Rachel Carson, the woman who stood up to agrochemicals and inaugurated contemporary environmentalism

Rachel Carson, the woman who stood up to agrochemicals and inaugurated contemporary environmentalism

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On May 27, 1907, the marine biologist Rachel Carson was born, who denounced the excessive use of pesticides. His work Silent Spring (1962) popularized ecological consciousness in the mass movement.

In 1962 the writer and marine biologist Rachel Carson publishedSilent spring, an investigation on the widespread use of pesticides, where he denounced that the poisons used accumulated in the food chain, with enormous risks to human health and terrible effects on flora and fauna: “Powders and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests and homes. Non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill all insects, "good guys" and "bad guys", soothe birdsong and fish jumping in streams, cover leaves with film mortal and then remain on the ground. All of this even though the desired target may be just a few herbs or insects, ”he wrote. Some authors had previously suggested that modern pesticides posed dangers, but none wrote as eloquently as Carson.

Of course, the response from the American chemical industry, which was at the center of postwar economic growth, was swift. Carson was the target of a fierce smear campaign. She was not only accused of being a communist or "nature fanatic", but also of "hysterical" and "spinster", alluding to her condition as a 55-year-old scientist with no children. They warned newspaper and magazine editors that favorable reviews could reduce advertising revenue. Monsanto posted a short story in response, noting that the lack of pesticide use resulted in an insect infestation ravaging the United States. Robert White-Stevens, of the American Cyanamid, even declared in a television program that “if man followed the teachings of Miss Carson, we would go back to the Dark Ages and insects, diseases and pests would inherit the Earth again. ”.

The book's publication was a success, spending seven months on the New York Times best seller list and sparking a federal investigation into pesticide misuse, with hearings in Congress and tightening of regulations on the matter. John Kennedy himself ordered his scientific advisers to carry out an investigation on the subject, the final report of which ended up agreeing with Carson. New control bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency would be created and eight of the twelve pesticides covered in his book would be banned.

Silent Spring not only focused on the dangers of chemical pesticides, it was also a masterful story about the natural world, becoming one of the first books on ecology to permeate popular culture. His relentless approach was deliberate. Carson was trying to do more than end an evil practice. According to her biographer Mark Hamilton Lytle, author of The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement, she had decided to write "a book questioning the paradigm of scientific progress that defined postwar American culture." Silent Spring was becoming the kickoff of the first contemporary environmental wave.

Between literature and biology

Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27, 1907 in the riverside town of Springdale, Pennsylvania, the youngest of three siblings. He received his education on a simple farm, inheriting from his mother a deep love for nature. According to Linda Lear, biographer and author of Rachel Carson: Witness of Nature, “her romance with the sea began one day when she found a large fossilized shell” while digging the slopes of the Allegheny River, a fact that filled her with curiosity about the creatures. who once ruled the area. Lear also pointed out that Springdale was trapped between two huge coal-fired power plants, which left the area a grimy wasteland from industrial pollution. According to her, Carson observed "that the captains of the industry did not pay attention to the pollution of their hometown and did not take responsibility for it." They were facts that would deeply mark his vision of the world.

Carson entered the Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburgh for a degree in literature, with the intention of becoming a writer. But because he had developed a deep interest in the natural world early on, in the third year he switched to a degree in Biology. After graduating in 1929, teaching at the University of Maryland, and receiving a master's degree in zoology from John Hopkins University in 1932, he went on to graduate from the Marine Biology Laboratory at Wood Hole, Masachusets.

However, due to the difficult family economic situation (his father and sister died, so he had to take care of his mother and nephews) intensified by the Great American Depression, Carson had to suspend his studies and start writing articles on natural history for the Baltimore Sun and the Atlantic Monthly, plus radio scripts for the United States Bureau of Fisheries (now Fish and Wildlife Service).

It was here that Carson, already a marine biologist, began a career as an editor and scientist. In 1936, at age 29, she had become the second woman hired by the Bureau for a full-time professional position, becoming editor-in-chief in 1949 after fifteen years of work.

The poetry of the sea

It was thanks to Undersea, a 1937 article in The Atlantic Monthly (which had originally emerged as a brochure for the Bureau of Fisheries), that Carson laid the foundation for his first book, Under the Sea Wind, published in 1941. According to Carson it was about of a series of sequential narratives about life on the coast, the open ocean and the seabed. The book was widely praised for having remarkably combined scientific thoroughness and precision with an elegant lyrical prose style.

