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With 'Silent Spring,' Rachel Carson started an argument that endures to this day

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William Souder
Author William Souder.
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By William Souder

William Souder is the author of "On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson," published this month, "A Plague of Frogs" (2000) and "Under a Wild Sky" (2004), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  He lives in Grant, Minn.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest, most disturbing books ever published: Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." By extension, that also makes the environmental movement — and the partisan rancor that surrounds it — a half-century old. So it's a good time to take stock of where we are. 

Let's begin with the woman who started it all. Rachel Carson was born in 1907 near Pittsburgh. Poor but a brilliant student, Carson earned a master's degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University.

But science was only one of Carson's passions. The other was writing. In 1951 she gained an international reputation with "The Sea Around Us," whose soaring prose and subtle exploration of marine science put it atop the bestseller list for an astonishing 39 weeks.

If all of this is news to you, you're not alone. Famous in her lifetime, Rachel Carson is today largely unknown, except by people old enough to remember her work — or young enough to have learned about her in an environmental studies class. But her legacy is enormous, and the controversy that greeted "Silent Spring" dominates public debate over the environment to this day.

The subject of "Silent Spring" was pesticides, notably DDT and a group of related insecticides that came into wide use after World War II. These chemical poisons were effective in controlling insects that damaged forests and food crops, and others that transmitted diseases such as typhus and malaria. DDT's inventor won a Nobel Prize for his discovery.

But the widespread use of synthetic pesticides had unintended consequences, as these compounds turned out to be toxic to many species of wildlife, especially birds and fish. The same pesticides also threatened human health in ways that we were slow to detect and that are uncertain even now. And because these chemicals persisted in the environment and were stored in the fat tissues of living things, they were magnified in food chains and ended up contaminating what Rachel Carson called "the total environment."

The idea that chemical contaminants might be harmful to ecosystems on a large scale was novel in 1962. But there was a precedent, something Carson saw as an exact parallel with pesticides and that the public was already alarmed over: nuclear fallout.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, a handful of nations — but mainly the United States and the Soviet Union — had pursued a fierce arms race that featured the routine, above-ground testing of nuclear weapons. In 1962, the peak year for testing, a nuclear device went off somewhere in the world every few days. Fallout from those explosions soared into the atmosphere and traveled the  globe on high-level winds before coming back to earth in a radioactive rain that contaminated the same total environment as had pesticides.

"Chemicals," Carson wrote in "Silent Spring," "are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world — the very nature of its life."

The chemicals industry — and its allies in government — fought back against "Silent Spring." Critics dismissed the book as hysterical and one-sided. Its author, meanwhile, was described as an agent of the far left, and probably a Communist. Carson's critics saw "Silent Spring" as inimical to U.S. economic interests and therefore fundamentally un-American.

Here, then, was the source of the bitter, right/left divide that has animated the environmental debate ever since. On one side are the voices of science and those concerned with the balance of nature; on the other side stand economic incentive and the powers that be — the massed might of the establishment.

Although the use of DDT and its toxic cousins  were banned in this country 40 years ago, they started an argument that we still haven't stopped.