Thursday, April 23, 2020

Earth Day 2020: Reflections from Special Collections

Photo of the cover of Rauner Library's first edition of Silent Spring.
Cover of the first edition of Silent Spring
On April 22nd, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Since 1970, Earth Day has increased awareness of the incredible planet we live on and encouraged people to learn more about pollution, habitat destruction, the plight of endangered species, and many other environmental issues. What began as a demonstration spearheaded primarily by college-aged anti-war protesters amid the Vietnam War, has since grown into the largest secular observance in the world, marked by more than a billion participants every year as a day of action to change human behavior and provoke policy changes for the collective good of our planet. Since its inception in 1970, Earth Day has given a voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of the natural world, epitomized today in a new generation of environmental leaders, such as global climate activist Greta Thunberg or Jasilyn Charger of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, whose One Mind Youth Movement sparked national protests against the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline. In honor of this milestone, and in anticipation of an upcoming digital exhibit supported by Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections Library titled Vanishing: Making of an Extinction Crisis, today we are highlighting an unassuming, but incredibly important book that not only helped ignite the modern Environmental Movement, but holds timely lessons for how we should interact with the environment today.

The book in question - the first edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, was revolutionary in how it translated complex chemical and ecological relationships into easily comprehensible arguments, its popularity, and its appeal to the general public. Due to a combination of these factors, Carson’s investigation of the potentially adverse impacts of widespread synthetic pesticide use - in agriculture and by the U.S. government in pest eradication programs - led to widespread concern about environmental and human health impacts, environmental policy change, and the emergence of the modern Environmental Movement. Today, Silent Spring continues to provide a valuable lesson about how we should interact with our fragile planet: proceed cautiously and think long-term

Prior to the publication of Silent Spring in late 1957, Rachel Carson was a distinguished marine biologist, author of the widely acclaimed novel The Sea Around Us, and the second woman hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (later the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service). Through her friendships with fellow biologists, Carson closely followed a rising number of federal proposals for widespread pesticide spraying; including the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) plans to eradicate fire ants, gypsy moths, and other insects using chlorinated hydrocarbons and organophosphates. After nearly ten years of investigation and research, Carson published Silent Spring to raise environmental consciousness among the American public about what she saw as potentially dangerous synthetic pesticides, including the notorious substance known as DDT (Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane). In the course of 250 pages, Carson translated ten years of ecological and chemical research into a narrative detailing how America’s addiction to pesticides would severely harm human health, the environment, and future generations’ ability to control increasingly resistant insect pests.

Amid the turmoil of the 1960s, USDA officials, farmers, and chemical-producing companies applauded the efficacy and safety of synthetic pesticides at killing insect pests. At a time when air, water, and soil pollution were mere afterthoughts in the minds of many industry leaders, Carson’s Silent Spring made two bold assertions; first, that synthetic pesticides like DDT could be carcinogenic and thus harmful to humans, and second, that chemicals like DDT can have huge negative environmental impacts, accumulating in the food chain until they interfere with biological processes and ecosystem functioning. In chapter 3 - famously titled “Elixirs of Death” - Carson presented considerable evidence for the toxicity of a wide array of synthetic pesticides, noting that “for the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals... they occur virtually everywhere.” Although the chapter reads more like a gripping detective crime novel, Carson based her findings on research completed by National Cancer Institute researcher and environmental cancer section founding director Wilhelm Hueper, who had begun to classify many pesticides as carcinogenic - or cancer causing - for both animals and humans. With the help of her research assistant Jeanee David and NIH librarian Dorothy Algire, Carson found evidence to support the pesticide-cancer connection, much to the chagrin of chemical companies and many peers from the scientific community who reviewed Silent Spring. This finding was in sharp contrast to the general perception of chemicals like DDT at the time, which was sprayed readily across parks, beaches, and lawns to control mosquitoes, oftentimes while people were present. Later, in chapters titled “And No Birds Sing” and “Needless Havoc,” Carson reported that many synthetic pesticides readily accumulated in the environment, exponentially increasing in potency as animals lower in the food chain (i.e. fish) were consumed by animals higher in the food chain (i.e. eagles). Carson reported that this process - known as bioaccumulation - had significant negative impacts on many animals, most famously on birds. Carson discovered that birds ingesting DDT tended to lay thin-shelled eggs that would break prematurely, resulting in population declines of more than 80 percent. With continued use of synthetic pesticides like DDT, Carson predicted a grim future where birdsong would be largely absent - hence the title of her book.
Photograph of the opening chapter page from chapter seven titled "Needless Havoc". The illustration depicts a group of woodland animals to emphasize the chapter's focus on chemical accumulation in natural food webs.
Illustration from the opening page of chapter seven, highlighting the harmful impacts of chemical accumulation in food webs.
Given Silent Spring’s radical claims, the book caught the eye of agrochemical companies, industry leaders, and government officials; many of whom stood in favor of liberal synthetic pesticide use either due to their effectiveness at destroying insect pests or because they hoped to safeguard their own economic interests. As with most revolutionaries who have prompted society to question established institutions, industries, or ways of thinking, Carson received considerable criticism from the aforementioned groups following the release of her book. American biochemist Robert White-Stevens and former chemist Thomas Jukes were among Silent Spring’s most aggressive critics, especially of Carson's analysis of DDT. According to White-Stevens, "If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth." Others went further, even attacking Carson's scientific credentials, arguing that her training in marine biology rather than biochemistry left her inept to discuss synthetic pesticides. White-Stevens labeled her "a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature,” while former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, in a letter to former President Eisenhower, reportedly concluded that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was "probably a Communist.” Soon, even large agricultural and chemical companies joined in protest, trying to discredit the validity of Carson’s science while warning the public about the dangers of “questioning pesticides.” For example, agro-chemical giant Monsanto published 5,000 copies of a Silent Spring parody called "The Desolate Year" (1962) which projected a world of famine and disease caused by banning pesticides. Although critics repeatedly asserted that Carson was calling for the elimination of all pesticides, Silent Spring does not call for a complete ban of pesticides, but rather a cautious and careful approach to pest management and agricultural production; an approach considering all the environmental and human-health impacts of man’s actions prior to pursuing a “one size fits all” strategy. As evidenced by the slew of protests, Silent Spring was revolutionary in its critical examination of America’s love of pesticides.

