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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Note To Rachel Carson On The 50th Anniversary Of “Silent Spring”

What looks like it might be an original copy from 1962
Dear Ms. Carson,

On this, the 50th anniversary of the publication of your book, “Silent Spring” I’d like to tell you about the remarkable legacy of your book.  Many things have transpired over the last five decades that would give you considerable satisfaction. Unfortunately, I must also explain to you why many people today don’t understand how profound those changes have been.

Your Positive Legacy

The biggest change since 1962 has been in our societal appreciation of the need to carefully evaluate the environmental and health attributes of chemicals that we use for the control of agricultural pests or the vectors of human disease.  Whole new fields of science have developed to understand such risks (environmental toxicology, environmental science to name two).  Whole new regulatory bodies (Environmental Protection Agency, EPA) and processes (chemical registration) have been instituted to translate those risk assessments into sound policy.  DDT, which was central to your 1962 warning, is long-gone, as are scores of other, old pesticides that cannot meet high, modern, safety standards.  Billions of dollars have been invested in the discovery, testing, and introduction of new, low-risk pest control methods and practices. The net effect of all of this is that not only are our springs well-accompanied with bird songs, we also enjoy a safe, affordable and diverse food supply beyond anything one could have imagined in 1962.  I’m sure that when you took the risk of publishing your book, you hoped that it would initiate this sort of positive change, and that is certainly what has happened.

Your Legacy Obscured

Unfortunately, there are some today who seem to have a vested interest in convincing us that your legacy has not been this positive. Whether it is to sell certain products or to garner attention or contributions, these voices continue to promote a “sky is falling” narrative. When you wrote 'Silent Spring,' you employed highly emotive language, vivid mental images, and a good degree of hyperbole.  Such over-the-top prose was justifiable because you had to overcome the deep-seated complacency of your age. Today, many groups continue to employ that same literary style when talking about food and agriculture issues.  By doing so, and by engendering unnecessary fear among consumers, they effectively deny people the confident enjoyment of life and food that would otherwise have been another part of your legacy. I am confident that you hoped to initiate change, not to inaugurate a perennial state of alarm.

A Prime Example of Your Positive Legacy

Each year the USDA conducts an extensive sampling and testing program for the American food supply.  It essentially serves as a “report card” for agricultural pesticide safety, both in the US and in countries from which we import foods.  What the report clearly shows is that consumers have no need to be concerned about pesticide residues on their food.  The extremely low levels detected are virtually all well below even the conservative tolerances set by the EPA and mostly millions of times below toxic doses.  These results speak volumes about the positive impact of your book. 

A Prime Example of Your Positive Legacy Denied

There is an organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which takes that same set of data and quite effectively uses it to frighten consumers.  They do so by ignoring almost all the actual information in the USDA report.  They ignore that differences between chemicals as if we had learned nothing about what to look for in 50 years.  They ignore the actual levels detected as if we have forgotten the ancient Greek understanding that "the dose makes the poison."  Finally, they ignore the carefully set EPA tolerances as if over all these years, we have learned nothing about how to evaluate risk.  Unfortunately, their message is widely disseminated by a credulous press and believed by a great many consumers.

Real Environmentalism

Your book is widely credited as a major contribution to the development of the modern Environmental Movement.  That is, indeed, a very positive result of your influence. A strong segment of that environmental movement continues to make significant contributions to society.  That part of the movement acknowledges that there has been positive change that you helped to initiate and to which many entities have contributed over the years.  The segment of the Environmental Movement that effectively denies positive change does no service to your legacy.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at

'Silent Spring' book image from Sterling College