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America's History in the Making

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Rachel Carson, Silent Spring [excerpt]

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
… The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man's inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.

To adjust to these chemicals would require time on the scale that is nature's; it would require not merely the years of a man's life but the life of generations. And even this, were it by some miracle possible, would be futile, for the new chemicals come from our laboratories in an endless stream; almost five hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone. The figure is staggering and its implications are not easily grasped--500 new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience.

Among them are many that are used in man's war against nature. Since the mid-1940s over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described in the modern vernacular as "pests"; and they are sold under several thousand different brand names.

These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes--nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the "good" and the "bad," to still the song of the birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in the soil--all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called "insecticides" but "biocides."

Wood, Peter, Jacqueline Jones, Thomas Borstelmann, Elaine Tyler May, and Vicki Ruiz. Silent Spring [excerpted] (2003) 857. Created Equal: A Social and Political History of the United States. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2003. Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc.

Creator Rachel Carson
Context In farming, the use of chemical pesticides yielded huge gains in productivity. By the 1950s, the spraying of chemical pesticides was commonplace.
Audience The general public and policy makers in the Kennedy Administration
Purpose Carson questioned the indiscriminate use of chemicals and their effects on the environment.

Historical Significance

Not all scientific advances signaled progress. Since 1945, Rachel Carson had questioned the governmental use of the pesticide DDT, which the government hailed as a scientific breakthrough in eradicating malaria and controlling mosquitoes. In 1962, Carson published Silent Spring, a critique of the chemical industry's use of pesticides. It climbed up the best-seller list and remained there for months, eventually selling more than 1.5 million copies. Based upon Carson's research, the federal government established a commission to investigate pesticides, and reversed its pesticide policy by banning the use of DDT by the end of the 1960s. The book spurred on the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

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