T oday marks Rachel Carson’s 100th birthday.
She has been dead for more than 40 years, but the environmental movement she gave life to with her seminal book “Silent Spring” has evolved from the grass-roots movement to a politically expedient force embraced by mainstream Americans.
More than a movement, though, Carson inspired real change.
In my own backyard in Northeast Portland, I wonder how my narrow slice of the ecosystem would be different if not for Carson. Here, as late afternoon sunlight threads the tall grass and spring flowers, bugs dive and weave, bird songs pierce the din of a distant lawnmower. Without Carson, the world in my own backyard would look and sound far different.
Carson, concerned about indiscriminate use of the pesticide DDT, worried about a silent world. In the first chapter of “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, she imagined an entire community destroyed by “a white granular powder.” Her best-selling book challenged the mid-century assumption that pesticide use was for the greater good. A shy biologist, unmarried and in her mid-50s, Carson created a public outcry with her thorough research and lyrical prose.
Change happened fast. President Kennedy appointed a science advisory committee to examine the book’s conclusions. Congress debated legislation to require pesticide labels on how to avoid damage to fish and wildlife. In less than a decade, we celebrated the first Earth Day, Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed the National Environmental Policy Act as well as a host of the nation’s bulwark environmental laws.
Here in Oregon, where the economy has forever been intertwined with the health of natural resources, the environmental movement quickly flared. We passed the nation’s first bottle bill in 1971. Looking south to California’s suburban sprawl, former Gov. Tom McCall created landmark land-use planning laws. The fight about the spotted owl and logging in the late 1980s and early ’90s made Oregon a flash point for a national tension that pitted urban environmentalists against the rural working class.
Clearly, debate about environmental issues isn’t done: We’re still grappling with land development and Measure 37, and how to protect endangered species without hurting local economies. There are fringe eco-saboteurs, some convicted just this past week in Eugene, who committed arson to raise public awareness about threats to animals and the environment.
Yet on a larger scale, caring about the environment has become the accepted norm.
Wal-Mart stocks organic produce and uses compact fluorescent lights. Energy companies accept the science about global warming and hawk green energies. Last month at least four glossy magazines, including Vanity Fair, Fortune and Elle, had “Green Issues.” Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” about global warming is the third-highest-grossing documentary film ever in the United States. The City of Portland’s Water Bureau trucks run on biodiesel. Recycling bins are as ubiquitous as rain puddles. Hunters, farmers, corporations, schoolkids and simplicity advocates all say they care about nature.
That’s a good thing because critical environmental concerns remain. When “Silent Spring” was published, Carson reported that 200 basic chemicals were created for use in killing pests, insects and weeds, sold under thousands of brand names. Today, in Oregon alone, there are 10,480 registered pesticide products with more than 500 pesticide ingredients. When we use these pesticides on our agricultural land and urban lawns and golf courses, rain and runoff carries them into our rivers. Twenty-seven pesticides have been detected in the Clackamas River Basin, and 36 pesticides appear in the Willamette River Basin, a recent U.S. Geological Survey reports. However, the USGS only tested for the presence of 86 pesticides, meaning that far more could exist in the rivers. Furthermore, the EPA hasn’t established maximum contaminant standards for the vast majority of chemicals to protect fish and other aquatic life or humans who drink the water.
This failure to know all the effects of chemicals on our environment before their application is exactly what troubled Carson nearly a half-century ago. Her birthday should inspire us to question the status quo. We can begin with issues right here in our Oregon backyards. It was, of course, such a close-to-home concern that motivated Carson.
While Carson was visiting two friends, Stuart and Olga Huckins, at their two-acre private bird sanctuary in coastal Massachusetts, a plane spraying DDT to control mosquitoes flew overhead. The next morning she and her friends paddled through the estuary and saw dead and dying fish everywhere. Crayfish and crabs staggered, their nervous systems destroyed. This captured Carson’s curiosity and sparked more than four years of research, which resulted in “Silent Spring.”
Only two years after her book’s publication, Carson died of breast cancer at age 56. But her voice continues to inspire. To date, “Silent Spring” has sold more than 250,000 copies in at least 59 countries. Her birthday reminds us of what one individual can accomplish, if she only pays close attention to places she cares about and asks critical questions with a calm clear voice.
Rebecca Clarren writes about the environment for national magazines from her home in Northeast Portland. Her work is frequently supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.