September 4, 2012 1:38 pm
Silent Spring, which turns 50 this month, was not always seen as a beloved ecological game-changer. When it first came out, many conservative readers interpreted Rachel Carson’s book as a threat rather than a warning. Like current controversies surrounding climate change, Carson’s pet subject—environmental contamination—created polarized camps of denialists and supporters.
Slate recalls the impact of the book’s release:
In June 1962, three long excerpts were published by The New Yorker magazine. They alarmed the public, which deluged the Department of Agriculture and other agencies with demands for action, and outraged the chemical industry and its allies in government. In late August 1962, after he was asked about pesticides at a press conference, President Kennedy ordered his science adviser to form a commission to investigate the problems brought to light, the president said, by “Miss Carson’s book.”
When Carson’s book arrived on shelves a month later, pesticide companies launched a slandering campaign, reportedly at the cost of $250,000, to discredit Silent Spring and put Carson in her place.
The initial onslaught include a parody poking fun at the famous opening chapter, which describes “a town where no birds sang,” fact sheets about the benefits pesticides brought to crops and human health and a media campaign that led Time magazine, to call the book “hysterical” and “patently unsound. In the following weeks, months and years, according to Slate, she was also accused of being a communist, in league with “sinister parties” of the Soviet Union, whose goal was to undermine American agriculture and free enterprise, and of being responsible for the deaths of millions of Africans. The argument there is that, having pointed out the dangers of insecticides, Carson is complicit in the continuing existence of malaria. (Michael Crichton even wrote that “Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler” in one of his novels.)
Carson, who never actually said that all pesticides should be banned, fielded these accusations until her death in 1964, even after President Kennedy’s scientific commission affirmed Silent Spring’s warning. As she liked to point out, many people who have not read the book nonetheless “disapprove of it heartily.”
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