How a Book Cleaned Up America

Rachel Carson’s bombshell 1962 work, ‘Silent Spring,’ inspired the formation of environmental protection groups.

Rachel Carson. (Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ

What would America look like without the Environmental Protection Agency? It’s not far-fetched to picture pools of pollution, clouds of dark smog, and massive coal-burning plants. Luckily we do have the agency to push back against the byproducts of big business—but how did it come to be?

It started largely with a book written by scientist and writer Rachel Carson. Silent Spring, published in 1962, exposed the dangers of the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT).

The Environmental Protection Agency gives Carson credit on its website: “There is no question…that Silent Spring prompted the Federal Government to take action against water and air pollution—as well as against the misuse of pesticides—several years before it otherwise might have moved.”

Carson painted a convincing picture of the harms that the pesticide was causing, backing it up with an abundance of scientific evidence.

But as often happens when a large manufacturer is challenged, it creates its own message to confuse people and dispute the damaging claims.

Laura Orlando described the outpouring of dissent against Carson in a 2002 piece for Dollars & Sense, pointing out that the pesticide industry trade group the National Agricultural Chemicals Association had invested more than $250,000 to disparage the book and Carson. After The New Yorker serialized parts of Silent Spring, The New York Times ran an article that quoted the president of a major manufacturer of DDT, Montrose Chemical Corporation, as saying that Carson wrote not “as a scientist but rather as a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.”

Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University and coauthor of Merchants of Doubt, recalls, “The chemical industry tried to discredit Carson…by insisting the science was unsettled and that pesticides were good for us because they increased the food supply.”

Though Carson died shortly after Silent Spring was published, her message prevailed, and eight years later the EPA was formed. The use of DDT was banned in the U.S. two years after that. While there are occasional claims questioning the facts in Silent Spring—by the anti-regulation groups that refuted the dangers of secondhand smoke—according to Oreskes, peer-reviewed studies have consistently backed Carson up.

“Every once in a while in the history of mankind, a book has appeared which has substantially altered the course of history,” said Sen. Ernest Gruen­ing about Silent Spring a year after it was published. He was right.

The EPA today has the same mission it had when it was created almost 45 years ago: to protect the environment from people and people from polluted environments. Today the agency faces many of the same antiregulation groups and lobbyists, but, as it was for Rachel Carson, the truth remains its most powerful tool.

This piece is part of our six-part series “Woman Scientist All-Stars,” presented with the film Interstellar. We are remembering women scientists who have helped to shape our world and who still inspire us to reach for the stars.