Despite all the criticism, a growing body of scientific evidence has since supported Carson’s assertions. For example, in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified DDT as a “probable carcinogen to humans”, with exposure leading to higher rates of both pancreatic and skin cancer. In addition, according to the EPA, “a relationship between DDT exposure and reproductive effects in humans is suspected.” Meanwhile, the detrimental impact of DDT on wildlife has also become evident through rebounding populations of previously endangered aquatic and avian species that Carson believed were negatively impacted by DDT. According to recent estimates, a ban on DDT and other pesticide reductions have allowed for the comeback of the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, brown pelican, and many other species once facing extinction in the contiguous United States. As a New York Times science article published on March 11th, 1982, described:
Since the ban (on DDT), the brown pelican, one of the most threatened species, has increased to an estimated 5,000 pairs along the Atlantic Coast, up from a low of about 1,100 to 1,200 breeding pairs in the 1960's. Ospreys, or fish hawks, had fallen to about 100 breeding pairs from 1,000 on the coastline between New York and Boston. Biologists are now hopeful the species will return to higher levels by the end of the century.
As a growing body of evidence has since proven Carson’s premonitions, her call to proceed with caution in environmental matters, echoed throughout Silent Spring, becomes increasingly poignant. Carson encouraged Americans to question the logic of broadcasting potentially dangerous chemicals into the environment with little prior investigation of their environmental and health effects - but her powerful message, to question the indirect consequences of our actions on other organisms and future generations, extends well beyond pesticides. Were Carson alive today, she’d likely encourage us to approach practices in our everyday lives that we’ve accepted as “normal” - from industrial-scale cattle farming to ordering copious amounts of Amazon products - with a similar dose of caution and criticism. Silent Spring reminds us that only by proceeding cautiously and thinking about future generations, can we enact positive environmental change.
Opening illustration to Chapter 10 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, depicting an airplane spraying DDT over a suburb.
Opening illustration to Chapter 10 of Silent Spring.
Despite its “radical-ness” as one reviewer called it, the first edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is a rather unassuming book. Beautiful pencil illustrations resembling playful images in children’s books about woodland animals or planes accompany the opening to each chapter, whereas Carson’s prose reads more like a poetic nonfiction crime novel than a scientific call-to-action. Looking at these features, it’s hard to believe that Silent Spring lit the match that ignited that fire that helped fuel the modern Environmental Movement. Yet these features help explain why Silent Spring appealed to such a broad audience, and therefore elucidate how it left such an enormous impact on public opinion. Thanks to Carson’s blend of carefully crafted data and moral-based arguments, in addition to her approachable writing style, the book became an enormous success. Silent Spring was named America’s “Book of the Month” following its release, landed a spot on the New York Times bestseller list (not an easy feat for a scientific work authored by a woman to achieve at the time), and sold more than 520,000 copies in 24 countries.

In addition to Carson’s engaging and approachable writing style and the sheer number of copies sold, Silent Spring was especially impactful due to the composition of the audience it reached. Silent Spring was particularly well-received by middle-class readers in addition to scientists and political elites, many of whom weren’t from traditional scientific backgrounds. As Carson said following the nomination of her work as the book-of-the-month, she hoped to "carry (Silent Spring) to farms and hamlets all over that country that don't know what a bookstore looks like—much less The New Yorker." Indeed, the book achieved something rare at the time; for a narrative based on ecological, chemical, and oncological research, it was read ravenously by farmers, small business owners, and Americans from various educational backgrounds across the U.S.

