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Rachel Carson and Silent Spring

Written by: Jim Downs, Connecticut College

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how and why policies related to the environment developed and changed from 1968 to 1980

Suggested Sequencing

Use this narrative with the Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962 Primary Source to discuss the environmental movement and the creation of Earth Day.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, cities have often been used to symbolize environmental problems, whereas farms have represented the natural hope of the American republic. Cities have been portrayed as loud and dirty, and farms have been portrayed as peaceful and pure. Cities have been criticized for getting too big and too industrialized. They have been criticized for crowding people into cramped apartment buildings and producing waste, noise, and air pollution that have eroded nature. But the roots of the modern environmental movement can actually be traced to farms, not to cities.

In the aftermath of World War II, farmers began using new chemical pesticides against the armies of insects that invaded their crops and threatened their harvests. By the late 1960s, American farmers were applying more than one billion pounds of these pesticides a year. Among them was a chemical named DDT, which was used against mosquitos, beetles, and other damaging insects. DDT worked effectively and helped farmers stave off insect attacks, particularly by mosquitos carrying a strain of malaria that could be transmitted to humans. However, birds and animals, in turn, ate the insects that had ingested DDT, and the poison thus made its way into the food chain and adversely affected other species. DDT’s long-term effects were not readily known; in fact, its inventor was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1948. DDT was regarded as a magical remedy that had thwarted mosquitos from spreading a disease that had been an enormous challenge for American farmers in the South since the eighteenth century. American farmers continued to purchase DDT throughout the 1950s and had used more than 640,000 tons on farms and fields by the end of the decade.

A plane flies low over the forest and releases a thick foam.

By the middle of the twentieth century, DDT was in common use as a pesticide. This plane is dropping DDT over land in Oregon as part of a spruce budworm control project in 1955.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring and exposed the problems of DDT. Despite her training as a biologist, Carson did not conduct original research to uncover new information about pesticides. Rather, she drew on evidence already compiled by other scientists in order to write an engaging book that would alert the public to these proven dangers. Silent Spring actually began with a fable. Carson eloquently described an American town full of colorful orchards, deer silently crossing bountiful fields, and abundant fish swimming in flowing streams. But then one spring, birds no longer sang, “hens brooded but no chicks hatched,” and bees no longer buzzed among the blossoms. Carson further explained that this silent spring resulted from “some evil spell” that had seeped into the community, leaving flocks of chicken dead, cattle and sheep ill, and even humans and their children sick.

By creating this fable, Carson hoped to help readers visualize the harmful effects of DDT, whose invention many had believed to be a sign of progress. Few Americans questioned its use at the time, especially because government authorities were in charge of disseminating it and they believed in science as a symbol of progress. When DDT trucks drove into neighborhoods spraying their poisonous chemicals, children playfully chased them down suburban blocks or rejoiced when it was sprayed on them in swimming pools.

Silent Spring not only indicted the businesses that produced DDT, it also criticized the government for failing to consider the consequences of large-scale efforts that spread DDT from farms to neighborhoods across America. Leaders in the sciences, agribusiness, and the chemical industry responded to Carson’s critique by questioning her credentials and invalidating her claims. 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 Carson had targeted. Carson wanted to expose the problems of pesticides so lawmakers would create policies restricting its use. She was not entirely opposed to chemicals, but she was against the careless ways in which they were used.

Portrait of Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson, pictured here in 1940, authored the book that sparked a national debate about the widespread use of pesticides.

One of the most profound effects of Carson’s book was that it showed how human actions were responsible for altering the planet. In the 1960s, this was a radical idea that gained traction as a result of the fervor sparked by the civil rights and antiwar movements. Silent Spring was the basis for the development of the environmental movement. Although committed groups had aimed to protect nature and wildlife throughout the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, the environmental movement focused activism on alerting the public to environmental dangers and, primarily, creating policies that actively protected the environment.

New awareness led immediately to the creation of the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy agency consisting mostly of scientists who began uncovering DDT’s fatal effects on various animals. For example, in laboratory experiments conducted in the United States and Britain, these researchers discovered that spraying DDT into the atmosphere to eliminate the mosquito population actually led to the chemical affecting birds’ eggs such that they were thin, weighed less, and failed to hatch. Although Carson’s book was sparking a raucous debate about pesticides, the Environmental Defense Fund began putting forth precise scientific evidence to support lawsuits against the use of DDT.

In 1970, the passionate concern of many who had read Silent Spring or followed the efforts of the Environmental Defense Fund inspired thousands of events throughout March and April. Although some historians chart April 22, 1970, as the official first Earth Day, related activities actually lasted a week, not just a day. Events unfolded throughout the spring on college campuses, at churches and synagogues, in parks and waterfronts, and in front of city halls and corporate buildings. An estimated one million people participated and listened to talks by professors, scientists, government officials, and members of organizations like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

Earth Day also attracted members of other social movements, like those in support of civil rights, feminism, and student movements, who wanted to create alliances and amplify their messages. Many young students from junior high school to college even had the chance to speak at these gatherings. The success of Earth Day, or “Earth Spring” as some scholars have suggested calling it, was that it brought together people committed to protecting the environment, and it enabled them to create broader networks, establish groups, plan additional events, share strategies, develop curricula for courses on the environment, and advance the movement.

