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The legacy of 'Silent Spring'
Fifty years after "Silent Spring," let's not roll back environmental protections

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Date published: 10/7/2012

SANTA CLARA, Calif.

--The Republican Party wants to open up more federal lands and waters to drilling for oil and natural gas. The GOP is pushing, in the name of freedom and economic opportunity, to roll back a variety of environmental protections. Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, are seeking to ease pesticide regulations; some are even questioning the Environmental Protection Agency's ban on DDT, reopening a controversy that stretches back half a century.

Fifty years ago Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring." This critique of America's dependence on chemical pesticides is widely hailed as one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

At the time of its publication, however, both the message and the messenger were roundly denounced. During a period of unprecedented prosperity and technological advances, Carson--a woman!--had the temerity to tell Americans that they were stunningly oblivious to the environmental dangers they were creating. She charged public officials with being far too trusting of the chemical industry and its false assurances of safety. In particular, Carson denounced this nation's vast reliance upon pesticides, especially DDT.

"Silent Spring" pointed out long-term consequences of chemical use that far outweighed the immediate benefits. The book's title came from the opening chapter, "A Fable for Tomorrow." This vignette described an American town in which all life, from song birds to children, had been silenced by killer chemicals unwittingly unleashed by the scientific community. "Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion," Carson warned. "How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?"

"Silent Spring" was denounced in the popular press. In a scathing review, Time magazine dismissed it as "hysterically overemphatic." When The New Yorker serialized "Silent Spring," a California reader complained to the magazine's editor that "Miss Rachel Carson's reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her communist sympathies," adding, "As for insects, isn't it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs!"


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HAVE THE LESSONS OF RACHEL CARSON'S BOOK TAKEN HOLD?

Nancy C. Unger is associate professor of history at Santa Clara University. Her new book is "Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History" (Oxford University Press, 2012). She wrote this for the History News Service.