It was not easy to break through as a woman and a scientist. In the late 1940s, in his quest to learn more about the sea, he tried to board the Albatross III, a research vessel from the Bureau of Fisheries in Woods Hole. However, her request was rejected as women were not allowed to enter the ships. He had to contact the director of the Washington Bureau of Fisheries for a permit for a 10-day cruise in the rough waters of George’s Bank, off the coast of Maine.

This trip allowed Carson to write what would become his second book, The Sea Around Us (1951), initially serialized in the prestigious magazine The New Yorker. The book would spend 86 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (39 of them at number one), winning the National Book Award, the New York Zoological Society Gold Medal, the John Burroughs Medal, the Gold Medal from the Philadelphia Geographical Society and being translated into more than thirty languages. Additionally, a film version of The Sea Around Us won the 1953 Oscar for Best Documentary.

Carson had proven herself to be a highly talented writer, capable of taking dry scientific material and turning it into interesting reading, suitable for the general public. Upon receiving the National Book Award, he said: "If there is poetry about the sea in my book, it is not because I expressed it deliberately, but because no one could write honestly about the sea and leave poetry aside. In 1955 he would complete his trilogy on the marine theme with The Edge of the Sea, which would also initially be published in The New Yorker and would become a bestseller.

Carson left his post at the Bureau of Fisheries in 1952 and returned to Woods Hole to devote himself fully to his research. However, his family situation had received a new setback. Due to the death of his adoptive niece, Carson had to adopt his five-year-old son, Roger Christie, in addition to continuing to care for his elderly mother. This is how they moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, to raise Roger and explore the rocky coast of Maine together. These outings were featured in a 1956 Woman’s Home Companion magazine article titled “Help Your Child Wonder”, later expanded and published as a book under the name The Sense of Wonder.

But by the late 1950s, Rachel Carson was already drawn to a topic that unwittingly emerged persistently from her research. She and other scientists began to worry about what they were learning about the new synthetic chemicals and the effects after they were released into the environment.

"Man against Earth"

Thanks to his marine studies at the Office of Fisheries, he began to collect various data on the effects on marine life of Dichlor diphenyl trichloroethane, better known as DDT, and other pesticides. Because abnormalities often appear first in fish and wildlife, biologists were the first to see the harmful effects of chemicals on the environment. Carson had also learned about various predator and pest control programs that were freely spreading pesticides in the environment with little regard for consequences beyond the plague. In one of his first forays into the subject, he proposed an article to Reader’s Digest on evidence of DDT environmental damage, but the magazine rejected it.

In January 1958 Carson received from her friend Olga Huckins of Masachusets a copy of a letter she had sent to the Boston Herald denouncing how DDT spraying caused the death of all the birds in her natural sanctuary. The spraying had been done just a month ago to kill mosquitoes, and Huckins hoped Carson could help her stop the spraying. After discussing the issue with his editors at The New Yorker magazine and educational publisher Houghton Mifflin, Carson agreed to start writing what could be a magazine or possibly something appropriate for a book chapter on the same topic.

Carson was not the only scientist concerned about the effects of pesticides on the environment. Seventeen years earlier, in the prestigious journal Nature, the former president of the Entomological Society of New York, Edwin Teale, had denounced that “an aerosol as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets the social economy. Ninety percent of all insects are good, and if they die, things immediately vanish. " Three years after the Nature article, the American Medical Association warned that the chronic toxicity of most new pesticides, including DDT, in humans was a "completely unexplored" issue. However, these warnings rarely emerged outside of scientific circles.

But in 1957 some farmers in Long Island, New York, filed a lawsuit to stop the spraying of DDT in their area. The lawsuit was successful, but the case reached the Supreme Court, whose members, except for one judge, refused to hear it. Carson followed the case procedures and benefited from unexpected access to scientific documents and contacts. At the same time, she was kept informed about the Fire Ant Eradication Program of the Department of Agriculture that had begun that same year and that used two powerful insecticides, dieldrin and heptachlor. It was a fumigation campaign that wildlife experts would later label as a failure, as Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson noted.

In 1959 Carson wrote in the Washington Post denouncing that the excessive use of pesticides had caused a recent decline in the bird population. But the national scandal would erupt when at the end of that year it is discovered that blueberries contained high levels of the pesticide aminotriazole. Carson attended subsequent Food and Drug Administration hearings, leaving dismayed by the testimony and tactics used by the chemical industry, which contradicted the scientific data found by it.

"The more I learned about pesticide use, the more it horrified me," he later wrote. “I realized that here was the material for a book. What I discovered was that everything that meant the most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important. "

The noisy summer of Silent Spring

Carson was the right person at the right time in the right place. She knew how to tell that story using the scientific information she accessed and compiled, and she carefully selected her work, as both she and her publisher expected the book to be closely scrutinized by scientists and critics.

