Blog – Rachel Carson: The First Warrior

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Tessa Naughton-Rockwell, Public Outreach

Have you ever swatted, shrieked, or squirmed at the sight of a bee? We naturally feel threatened by insects, causing us instinctively to shoo away anything buzzing nearby. Even I, an advocator for the lives of bees, have been intimidated by the low hum of a passing bug. While lounging in a lawn chair on a summer evening the sudden, ‘buzzzzzzz,’ of bugs can be very startling. Despite sometimes being afraid of bugs, they help our environment. Have no fear, the bugs are here!

Bugs are working overtime behind the scenes to make sure that our world works. That bee that you waved away is really pollinating your garden. Even more importantly, bees provide pollination for one-third of all the agriculture in the world. Overall, bee pollination is worth 24 billion dollars in America. However, recently the bees have been disappearing due to many factors, including the use of the pesticide Neonicotinoid. Neonicotinoid and other pesticides are not properly regulated and have been linked to an increase of bee death. Consequently, the death of bees decreases the yield of crops. Next time you have the urge to harm a bee, think twice.

It is not new that the use of a chemical affected the environment. The war on chemicals was first initiated by Rachel Carson when she began advocating against the use of DDT.

Carson received a Master’s degree in Zoology at the John Hopkins University. Shortly after, she got a job at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries as a writer. At the time, she was the second woman to work at the department. After years of writing brochures and other publications for the Bureau, she worked her way up the ladder of the office and became a leader in her department. As her career progressed, Carson’s work ethic earned her promotions. Although Carson was completing the same amount of work of the equivalent or better quality, she never received the same pay as her male counterparts. One of her coworkers, Bob Hines, admitted that initially he opposed following a female leader but later learned to respect Carson as a boss because of her natural leadership qualities. For women of leadership in science, it was and still is common for men to disrespect the leadership of women.

While Carson was working at the Bureau of Fisheries she published three books including Under the Sea Wind, The Edge of the Sea, and The Sea Around Us. As the breadwinner of her family, she had to provide for her family; money was always a problem. Her first book was a failure. However, she did not let it discourage her. Carson’s later book The Sea Around Us was a big hit, and she later received the National Book Award.

After her success, Carson set her sites on DDT. During World War II DDT had been used to kill lice and disease-carrying insects. After World War II, DDT was permitted for agricultural use by the Department of Agriculture in the United States. From the time the announcement of the mass use of DDT first showed up at Carson’s desk, she was not supportive of this chemical. She pointed out that no formal study had been done on the pesticide before allowing distribution. DDT was not simply a chemical used on farms in the middle of nowhere. Back in the 1940’s, children playing outside could at any moment be inhaling the toxic chemical as it was frequently used to minimize those “pesky bugs”around the neighborhood.

Silent Springs was about the impact of DDT on the environment. Carson’s book explored the interactions of animals in ecosystems across America and how the distribution of DDT impacted the animals. An unexpected consequence of the use of pesticides was that the death of one organism could lead to the overpopulation of another. DDT did not effectively kill all animals. The DDT resistant organisms including the spider mite experienced exponential growth. The predators of the spider mite were not so lucky; therefore, Spider mites were able to grow without interruption. Humans create unexpected outcomes to the natural balance of an ecosystem. She conducted research that further proved her claims that the chemical weakened the shells of songbirds and killed both the bad and good insects. Carson’s efforts inspired the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and National Environmental Policy Act. Most importantly, DDT was later banned.

Carson’s research was not always embraced with welcoming arms. Chemical companies were directly threatened by the research used to protect animals. Although the protection of organisms would benefit all people, the eyes of chemical companies were clouded by green, not the greenery of plants but the intoxicating pull of money. Companies invested a quarter of a million dollars to smear the name of Rachel Carson. The companies made many attempts to keep the public from believing Carson. They called her a spinster, said she was hysterical, and imposed female stereotypes on her. For example, they spread the idea that because Carson was a women she was incapacitated by an irrational fear of bugs. By publishing insulting literature, companies tried to make a mockery of her hard work as a scientist.

Carson’s most noticeable impact was the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Her work on the environment birthed the environmentalist movement. Ever since December 2, 1970, the United States government has been working to restrict chemicals that impact humans, animals, and plants. DDT was later banned in 1972 as a result of Carson’s work. Unfortunately, Carson never lived to see her lasting impact. She died of breast cancer in 1964, shortly after writing her final and monumental book, Silent Springs. The legacy of Carson still lives on the wings of the revived birds. Carson successfully waged the first war on our seemingly perfect human ways as it pertained to the environment.

At the time of Carson’s death, things were looking hopeful as the public was beginning to recognize Carson’s pleas. Now, fifty-four years after Carson’s death, we are again challenged by society treating scientific facts about the state of our environment as subjective opinions. In the words of Rachel Carson, “man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” For the life of our future children and grandchildren, we cannot silence the spring.


Works Cited

Ignotofsky, Rachel. Women in science: 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2016. Print.

“National Women’s History Museum.” Education & Resources – National Women’s History Museum – NWHM. N.p., 05 Feb. 2010. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

“Silent Spring: a summary.” Silent Spring: a summary. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

SWABY, RACHEL. TRAILBLAZERS: 33 women in science who changed the world. S.l.: YEARLING , 2017. Print.

“The DDT Story.” Pesticide Action Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

13, 2015 August. “The Story of Silent Spring.” NRDC. N.p., 15 Dec. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

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