Pat Nixon adds a shovel of dirt around a small tree. Richard Nixon looks on. The White House is in the background.

President Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, planted a tree at the White House to recognize the first Earth Day.

After months of continued public activism, the federal government under President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on December 2, 1970. The objectives of the EPA were to create policy that would eliminate “damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man” and “to enrich understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources.” The EPA was charged with addressing major concerns that many Americans raised about the country’s water supply and urban air pollution. This led to the revival of the Clean Water Act, enacted in 1948 and amended in 1972 to protect the nation’s waters from pollution. Similarly, the Clean Air Act had originated in 1963, but due to the surge in environmental awareness and activism after the publication of Silent Spring, it too was amended in 1977 and again in 1990.

Silent Spring launched a movement that changed environmental laws and regulations in the United States. The members of the movement wanted to use the power of the federal government to regulate industry to protect human health and preserve the environment. Their efforts became one of the most significant advocacy movements in U.S. society.

Review Questions

1. What pesticide did Rachel Carson and other early environmentalists condemn?

  1. BDT
  2. DDT
  3. DEET
  4. BPA

2. What was the title of Rachel Carson’s book, which strongly influenced the environmental movement?

  1. The Morning After
  2. Silent Spring
  3. Unsafe at Any Speed
  4. The Need for Weeds and Seeds

3. After World War II, American farmers trying to protect their crops from insect damage increasingly turned to

  1. chemical pesticides
  2. organic fertilizers
  3. insect-resistant seeds
  4. plant-based herbicides

4. The biologist most credited with launching the modern environmental movement is

  1. Eleanor Roosevelt
  2. Jane Goodall
  3. Phyllis Schlafly
  4. Rachel Carson

5. One long-term success of Earth Day, first celebrated in 1970, was that it

  1. succeeded in eliminating the use of chemical pesticides in its first year
  2. resulted in curricula being developed for environmental courses, raising nationwide environmental awareness
  3. led to the establishment of a Cabinet-level Department of Environmental Conservation
  4. doubled the size of the national park system

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring sparked the beginnings of the modern environmental movement.
  2. Explain the impact of environmental activism on the Nixon Administration.

AP Practice Questions

“As no disjointed array of separate programs can, the EPA would be able – in concert with the States – to set and enforce standards for air and water quality and for individual pollutants. This consolidation of pollution control authorities would help assure that we do not create new environmental problems in the process of controlling existing ones. Industries seeking to minimize the adverse impact of their activities on the environment would be assured of consistent standards covering the full range of their waste disposal problems. As the States develop and expand their own pollution control programs, they would be able to look to one agency to support their efforts with financial and technical assistance and training.”

President Richard Nixon, Reorganization Plan No. 3 1970, July 9, 1970

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. The excerpt provided was most directly shaped by

  1. Supreme Court decisions during the 1950s and 1960s
  2. anti-war protests occurring on college campuses
  3. unintended consequences of post-World War II industrial technology
  4. the New Left’s view of the role of the national government

2. The text in the excerpt challenged which prevailing attitude of the late 1960s?

  1. The concept of mutual coexistence or détente
  2. Decline of public trust in government
  3. Expansion of suburbia
  4. Rise of the Sun Belt states

3. Which group would most likely support the point of view expressed in the excerpt?

  1. Advocates of a free-market global economy
  2. Opponents of containment
  3. Critics of the military-industrial complex
  4. States’ rights supporters

Primary Sources

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

Environmental Protection Agency. “Laws and Regulations, Summary of the Clean Water Act.” 1972.

Suggested Resources

Armitage, Kevin C. This Green and Growing Land: Environmental Activism in American History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018

“Clean Air Act.”

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Dunlap, Thomas R. “Science as a Guide in Regulating Technology: The Case of DDT in the United States.” Social Studies of Science8, no. 3 (1978): 265-285.

Flippen, J. Brooks. “Pests, Pollution, and Politics: The Nixon Administration’s Pesticide Policy.” Agricultural History 71, no. 4 (1997): 442-56

Lear, Linda J. “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.” Environmental History Review17, no. 2 (1993):23-48

Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. Boston: Mariner Books, 2009.

Lewis, Jack. “The Birth of the EPA.”EPA Journal November 1985.

Rome, Adam. “The Genius of Earth Day.” Environmental History15, no. 2 (2010): 194-205

Rome, Adam. The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation. New York: Hill and Wang, 2013.

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