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ENVIRONMENT | winter 2002

Rachel Carson Warned Us…

As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Carson's legacy still inspires women around the world to fight corporate polluters, protect their children, and advocate for their own health. The women's environmental-health movement is organizing around four strategic areas:

1. lobby for government commitments to and implementation of international regulations on environmental standards, such as the Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty (POPS);

2. fight for passage of and adherence to Right to Know laws globally, nationally, and locally that ensure communities are informed about what chemicals are being deposited in their backyards, allowing for pressure on companies to comply with federal and statewide regulations;

3. advocate for the Precautionary Principle, which holds that governments and corporations should take measures to protect public health and the environment where substantial damage is threatened, even in the absence of clear scientific evidence of harm; and

4. propel environmentally savvy women into public office and leadership of environmental organizations, to link the work already being done at the grassroots level to real political leverage.

We will not be silent.

Forty years ago, a quiet woman inspired a revolution that today, despite having swept every nation, remains far from victory.  On September 27, 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and founded the modern environmental movement.  Seldom does a book generate such controversy, produce such profound and numerous public policy results, or bring about so much new activity in a social movement.  But Silent Spring was no ordinary book.  Its message resonated with a public increasingly concerned with the environment and its effect on human health.  It also caught the attention of leading political figures who were not afraid to confront corporate America.

Following World War II, the United States embarked on a love affair with chemicals.  We celebrated the many applications of plastics and synthetic compounds and wondered how agriculture could have thrived without pesticides.  Industry images showed picnicking children being sprayed with DDT.  Business had a lot to celebrate and more to champion, as wartime technologies were converted to domestic applications, requiring significant government financial and political support.

Silent Spring begins with the parable of a mythical town that awakens one spring to silence, its birds, insects, and other wildlife felled by the damage of chemical pollution.  When The New Yorker first published excerpts from it in the summer of 1962, just before the book’s release, no one was prepared for the response.  Carson had converted years of painstaking research on the biological effects of widespread spraying of insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides into a clarion call for control.  Her attack on the dominant scientific standards of the day and on the chemical industry captured the attention of the world.

Silent Spring led to significant environmental regulations in the United States.  It precipitated congressional investigations, presidential directives, 1972 legislation banning DDT, new regulations for clean air and water, and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970.

Carson’s work was so catalytic because it linked conservation of nature to human health and tapped into the public’s distrust of political and corporate power, calling for greater accountability.  It also engaged women as a new constituency for the environment.  After the book’s publication, women all over the country wrote letters to editors, voicing concern about environmental issues as varied as fluorides and nuclear fallout.  A new environmentally minded public opened the door for wider mobilizations.

This growing constituency for environmental-health issues led Interior Secretary Morris Udall and President John F. Kennedy to form a commission to study chemical applications.  This gave credibility to the book, against denunciations from within government agencies, paving the way for wide regulatory reforms.

Carson was an unlikely candidate for public attention and controversy, according to her biographer Linda Lear.  She was a reserved woman, with a quiet demeanor and a fragile physical presence that stood in stark contrast to her intellect and courage.  She had a difficult childhood in many ways and did not have an easy time building social networks in high school or in college, as her family struggled to get her the education that her talents demanded.  Throughout her career, Carson struggled to support her family in return.

At Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham College, in Pittsburgh, she combined her talent for writing with her love of science and nature.  She graduated magna cum laude in 1929 with a major in zoology.  She was able to continue her studies long enough to earn a master’s degree in zoology at Johns Hopkins.  After that, she taught zoology and spent summers studying at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole, MA.  In 1937 she started full-time work as an aquatic biologist at the Bureau of Fisheries, eventually becoming editor-in-chief of all its publications.  Her work at the bureau gave her insight into government procedures.  It also led her to write about the sea, first in articles, and later in two books:  Under the Sea-Wind and The Sea Around Us, winner of a National Book Award.  These brought Carson her reputation and public acclaim, allowing her to leave her job for full-time research and writing.  Her time as an independent writer was relatively short-lived, however.  When Carson published Silent Spring at 55, she was drying from breast cancer.  Her book alerted the world to the dangers of the toxic chemicals that may have caused her disease.

As Carson battled both cancer and the radiation treatments that were poisoning her body, she steeled herself for the onslaught that would follow publication of her book.  Chemical trade associations and individual companies attacked her with a barrage of criticism, laden with sexist imagery and language.  Led by chemical manufacturers Monsanto, American Cyanamid, and Veliscol, corporate scientists tried to discredit the validity of her research, the “emotionalism” of her interpretations, and the book’s suggested remedies, which the industry viewed as threatening to its business.  To discredit Carson and her work, the pesticide industry spend more than $250,000, equivalent to well over a million dollars today.  Monsanto, one of the largest producers of DDT, immediately denounced Carson, saying she wrote not “as a scientists but rather a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.”  She was called hysterical.  Her concern for the environment was questioned because she was a “spinster” who had no children to be worried about.

Carson’s spirit didn’t falter.  She met with members of the special panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee and testified before Congress.  She reacted to the government’s release of its own report on pesticides by testifying before Congress about the need for a government agency to monitor pesticides and other toxic chemicals.  Then, she returned home to Maryland for her final months – the cancer had spread through her body.  Carson died on April 14, 1964, at 56, never knowing to what extent her work would be vindicated or glimpsing its long-term impact.

“It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks that insect controllers calculate,” Carson wrote.  “The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts.” Simultaneously calling for a public’s “right to know” and the principle that precaution must precede profit, Carson’s prescriptions are at the core of today’s environmental advocacy and of the women’s environmental health movement.

While there is not just one woman’s perspective on the environment—biologically, ideologically, politically—women’s traditional role as caregivers and their very bodies make them markers of environmental crises, as health problems arise from increased contamination of self, community, and home.  Women often are the first to detect problems, the first to be affected by new technologies and policies that have an impact on health, food supplies, access to water, and land erosion.  As a result, they have been actively informing themselves about complex scientific issues in order to make personal decisions about health and environmental contamination.

At the same time women have understood that individual choice will not transform the underlying causes of widespread environmental contamination.  They have been organizing for more than a century to address environmental-health issues.  In many cases, women at the forefront of the environmental movement have had to learn, then reconceptualize “science,” defining new scientific and political frameworks and disciplines.

After World War II, women began moving into scientific fields in greater numbers, including into natural resource management and toxicology.  Women like Carson shaped the research agenda influencing the next stages of the environmental movement.  After the publication of Silent Spring and drawing upon the 1960s’ wide public distrust of government and corporate power, the environmental movement expanded its ranks.  New local and national environmental organizations were formed throughout the United States and Europe, as peach and environmental activists began to mobilize against the international chemical companies and the nuclear industry.  The links between environmentalism, peace, consumption, and international policy were firmly established.

By the 1970s tough and courageous women around the country were alerting their communities to the health effects of toxic waste sites and industrial production facilities, driven by the certainty that their children were in danger whether or not regulations were in place.  These facilities were typically in communities with little political or economic power and large numbers of racial minorities.  Think of Lois Gibbs, the “housewife” with small children at the Love Canal dump site in New York; the women of “cancer alley,” an 80-mile toxic corridor of industrial pollution through some of the poorest and mostly African-American areas along the Mississippi River; and the women of Long Island, NY, who focused attention on the apparent epidemic of breast cancer in their communities.

This nascent women’s environmental-health movement is not only a domestic one.  By the early 1990s, women around the world were working together to influence government policies, recognizing that environmental problems know no national boundaries.  Today this community-based organizing is Rachel Carson’s legacy.  Our activism works toward her kind of Spring.