How Did Environmentalism Start?
Imagine you’ve just walked outside on a clear spring day. What do you hear? Are the bees buzzing? Are there birds singing? Maybe you can hear a distant game of kickball or your neighbors chatting next door. You might even hear less pleasant sounds, like the humming of mosquitoes.
Now, imagine the opposite. You walk outside on a clear spring day, and you hear… nothing. Isn’t that strange? Where are the bees? The birds? The mosquitoes? What’s going on? Why did spring go silent?
That’s the future Rachel Carson talked about in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. Does it sound like a dystopian novel? It’s not! Silent Spring is nonfiction. In it, Carson alerted the world to the dangers posed by pesticides.
Who was Rachel Carson? She was a marine biologist and writer. Many also say she started the modern environmentalist movement. She did inspire many people to take actions to protect nature. Today, Carson is lauded for bringing the world’s attention to the threat of pesticides.
Rachel Carson was interested in nature from a young age. She was born on May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania, and grew up on a farm. She spent much of her childhood exploring the forests and rivers near her home. She also showed early promise as a writer. Carson wrote her first published article when she was 10 years old.
Carson’s interest in writing and nature followed her for the rest of her life. In college, she majored in English before switching to biology. Later, she earned a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. This was a major accomplishment. That’s especially true because Johns Hopkins was still reluctant to admit women at that time.
After college, Carson worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. She was one of only two women employed by the bureau at the professional level. There, she used both her biology and writing skills. She later became the editor-in-chief of all publications from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Carson also published several successful books. She wrote Under the Sea-Wind in 1941 and The Sea Around Us in 1951. She went on to write The Edge of the Sea in 1956 and, finally, Silent Spring in 1962.
In Silent Spring, Carson explained how the irresponsible use of pesticides would come back to hurt humans. Specifically, she pointed to a poison called DDT. She traced the poisons from farms to insects, birds, fish, and finally to the dinner table. She explained how pesticides were causing declines in many animal populations. She said this could lead to the extinction of species important to human survival.
Carson faced a backlash from pesticide companies. They threatened her and called her a Communist. But public opinion was in her favor. President John F. Kennedy set up a committee to look into her findings. After its investigation, the committee agreed with Carson.
Did Rachel Carson call for a ban on all pesticides? No—rather, she urged responsible use. She did, however, argue against the poison DDT, which was finally banned in the U.S. in 1972.
Two years after she published Silent Spring, Rachel Carson passed away from breast cancer. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. Today, many consider her the founder of the modern environmentalist movement. Others say she was one voice of many that pushed the movement forward.
Are you interested in helping to protect nature? There are plenty of things you can do. From recycling at home and school to planting trees, every small step helps. Of course, as Rachel Carson taught us, responsible use of pesticides is very important as well. Talk with your family about ways you can help the environment.
Read more at Wonderpolis.org