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The Legacy of Rachel Carson



Rachel Carson was an American marine biologist, author, and conservationist, best known for her groundbreaking book "Silent Spring," published in 1962. She's credited with sparking the modern environmental movement by exposing the dangers of pesticides on wildlife and human health. Carson's work led to increased awareness of environmental issues and the eventual creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. She remains an influential figure in environmentalism and science writing.


Rachel died on April 14th, 1964. On the anniversary of her death and with Earth Day around the corner, I’d like to reflect on her legacy. But before I do, there’s some history we have to cover.


During World War II the government spent a significant amount of money on a variety of scientific endeavors to help the war effort. Many of the wartime developments would go on to have commercial success, including synthetic pesticides. After the war, synthetic pesticides contributed to the Green Revolution, which should not be mistaken for environmentalism. The Green Revolution was simply a period of time where the United States saw a dramatic increase in crop production, due to the use of pesticides, like Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT)



In the mid 19th century, people saw DDT as a super chemical, capable of producing higher crop yields, extirpating malaria, and reducing the effects of polio. While some of this may have been true (DDT didn’t cure polio, despite what ads like this one may suggest), DDT in our watersheds had cascading, detrimental effects on the environment. The bioaccumulation of the chemical in trout and other fish nearly eradicated some of our most notable anglers – birds like bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and the brown pelican. 


Think of the bioaccumulation of DDT like mercury in tuna. If we eat too much tuna, we’ll start to feel the effects of mercury poisoning. This same thing happened with birds and DDT. However, DDT doesn’t give them headaches and tremors, it alters the way a bird metabolizes calcium… which is bad because their eggs are made of calcium. As a result of (indirectly) eating too much DDT, bald eagles and brown pelicans started laying omelets in their nests, since they could no longer produce an egg shell thick enough to support their weight. 



Let’s get back to what this all has to do with Rachel Carson. In my opinion, Rachel prioritized community education in addition to scientific research. As stated prior, Rachel was a marine biologist. However, much of her time was spent writing informational material for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suitable for the public. 


In 1962, she released a book entitled “Silent Spring” that detailed the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides, like DDT. Throughout the book she imagines a day where birds are all dead and no one will hear their songs again. She also takes aim at the chemical industry and accuses them of spreading misinformation (like how DDT will cure malaria). Rachel pointed fingers at the Department of Agriculture, stating that the folks in charge of policy are doing very little to regulate the industry. Specifically an industry that would destroy the environment and  likely just produce pesticide-resistant bugs in the process. 


In 1963, CBS picked up her story and released a primetime special on the topic. Over 15 million people tuned in. To put that number into perspective, the series finale of Game of Thrones “only” premiered to 13.6 million viewers. In 1963 it wasn’t as easy to view a special like that, either. Families had to make the choice to sit in their living room together and watch an hour-long newscast on chemical pesticides. I think this goes to show just how concerned the general public was about this topic and, to an extent, how ignored the topic was until this moment. 



After the broadcast, Rachel ignited the start of the modern environmentalist movement. Silent Spring sparked widespread, public outcry. As a result, Rachel was invited to the White House to speak with President Kennedy and testified in front of congress. However, the chemical industry was powerful. They set out a smear campaign, calling Rachel a communist and a hysterical woman. While the general public agreed with her, it took congress 10 years to enact any sort of regulation and ban DDT. During this decade of congress hemming and hawing on the matter, the bald eagle population fell to only 400 breeding pairs. 


Luckily, bald eagles and other birds sprung back after massive conservation efforts on our part. But will we always be so lucky?


On the anniversary of Rachel’s death, I want folks to think about her legacy and the importance of good, environmental education. Because, even with it, our environment may not be as lucky as the bald eagles.


 

About the Author


Bradley is from a rural town in southern Nevada where they grew up herping with their family in the Mojave Desert. They attended UNR and studied Wildlife Ecology, then later pursued a degree in Secondary Science Education. Before joining our staff, Bradley served an AmeriCorps term as a Naturalist Educator. Outside of work, you can catch them out on the crag or birding at a local park. Oh, and if you ever have a question about toads or the best paddle-boarding spots in the Truckee Meadows, Bradley is your go-to pal!

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Convidado:
11 de mai.
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Theres just not a lot of bugs out there anymore and its so sad i remember as a kid our windshields were covered in dead bugs but not so much anymore but im glad the eagles are coming back ive seen a few around and they're just so majestic and american even though they sound like dog toys in real life im glad they're around more

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Widespread and EFFECTIVE communication to the public from the scientific community is so important! I wish more scientists knew how to communicate to the public in a way that's digestible... What's the use of innovative research if the general public doesn't understand why it's important? This is why our teachers and organizations like the parks foundation are so crucial to our community

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