Climate Histories: Never underestimate the power of a woman

“I believe that the more clearly we can focus our attension on the wonders and realities of the universe abour us, the less taste we shall have for destruction”

Rachel Carson, 1954

Several major shifts occurred in the 1950s and the 1960s which involved an awareness of the ties between environmental and social problems. The hydrogen bomb and nuclear testing had triggered a “ban-the-atomic-bomb” movement, intensified after the Lucky Dragon incident in 1954, in which the 23-man crew of a Japanese fishing vessel was exposed to radioactive fallout caused by the United States hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific.

It was difficult to ignore the post-war impact on the environment in the United States and Europe. As early as 1943 a thick smog trapped the residents of Los Angeles in an unhealthy shroud of air pollution that came to be known as Black Monday. A deadly smog hung over the Monongahela Valley in 1948, left twenty dead and six thousand people ill, mainly in the town of Donora, southeast of Pittsburgh. Perhaps the worst case of air pollution was that of London in 1952, when a deadly fog killed more than four thousand people.

At the same time, scientists began noticing something curious: nuclear explosions caused the gradual depletion of the ozone layer, which protects the Earth’s atmosphere. In his 1957 book Atomic Suicide, Walter Russell explains that with radioactive elements unleashed into our atmosphere, the human race is heading for catastrophe.

“The element of surprise which could delay the discovery of the great danger, and thus allow more plutonium piles to come into existence, is the fact that scientists are looking near the ground for fallout dangers. The greatest radioactive dangers are accumulating from eight to twelve miles up in the stratosphere. The upper atmosphere is already charged with death-dealing radioactivity, for which it has not yet sent us the bill. It is slowly coming and we will have to pay for it in another century, even if atomic energy plants ceased today.”

But it was another book that really widened the public awareness of environmental issues. In 1962, Rachel Carson, a soft spoken marine biologist and naturalist, published Silent Spring, a ground-breaking book that will revolutionise our relationship to the natural world.

Rachel Carson was already a respected and talented nature writer. She knew how to explain science to ordinary readers and she understood that only if she could make her readers fall in love with nature, the seas, the forests and the birds, only then, they will act to save them.

The subject of Carson’s book was human poisoning of the biosphere through the widespread deployment of synthetic chemicals aimed at pest and disease control, such as malaria, and especially DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) which was being used widely to control mosquitoes and others insects.

DDT, is the most powerful pesticide the world had ever known. Unlike most pesticides, whose effectiveness is limited to destroying one or two types of insects, DDT was capable of killing hundreds of different kinds at once. It was developed in 1939, by the chemist Paul Hermann Müller, who was looking for an insecticide to protect woollens against moths.  Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

DDT was used extensively during World War II, clearing South Pacific islands of malaria-causing insects for U.S. troops and became available for civilian use in 1945. In only few years its use was proliferated. It became the solution to every insect problem, and not only. It was used extensively in agriculture, to stop the spread of typhus, and as delousing powder. But,  as Carson’s meticulous work showed, there was a problem.  DDT entered the food chain contaminated the world’s food supply. It was accumulated in the fatty tissues of animals, including human beings, causing cancer and genetic damage. “Interconnected food webs could take DDT from cornfields in Iowa to the bladder of Antarctic seals just as the stratosphere could deliver fallout thrown up at Bikini Atoll into the tooth enamel of German infants,” writes Oliver Morton in his book the Planet Remade.[1]

Silent Spring became an international best-seller, selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries. Its impact was enormous. Carson changed the prevailing public mindset that man is separate from nature, showing that the health of our environment directly affect us.

The book met with furious resistance, chiefly from the big chemical companies.  They have tried to destroy Carson’s scientific credibility. They presented her as a fanatic, a dangerous reactionary “who would drag modern society backwards into a new Middle Ages filled with pests, vermin, crop destruction and lethal diseases”, they challenged their mental capacities. [2] Ezra Taft Benson, former US Secretary of Agriculture,  wrote in a private letter that because Carson was unmarried despite being attractive, she was “probably a communist”.[3]

Rachel Carson influenced the environmental movement as no one had before.The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), one of the world’s leading environmental NGOs initially formed in 1967 in reaction to the DDT problem. In May 1963, Rachel Carson appeared before the Department of Commerce and recommended that there be a “Pesticide Commission”, made up of independent scientific experts in order there be no conflict of interest, to regulate the use of DDT.  Ten years later, Carson’s “Pesticide Commission” became the Environmental Protection Agency, which immediately banned DDT. Following America’s lead, support for international use of DDT quickly dried up.

Rachel Carson died from breast cancer in early 1965.  Shortly before her death, she appeared on a CBS documentary. She remarked:

“Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself? [We are] challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”[4]

Sources and further reading:

[1] Oliver Morton, “The Planet Remade” Granta (2015) pp 58

[2] Michael B. Smith, “’Silence, Miss Carson! … and the Reception of Silent Spring,” Feminist Studies 27, 3 (Fall 2001): 736–737.


[4] Karen F. Stein, Rachel Carson: Challenging Authors, Sense Publishers, 2012

The title of the article is from  a cartoon by Bill Mauldin, published in the Chicago Sun-Times on 27 October 1963, illustrating the gender dimension of the controversy over Carson and Silent Spring.

Image Source: Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring. Official photo as FWS employee. c. 1940. Credit: Wikipedia