By March 1960 his book was largely finished, but Carson would be the victim of a new setback in his personal life. A breast tumor that she had been treated for a few years ago actually turned out to be malignant. Carson was plagued with diseases like arthritis, ulcers, staph infections, and an ongoing battle with cancer, but she knew it was vital to finish the book.

At first, Carson wanted to title his work as The Control of the Nature and later Man Against the Earth. However, on the recommendation of his editor at Houghton Mifflin, Paul Brooks, he finally settled on Silent Spring, the name originally proposed for the chapter devoted to bird population decline.

It consisted of 260 pages of reports with engaging stories, some from ordinary people dealing with chemical problems in their communities, to which Carson would add scientific information or a more detailed explanation. It had a lot of documentation, with more than 50 pages of scientific citations mostly to support its reporting, illustrating broader concepts such as the workings of food chains and ecological systems.

Before Silent Spring was published as a book in September 1962, The New Yorker reproduced parts of the work in three successive June issues. Immediately his complaint became a noise that blew out the windows of the chemical industry, which had been following Carson's footsteps with great concern.

On July 22, the New York Times published as its main cover story an article by John B. Lee pointing out how the agrochemical industry “takes up arms against a new book”: “The Pesticide Industry, Worth $ 300,000,000, has been highly irritated by a silent woman, an author whose previous work in science has been praised for the beauty and precision of writing.

In the same newspaper they quoted Pincus Rothberg, president of Montrose Chemical Corporation, a subsidiary of Stauffer Chemical Company and later the largest producer of DDT in the United States, who declared that Carson did not write “as a scientist but as a fanatic defender of the cult of balance of the nature". For its part, Chemical Week, one of the chemical industry's trade magazines, published on July 14 that Carson's articles seemed more "reminiscent of a lawyer preparing a report than a scientist conducting research."

On August 2, Louis A. McLean, Secretary and General Counsel of Velsicol Chemical Corporation, wrote to the editor of Houghton Mifflin suggesting that they might want to reconsider publishing the book, noting in particular the book's "inaccurate and disparaging statements" about two pesticides. : Chlordane and Heptachlor, made only by Velsicol. The publisher asked an independent toxicologist to review the points raised by Velsicol. The specialist considered Carson's statements correct and the company was notified that the book would be published as planned.

At a September 12 meeting of scientists and chemical industry officials, Glen King, head of the Nutrition Foundation, a trade group then comprised of 54 companies involved in food, chemical and agriculture-related industries, declared that the books "one-sided "As Silent Spring they were fanning a feeling in the public" that borders on hysteria.

By the time Silent Spring was published in late September, it had advanced sales of 40,000 copies, and more than 50 newspaper articles and editorials thanks to prior publication in The New Yorker. It immediately became a best seller and was selected by the Book of the Month Club, which meant that it would be republished, spreading widely its projection, even reaching rural areas. This new version of the book would include a report by William O. Douglas, the only member of the Supreme Court who had agreed to take the Long Island farmers' case.

Excerpts from the book were also published in various newspapers and magazines, including that of the National Audubon Society, one of the oldest conservation organizations in the United States. The Chicago Daily News declared that “Silent Spring may well be one of the great and imposing books of our time. A must-read for every responsible citizen ”. But the book would continue to be attacked. The chemical industry had been planning its fight against Carson since before the series appeared in The New Yorker, because news of the book had leaked from the beginning.

After publication the critical reviews appeared in the major popular magazines of the time. Time lamented the "oversimplifications and blunt mistakes": "Many of the terrifying generalizations (and there are many of them) are clearly wrong." Edwin Diamond in the Saturday Evening Post called the book "emotional and alarmist," for which "Americans mistakenly believe that their world is being poisoned."

Vanderblit University School of Medicine nutritionist William J. Darby wrote an article in Chemical & Engineering News entitled "Silence, Miss Carson," in which he noted that "your ignorance or prejudice about some of the considerations casts doubt on its competence to judge policy ”, recommending that“ the responsible scientist should read this book to understand the ignorance of those who write on the subject and the educational task that lies ahead ”. For its part, Life noted about Carson that "there is no doubt that he has exaggerated his case" but also that the manufacturers were equally one-sided in the opposite direction.

