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Silent Spring | Context

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The Pesticide Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT)

In 1939 Swiss chemist Paul Müller discovered the human-made chemical, first synthesized in 1874, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) could be employed as a pesticide. Pesticides are chemicals used to destroy insects or other pests that harm agriculture. The discovery of DDT was important for three reasons: (1) it was effective in getting rid of many kinds of insects at once; (2) it was long-lasting, even withstanding rain; and (3) it was inexpensive. Insects, due to their numbers as well as their behaviors, threaten human food production in major ways. Insects chew plant leaves, feed on plant juices, and bore into roots, which destroy plants or make them less productive. In addition, insects cause disease in humans by spreading germs and inflicting bites that have the potential to become infected. DDT played a key role in controlling dreaded and often fatal diseases such as malaria (parasitic disease that results in chills, fever, and sweating) and typhus (bacterial disease that results in fever, headaches, and rash). Müller's discovery was considered so important he was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

During World War II (1939–45) knowledge of synthetic (human-made) chemicals developed further, as the military sought to control lice outbreaks among the troops. Because it was believed lice spread disease such as typhus, the pest was considered a serious problem. DDT proved an effective pesticide against lice. As the military experimented with finding alternate forms of the pesticide, they discovered that DDT was also effective against other pests. Following the war, DDT's use increased because it was considered a miracle weapon. DDT showed promise in protecting humans and plants alike, against a variety of pests, such as malaria-carrying mosquitoes and leaf-eating ants.

Era of Progress

During the early 1960s the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a "Space Race," with each country successfully sending men into orbit. As a consequence, U.S. President John F. Kennedy announced plans to send a man to the moon. The popular view at the time reflected a belief in humanity's ability to conquer both space and nature through science. The chemical industry profited from this belief, flourishing as chemicals like DDT showed great promise in solving insect-related problems, such as the spread of disease and the destruction of crops.

In the early 1960s science was viewed as a critical link to progress and prosperity, and its goodness went largely unquestioned. For example, the use of new synthetic pesticides resulted in increased crop yields, which in turn led to increased profits. Though a link between increased synthetic pesticide use and decreasing butterfly and bird populations was established in the scientific literature, pesticide spraying continued and the economy continued to reap the financial benefits. Professor Lamont C. Cole expressed the prevailing optimistic view of science in a 1962 Scientific American article: "The inevitable way to progress for man, as for nature ... is to try new things in an almost haphazard manner, discarding the failures and building upon the successes." Rachel Carson, a scientist, had no such blind faith, however. She argued for research first to see the effects of the newly created "wonder chemicals."

Carson's Unique Work

In the 1960s ecology, the branch of biology that focuses on the interaction between living things and their environment, did not yet exist. However, evidence of human's negative impact on the balance of nature was growing, and Carson was not the first to voice the need to care for the environment. American author Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (1949) describes the symbiotic nature of the environment, and the ethics associated with this relationship. Half a century before Leopold, American-Scottish author John Muir published articles arguing the need for conservation of the nation's natural resources. Carson's writing was unique, however. As both a scientist and a writer, she knew how to use writing to explain complex information in language the average person could understand. She also knew how to use storytelling techniques to evoke emotion. This dual expertise enabled her not only to educate her readers, but more importantly, to move them to action.

Carson took the reasoned position of advocating for responsible use of pesticides, rather than arguing to eliminate them completely. She claimed the risks should be known prior to exposure. In addition, she did not attack the capitalist system―an economy based on the exchange of goods and services by privately owned corporations and individuals as opposed to wealth being controlled by the state. Rather, Carson argued for responsibility and ethical decision-making within the capitalist system. Ultimately, she showed humans would be the real losers if they continued on the path of quick, easy chemical solutions to complex environmental problems. For example, Carson provided evidence of insects developing resistance to poisons and becoming an even stronger force than they originally had been. In addition, she showed pesticides interfere with human cells, sometimes resulting in cancerous growth.

Government Response

Corporations and chemical-related industries criticized Carson's science and tried to discredit her reputation. However, Carson's clear explanations, research findings, and disturbing anecdotes stirred readers to act. The environmental movement was born.

Ultimately, the government responded to the public's concern with legislation to protect the environment. In 1969 the National Environmental Policy Act was passed. It declares, "all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment." A year later the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created. However, the chemical industry still held considerable power and influence by sponsoring research, the results of which were used by regulatory agencies in their decision-making.

In the latter 1960s increasing numbers of activists argued the need for care and oversight of the environment. While Carson alone cannot be credited with creating the environmental movement, her work sparked important changes. Some have compared Silent Spring to American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist or antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) in its impact as a catalyst for social change.
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