Lentis/Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Development of Environmental Values, 1950-1970

In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book about the dangers of pesticide overuse. Carson’s views were shared environmentally-focused non-governmental organizations, but were heavily opposed by chemical companies benefitting from the use of pesticides. The book is credited by some with inspiring an environmental movement and stricter regulation, but it also led to many intense debates about pesticides.[1].

Environmentalism before Silent SpringEdit

The federal government first began to act on environmental issues in the late 1940s. In 1947, congress passed the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, which required pesticide distributors to register their products with the U.S. Department of Agriculture[2]. The following year, congress enacted the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, which allowed the Surgeon General to establish programs to minimize water pollution and improve sanitary conditions[3]. In 1955, the Air Pollution Control Act was passed to initiate research on the health risks of air pollution[4]. The FWPCA and APCA were the precursors to the modern Clean Water and Clean Air acts.

During the same period, conservation groups were beginning to gain traction. The Nature Conservancy, which focuses on preserving ecologically significant lands and waterways, was founded in 1951. In 1956, The Sierra Club gained national recognition after lobbying congress to prevent the construction of a dam in a wildlife[5]. The Audubon Society, a bird-watching organization, also began to advocate for environmental protection around this time[6]. The emergence of environmentally-focused non-governmental organizations demonstrated the increasing awareness of environmental issues in the public.

Pesticide Use in the 1950sEdit

The 1950s were considered the “golden age” of pesticide use, particularly for synthetic insecticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). DDT was used during World War II to combat the spread of insect-borne illnesses[7]. It was very popular in the United States after the war, and was widely used in household products to deter pests and prevent disease[8]. Use of DDT in agriculture exploded after the war. It was seen as an improvement over use of sulfur- and arsenic-based pesticides, which were toxic to humans[9]. Despite its success, DDT had devastating environmental effects. DDT is toxic to fish and harmful to birds, weakening their eggshells and impairing their reproduction. DDT is also highly persistent in the environment, with a half-life of around 150 years in water [7].

Pesticide Controversy in the late 1950sEdit

In the late 1950s, several events induced scrutiny of pesticide use. First, in 1954, the Miller Pesticide Amendment was passed, regulating pesticide residue on raw agricultural products [10]. The amendment increased costs and development times for pesticide manufacturers, who had to do more research on their products before bringing them to market.

In 1957, the USDA used DDT to fight the gypsy moth, which was destroying trees in northeastern forests. The USDA was spraying heavily during high wind, causing unintentional spread of the pesticide. Residents in the area complained of dead fish and birds, as well as damage to their crops and gardens[11].

The following year, the USDA used toxic pesticides against fire ants. There had been few reports of the fire ants causing significant damage, leading residents to question why congress had authorized the use of such harmful pesticides. Following this incident, the Audubon Society and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service successfully lobbied congress to begin researching the long-term effects of pesticides[11].

In 1958, the Food Additives Amendment outlawed additives that were shown to induce cancer in humans or animals[10]. This amendment further increased the cost of developing pesticides, impeding their production. Some believe that this amendment was the final blow that ended the "golden age" of pesticide use. The increased concern over health and environmental consequences led to a decline in DDT use in the late 1950s. These events also helped inspire Rachel Carson’s writing of Silent Spring.

Rachel CarsonEdit

Rachel Carson in 1944

Rachel Carson before Silent SpringEdit

Rachel Carson was born in 1907. Growing up, Rachel Carson loved to write. In 1925, she started college at the Pennsylvania College for Women, where she intended to major in English. However, after taking a biology class, she decided to switch majors. She graduated with honors in 1929. In 1932, Carson graduated from Johns Hopkins with a master’s degree in zoology. She then went on to work as a scientist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Throughout her scientific career, Carson continued to write in her spare time. In 1951, she published her second book, The Sea Around Us. This book did very well, selling 250,000 copies in its first year and winning the National Book Award for nonfiction. This book showed Carson's remarkable ability to write in an engaging manner for specialist and non-specialist readers alike [1].

Silent SpringEdit

In the late 1950s, Rachel Carson became concerned with the overuse of DDT and other pesticides. She decided to write Silent Spring in the hopes of changing public perception. However, she knew if she wrote a textbook about the detrimental effects of pesticide overuse, very few people would want to read her book. Instead, she also told stories of hurt wildlife. She used vivid imagery to show her readers that DDT wasn’t just affecting a few plants and insects, but the entire ecosystem through the food chain. She went further with these stories to illustrate how many animals, not just a couple insects, could be wiped out. This is where she gets the name for her book, Silent Spring. It represents a spring where all of the wildlife that used to live there has died. These stories also served to make the book more impactful [12].

Carson didn’t just want her readers to be concerned about the current levels of DDT use. She also wanted them to spark change [13]. While working at the Fish and Wildlife Service, she observed the government approving and using new scientific measures without knowing their potential environmental effects [1]. She wanted her readers to know that without change, it was very unlikely the government would strictly regulate what was allowed into the environment. Instead, she wanted everyone to try to be a part of that conversation[13].

