid-1940s over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described in the modern vernacular as “pests”; and they are sold under several thousand different brand names. These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes—non selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the “good” and the “bad,” to still the song of the birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in the soil—all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides,” but “biocides.”

Comprehension Questions

  1. What species has the power to alter nature?
  2. Why would the example of strontium 90 be particularly relevant to Carson’s audience?
  3. What is problematic about the chemicals that Carson describes?
  4. Why does Carson suggest a new name for these chemicals?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Silent Spring was published in 1962 and spurred the environmental movement. What other events in the country spurred change during this time?
  2. DDT did lead to a decline in mosquito populations, but it had the unintended consequences of harming other wildlife. Is it possible to reconcile scientific progress with environmental stewardship? Explain your reasoning.

Silent Spring