By prompting readers to confront their reliance on chemicals and by presenting them with the reality that their everyday habits might have unexpected consequences for future generations, organisms aside from pests, and their own health, Carson in turn provided a launchpad for Americans to be more critical of how they interacted with the environment on a daily basis. Silent Spring bolstered growing frustrations that young Americans felt toward governments and industries amid the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and environmental catastrophes such as the massive 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and channeled those feelings toward a mechanism for change (i.e. environmental policy). In doing so, Carson inadvertently fanned the flames for environmental action to spread like wildfire in areas beyond synthetic pesticides. Today, the founders of Earth Day recognize the large role that Silent Spring played in the establishment of their own environmental movement. As notes, “the stage was set for change with the publication of Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962. The book represented a watershed moment as it raised public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and the inextricable links between pollution and public health.”

Chapter 3 "Elixirs of Death" opening page, with an illustration of a cluster of chemical bonds.
The paradigm shift in environmental thought started by the publication of Silent Spring had an enormous and measurable impact upon the environment and human health beginning in the 1960s. As readers began to concern themselves with the accumulation of potentially hazardous chemicals in the environment and in turn their own bodies, increasing pressure was placed on legislators, agrochemical companies, and landowners to enact change. The positive impacts of Silent Spring are perhaps best observed in the significant decline in the use of DDT-based pesticides in the United States following the book’s publication. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes in their Brief History and Status of DTT publication:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency with responsibility for regulating pesticides before the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, began regulatory actions in the 1960s to prohibit many of DDT's uses because of mounting evidence of the pesticide's declining benefits and environmental and toxicological effects. The publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring stimulated widespread public concern over the dangers of improper pesticide use and the need for better pesticide controls.
Indeed, Carson’s challenge - to not only consider the efficacy of pesticides in ridding of pests, but to critically examine the long-term and indirect impacts of chemicals before building agricultural systems reliant upon these substances -  led to the establishment of the EPA and a subsequent ban on DDT’s agricultural use across the United States in 1972. After President John F. Kennedy read her book, Carson was called to testify before his Science Advisory Committee, which was in turn summoned to critically investigate DDT and other synthetic pesticides’ potential negative impacts.
Rachel Carson testifying before the Senate Government Operations subcommittee studying pesticide spraying on June  4th, 1963.
Carson testifying before the Senate subcommittee.
The committee issued its final report largely backing Carson's scientific claims on May 15, 1963, leading to a landslide of pro-environmental legislation echoing Carson’s call for caution in matters of the environment. In the 30 years prior to being banned in 1972, a total of 1,350,000,000 pounds of DDT had been sprayed across agricultural lands in the United States. In the 30 years since 1972, this number was cut to essentially zero. And the most amazing part? Agricultural production did not collapse with stricter regulation of synthetic pesticides as companies that had heavily opposed Silent Spring’s publication originally predicted.

In conclusion, despite fierce opposition from chemical companies, Silent Spring inspired a generation to stand up for the health of the environment and helped ignite the modern Environmental Movement which continues today in the process. Following Silent Spring, those inspired by the text reversed federal pesticide policy, enacted a nationwide ban on DDT in agriculture, established the Environmental Protection Agency, and founded Earth Day. Silent Spring was revolutionary for condeming short-sighted tampering with the environment that was pervasive during the Cold War, challenging farmers, companies, consumers, and the U.S. government to consider the long-term side effects of their actions. Aside from Carson’s radical message, Silent Spring is a remarkable testament to the power of translating science in an engaging manner to diverse audiences, particularly those from non-scientific backgrounds. Without Silent Spring, and hence the ban on DDT and ensuing protections on many species, bald eagles and dozens of other bird species would have likely disappeared from the continental U.S., and humans would be facing higher rates of cancer and other adverse health effects.

Were Carson alive today (she passed in 1964), she’d be happy to learn about efforts that have been made to safeguard our waterways and species diversity, but she would also challenge us to go further. Today, Carson would reiterate Silent Spring’s timely lesson about how humans should interact with our fragile planet: we must proceed cautiously and think about long-term resilience. In an age where we’ve become increasingly aware of the myriad of ways in which chemical, biological, and sociocultural systems are interconnected, we must devote an adequate amount of time to science before committing ourselves to a single course of action, in order to understand the ramifications before it’s too late. In addition to proceeding with caution, we must be continually critical of established practices, in order to identify unintended consequences whose impacts couldn’t previously be measured. Just as Carson used animal trials and long-term observation to examine the true cost of our insatiable appetite for pesticides, we need to think of potential indirect effects and future impacts before committing ourselves to a singular course.

To read the first edition of Silent Spring for yourself, request "Depository SB959 .C3" the next time we're open!