Preparing for PublicationEdit

Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1957, a year before she began writing Silent Spring and 5 years before publishing the book. Carson expected push back from pesticide companies. She also knew she wasn’t going to have a lot of time or energy to fight for her book after publication. This led her to take steps before publishing to help Silent Spring gain momentum on its own [12]. She included a very extensive and detailed appendix to show the plethora of evidence in support of her claims [1]. She also sent the book to some of the top experts in the field to read before publication. This ensured that several other influential experts were in support of Silent Spring when it was released [12].

Reactions to Silent SpringEdit

Chemical Company OutrageEdit

As Carson expected, Silent Spring faced harsh criticism from chemical companies. Velsicol, a manufacturer of DDT, threatened to sue the book’s publication company Houghton Mifflin. Another chemical company, Monsanto, published 5,000 copies of a parody called "The Desolate Year". This story depicted a world of famine and disease caused by banning pesticides [14].

Carson was met with personal attacks meant to discredit her work. She was accused of being a communist sympathizer. Velisicol claimed that she had "sinister influences" compromising her work. It was implied that her intention was to reduce the ability of Western countries to produce food. [15]

Senate HearingEdit

In 1963 Carson testified in front of a Senate subcommittee investigating pesticide use. She presented policy recommendations that she had been developing for years.

Carson never called for an outright ban on pesticides [1]. When faced with the chance to do so at the hearing, she stated “I think chemicals do have a place.” She recognized the effects of reactance, the tendency to resist regulations that appear to be taking away freedoms. Carson believed citizens had a right to know how pesticides were used on their property. Her main argument was against aerial spraying, which allowed pesticides to be used on private property without permission. She believed the federal government was part of the problem, due to private industry’s influence [16]. This was a main reason she did not advocate for a government ban, but action by citizens uniting together.

Silent Spring's Mixed Results / The Science RiftEdit

Roland Clement was a proponent of Carson’s, and testified in front of the Senate with her. After the hearing, he was told that the chemical companies were willing to halt domestic use of DDT, but only if they could continue to export to other countries [14]. This highlighted how deeply ingrained business interests were into government regulation.

Clement’s description emphasized the mixed results Silent Spring had on environmentalism. DDT was not banned in the United States until 1972, and companies were allowed to export it until the mid 1980s [16]. Companies exploited every possible loophole to continue profiting. On the other hand, Carson brought environmentalism into the spotlight. She inspired legislation such as the Clean Air and Water Acts, the establishment of Earth Day, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Carson was accused of using soft science and met with a well-financed counter reaction. This has become a modern playbook for attacks used by modern super-PACs [15]. Companies whose industries are threatened by scientific findings invest large amounts into discrediting those studies. Issues such as climate change, which one might think people would be united to fix, are areas of heated debate and little action. Carson regarded her book and environmentalism as a unifying issue for humankind, but was met with increased factionalization [14].


Silent Spring created a politicized and partisan reaction that has worsened over time. On the other hand, Carson brought environmentalism into the spotlight. Future groups could expand on this chapter by discussing current misinformation tactics and how environmentalism has adapted to them over time. Another option would be looking at how scientific findings that break the status quo have always been fought, and how it compares to Carson’s experience.


  1. a b c d e ACS (2020, April 9) American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/rachel-carson-silent-spring.html
  2. National Research Council (US) Committee on Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1993. 1, Background and Approach to the Study. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK236265/
  3. Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act). (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/fwatrpo.HTML
  4. Pub.L. 84–159, ch. 360, 69 Stat. 322
  5. Public Broadcasting Service. The Modern Environmental Movement. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/earth-days-modern-environmental-movement/.
  6. The National Audubon Society. (2018, June 4). The History of Audubon. Audubon. https://www.audubon.org/about/history-audubon-and-waterbird-conservation.
  7. a b National Pesticide Information Center. (1999). DDT. Corvallis, Oregon.
  8. Miller, G. (2017, June 3). Vintage Pesticide Paraphernalia From the Glory Days of DDT. https://www.wired.com/2014/06/vintage-pesticide-ddt/.
  9. National Research Council (US) Committee on Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1993. 1, Background and Approach to the Study. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK236265/
  10. a b Merrill, R. A. (1997). FOOD SAFETY REGULATION:Reforming the Delaney Clause. Annual Review of Public Health, 18(1), 313–340. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.publhealth.18.1.313
  11. a b Ganzel, B. (2007). The Environmental Movement Begins during the 1950s and 60s. Wessels Living History Farm. https://livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe50s/pests_07.html
  12. a b c NRDC (2015, August 13). The Natural Resources Defense Council. The Story of Silent Spring: How a courageous woman took on the chemical industry and raised important questions about humankind’s impact on nature. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/story-silent-spring
  13. a b Lear, Linda (n.d.) Silent Spring. http://www.rachelcarson.org/SilentSpring.aspx
  14. a b c Griswold, Eliza (2012, September 21) How Silent Spring Ignited the Environmental Movement. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/magazine/how-silent-spring-ignited-the-environmental-movement.html
  15. a b Graham, Frank Jr. (2012, June 21) Fifty Years After Silent Spring, Attacks on Science Continue. https://e360.yale.edu/features/fifty_years_after_rachel_carsons_silent_spring_assacult_on_science_continues
  16. a b Conniff, Richard (2015, September 10) Rachel Carson’s Critics Keep On, But She Told Truth About DDT. https://e360.yale.edu/features/rachel_carsons_critics_keep_on_but_she_told_truth_about_ddt