As part of the chemical industry's campaign, the National Association of Agricultural Chemicals doubled its budget and distributed thousands of copies of negative reviews warning newspaper and magazine publishers that favorable book reviews could reduce advertising revenue. He went on to spend more than $ 250,000 on his campaign against Silent Spring. Meanwhile, the Association of Manufacturing Chemists began sending monthly stories to the media highlighting the positive side of pesticide use. Monsanto Chemical even published, in response to the book, a short story titled "The Desolate Year," in which the lack of pesticide use resulted in an insect infestation that devastates the United States.

George C. Decker, entomologist and frequent advisor to the chemical industry, called the book a "hoax" and "science fiction", comparing it to The Twilight Zone. Other attacks were more personal, questioning her character or mental stability, or calling her a communist, hysterical woman, or nature mad.

Carson was always firm and confident in her findings. It also had a series of positive reviews from nationally and internationally recognized scientists. Loren Eiseley, a renowned University of Pennsylvania anthropologist and science writer, noted that Carson's book is about “the devastating, well-documented and relentless attack on human carelessness, greed, and irresponsibility, an irresponsibility that has left man and woman behind. to the field an avalanche of dangerous chemical substances in a situation that has no parallel in medical history ”.

For his part, LaMont Cole, professor of ecology at Cornell University, wrote in the popular journal Scientific American about Silent Spring that “errors in fact are so infrequent, trivial, and irrelevant to the main topic that it would not be advisable to insist on they". Other scientists who defended Carson included biologist Roland C. Clement of the National Audubon Society, and zoologist Robert L. Rudd of the University of California, among others.

Meanwhile, Silent Spring was becoming a bestseller. In less than three months, more than 100,000 copies had been sold and it continued to appear on the New York Times best-seller list, where it would remain for seven months. On the other hand, more than 40 bills aimed at regulating the use of pesticides had been introduced in state legislatures. But the political struggle in Washington was just beginning. In 1963, Carson and Silent Spring would receive never-before-seen national attention.

The report on CBS

In April 1963, the CBS television network aired a special report dedicated to the case entitled "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson." The chemical industry was alarmed and launched a campaign directed at CBS not to broadcast the program. As the campaign was unsuccessful, several sponsors, including Standard Brands, the makers of Lysol and Ralston Purina, withdrew their advertising prior to the broadcast.

The show was watched by between ten and fifteen million viewers, and it was especially important to those who had not read the book or had little knowledge of the subject. It included images of airplanes spraying while children walked the streets and various government officials appeared declaring for and against Carson's proposals.

But the main focal points of the report were in charge of Carson herself and Robert White-Stevens, a scientist at the American Cyanamid Corporation. White-Stevens, interviewed in a laboratory, stated that "the main claims in Miss Rachel Carson's book are gross distortions of reality, completely unsupported by experimental scientific evidence and general practical experience in the field." And he virulently added that "if man faithfully followed the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and insects and disease would inherit the Earth again."

Carson, for his part, appeared as the most rational and not as the "hysterical woman" portrayed by some of his critics. Interviewed at her home by journalist and presenter Eric Sevaried, Carson read selected passages from her book to illustrate how widespread pesticide use was on farms, forests, and home gardens even though the desired target may be just a few weeds or insects. "Children born today are exposed to these chemicals from birth, perhaps even before birth," he said during the interview. “What will happen to them in adult life as a result of that exposure? We just don't know. "

Sevareid had previously offered some basics on the subject, on the growth of the agrochemical industry during the postwar period and that about 900 million pounds of pesticides were used annually. “Ms. Carson highlights the possibility that chemical pesticides may be harming humans in ways that have not yet been detected, perhaps contributing to cancer, leukemia or genetic damage. In the absence of evidence, her critics admit that these are possibilities, but not probabilities, and accuse Miss Carson of scaremongering. However, few scientists deny that there may be any risk ”.

In fact, one of the interviewed officials, Page Nicholson of the Public Health Service, was unable to respond when asked how long pesticides persisted in water, or to what extent pesticides contaminated groundwater. "It is the public who are being asked to take the risks," Carson said at one point. "The public must decide whether they want to continue on the current path, and they can only do so when they are in full possession of the facts."

The report of the Presidential Scientific Advisory Committee

Pressured by developments and the scale of the controversy, President John F. Kennedy ordered an investigation by the Presidential Scientific Advisory Committee (PSAC). After eight months of disputes between the main scientists and government regulators, who held a series of meetings with Carson, representatives of the industry and officials of the Department of Agriculture, the committee published in mid-May 1963 its final report “The use of Pesticides".

The report noted that while pesticides had been thoroughly screened for their agricultural effectiveness, they were not generally given the same level of review for environmental and public safety, and that many of them in use were lacking sufficient knowledge regarding chronic effects throughout life.

