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Fri June 1, 2012
Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring", woke the world up to the perils of chemicals that promised food crops free of disease and insects, and time outdoors free of mosquitoes. The book is credited with starting the modern environmental movement. It was the birdwatchers that first alerted the scientists about robins literally falling from the sky soon after DDT was sprayed, as well as longer-term declines in birds higher on the food chain. Rachel Carson cautioned that words like “insecticide,” "herbicide" and "fungicide" suggest that poisons can be targeted precisely at one type of pest. She proposed the word "biocide" instead, to make the point that poisons have a much broader reach and cumulative impacts. Her book stirred up a storm of criticism and personal attack—and became a best seller.
Rachel Carson combined the discipline of a biologist, sound in her science, with a writing style that inspired many. Her message prevailed. DDT was banned in this country; recovery of peregrine falcons and brown pelicans eventually followed. "Silent Spring" was written at the dawn of the chemical age and chemicals permeate our world far more today, for example, in pharmaceuticals, household cleaners and processed foods.
Anniversaries help us remember events and people who shaped history. This 50th anniversary year for "Silent Spring" has already seen tributes as well as sober assessments of where we are today. The book's title, "Silent Spring", referred to a future without birdsong. In the 50 years since the book was published, birdsong has diminished, so we need to keep paying attention.