"Until the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of pesticide toxicity," the report stated, recommending that pesticide residues be tracked and monitored in air, water, soil, fish, wildlife, and human beings. "Eliminating the use of persistent toxic pesticides should be the goal," he stressed.

The day after the report was released, The Christian Science Monitor featured “Rachel Carson has been vindicated!” On its cover, while commentator Eric Sevareid, referring to the report, noted that Carson had achieved his stated goals. Dan Greenberg, editor of the News and Comments section of the prestigious journal Science (of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), stated that the PSAC report was a tempered document, carefully balanced in its risk versus benefit assessments, but that "adds to a fairly complete vindication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring thesis."

The prelude to the Environmental Protection Agency

By June 1963, Carson was testifying before two Senate committees holding hearings on pesticide issues. In his appearances Carson called for the establishment of some independent regulatory agency to protect people and the environment from chemical hazards, and stated that one of the most basic human rights was the "right of the citizen to be safe in his own home against intrusion of poisons applied by other people ”. He called for strict control of aerial pesticide spraying, the reduction and eventual elimination of the use of persistent pesticides, and more research devoted to non-chemical pest control methods.

“The most disturbing of all these reports concerns the discovery of DDT in fish oil that lives far out at sea,” Carson declared at the hearings, “in concentrations exceeding 300 parts per million. All this gives us reasons to reflect deeply and seriously on the means by which these residues reach the places where we are discovering them ”.

During the hearings, Carson was attacked again. Mitchell R. Zavon, Professor of Industrial Medicine at the University of Cincinnati and consultant to Shell Oil Company, stated that “Miss Carson is talking about a health effect that will take years to respond. In the meantime, we should cut out food for people around the world. These scared street vendors are going to feed on the world's famine ”. But Carson handled herself with such a degree of professionalism, presenting her arguments carefully and rationally, that it again proved that the earlier accusations of being a "hysterical" and "emotional" woman had no real basis.

Carson was winning his battle against the captains of the chemical industry. Everything was on the way to ending the social crimes of the chemical corporations. However, Rachel Carson already lacked the strength for her fight against cancer. His appearance at the hearings was one of the last he would make publicly. On April 14, 1964, ten months after testifying before Congress, Rachel Carson passed away at the age of 56.

The woman who laid the foundations of contemporary environmentalism

In 1962 there was no ecologist or environmental movement in the sense as it was later understood. There were conservation organizations, some very old, whose purpose was the preservation of natural parks and wildlife, or the management of natural resources in accordance with industrial growth. Pero crear una preocupación popular por una ética ambiental y una defensa más amplia era algo completamente novedoso. Y Rachel Carson fue una figura central que ayudó a sentar las bases de una conciencia ecológica de masas gracias a Silent Spring, dejando en claro la conexión entre lo que sucede en el medioambiente y la salud pública, especialmente si se trataba de un nuevo tipo de contaminación, invisible, que podía infiltrar la biología a nivel celular y molecular, acarreando daños acumulativos y generacionales a las aves, los peces y los seres humanos.

Silent Spring fue el puntapié inicial de la primera ola ecologista contemporánea. No tardarían en llegar La bomba P del entomólogo Paul Ehrlich, el Círculo que se cierra, del biólogo Barry Commoner y Los Límites del Crecimiento de Dennis y Donella Meadows. La problemática ecológica y ambiental llenaría las aulas y las calles, celebrándose por primera vez en 1970 el Día de la Tierra, con movilizaciones y festivales de rock. Ese mismo año se creaba en Estados Unidos la Agencia de Protección Ambiental (EPA), la que a su vez prohibía para 1972 el DDT, además de otros siete plaguicidas mencionados por Carson en su libro.

Han pasado 54 años desde la publicación de Silent Spring, y ante el empeoramiento de las condiciones ambientales y sanitarias a nivel mundial, las nuevas tecnologías destructivas y el agotamiento de recursos, vale la pena recordar y valorar el trabajo pionero de Rachel Carson: “Todavía hablamos en términos de conquista. Todavía no hemos madurado lo suficiente como para pensar que somos solo una pequeña parte de un vasto e increíble universo”, había dicho Carson durante la entrevista de la CBS. “La actitud del hombre hacia la naturaleza es hoy de importancia crítica simplemente porque ahora hemos adquirido un poder fatídico para alterar y destruir la naturaleza”. Carson ayudó a cambiar nuestra manera de ver el mundo y nuestro lugar en él

Por Roberto Andrés Periodista | Editor de la sección Ecología y medioambiente | [email protected]

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