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Rachel Carson's AHA! Moment, Chapter 13 - all chapters at

13. On April 3, 1963, CBS Reports: “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” aired on national TV.

Rachel was very nervous. She felt as if her ill health would be on full display to millions of people and was therefore even more self-conscious than she might have been. The array of people going on with her was also a concern, though she kept telling herself what Paul and Marie had said, that it didn’t matter what Orville Freeman, Robert White-Stevens, or anyone else said, she would be okay if she stuck to her message and spoke in her regular voice, as if she was speaking to a friend in her house on Southport Island.

Aha! Rachel thought. Dorothy!

She would pretend she was speaking to Dorothy, as if they were once again going through the boxes in her living room, examining the incidents where chemical pesticides had been shown to be harmful. She hadn’t needed to go into excruciatingly detail for Dorothy, just describe in general what had happened and why she believed chemicals were at the source of the problems. Nothing more complicated than that would probably be enough for a TV show. Then, if she was challenged on her interpretation, she could bring out her many citations of on-site observers and experts in the field to validate her conclusions.

It sounded so easy, but she knew it would not be when the lights were shining brightly above her and the microphone was in her face.

She took a deep breath. She could do this.

When the day for the show arrived, it did not take long for White-Stevens, dressed in a white lab coat and looking dour, to throw down the gauntlet. He called Rachel Carson’s claims in Silent Spring “gross distortions” that were supported neither by science nor practitioners in the field. He maintained that without these chemicals, forests, croplands and our food supply would be devastated, leading to a “. . . return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”

Rachel wanted so desperately to laugh when he said this, but she knew she could not. However, she did reflect on the fact that this was the man who suggested that she was being overly dramatic and unprofessional.

But what he said really didn’t matter. She had to stay on the message she intended to convey, which was very much like the substance of her comments to the Women’s National Press Club. In fact, after she had deleted the introductory comments about the early reactions to Silent Spring, which had no place in this presentation, she used the same notes to convey the central themes of her book.

She described how water, the most precious of our natural resources, was being polluted by the chemical pesticides being applied to farmland, forests, and gardens. These chemicals did not remain in the area they were applied. They seeped into the soil and made their way to the streams and rivers we could see, but also into the underground network of streams and rivers that replenished our wells and aquifers. It was then drunk by wildlife, certainly, but also by us and our children, whose tolerance for these poisons might be much lower than for adults.

She explained that pesticides and insecticides were being spread through contaminated microorganisms that were eaten by water fleas, fish and birds, which in turn were eaten by other wildlife. Humans ate some of these animals, thereby taking the chemicals into our own system. When grasslands were sprayed, cows ate the contaminated grass, and humans ate the cows while children drank their milk.

She touched on the sensitivity of the soil, a living thing that sustained life on a basic level and emphasized that the long-term effects of spraying chemicals into this ecosystem had not been analyzed. The balance of nature was being undermined in ways we didn’t understand.

And that was the essence of Silent Spring. She stated clearly and unequivocally that she had never called for a total ban on chemical pesticides and insecticides. Instead, she believed that a thorough review and understanding of the cause-and-effect of using them was warranted due to the evidence of contamination and harm to the environment and potentially to human health through their unregulated use.

Rachel said, “This doesn’t mean we must never interfere, never tilt the balance of nature in our favor. But when we make the attempt, we must know what we’re doing. We must know the consequences.”

The debate went back and forth. White-Stevens and the U.S. Surgeon General stressed the usefulness of chemical pesticides, including to fight malaria. This was a demonstrable “good”. Then they addressed the absence of proof that DDT or any other pesticide had caused long-term harm to wildlife or caused any harm whatsoever to people. Therefore, there was no demonstrable “bad” to using these chemicals.

Secretary of Agriculture Freeman straddled the fence when addressing the federal government’s policy, suggesting that officials were keeping an open mind about whether or not chemical pesticides were a threat. The representative of the Fish and Wildlife Service disagreed with a passive approach and said he thought the effects on wildlife had been extensive enough to warrant studying the effects of these methods.

At the end, Eric Severeid summarized the debate by indicating that what the viewers had witnessed was a battle between differing views of nature. In her final statement, Rachel stated in a calm voice that the human race, is “. . . challenged to prove our maturity and our mastery not of nature, but of ourselves.”

Rachel was exhausted after her performance. Marie and Paul came to her dressing room and told her that she had done a fantastic job. She smiled and nodded, knowing they had to say that, but they insisted that her demeanor and straightforward way of speaking inspired confidence. She had probably surprised the people who had heard nothing but negative things about her. Rachel Carson was not the radical, hysterical fanatic she had been portrayed to be by some of her detractors. She was calm and reasonable, and her message rang true as a result.

Their assessment was bolstered by the sales figures of Silent Spring, which skyrocketed after the CBS Reports episode. The reviews in newspapers and periodicals were mostly supportive, and even many of the people who favored the opposing point-of-view going in admitted that Rachel Carson had made good points. The New York Times ran an editorial calling for a thorough investigation of synthetic pesticides such as DDT, heptachlor, aldrin, and dieldrin.

“Murderers’ row,” Rachel said conspiratorially to Marie, who gave her a sideways glance suggesting that labels like that were not consistent with the reputation of a balanced scientist who had no agenda or preconceived notions of her own.

“Just kidding,” Rachel added, raising her eyebrows and smiling.

Marie shook her head and went on to inform the author of the bump in her book sales and to discuss the reactions to the TV show. While it was encouraging to hear that so many people were open to the revelations in Silent Spring, it was disconcerting to hear how close-minded others could be. It seemed like a large percentage of representatives of agricultural interests and the chemical industry were adamantly opposed to any change in how chemical pesticides were used – or even to exploring the effects of using them.

To Rachel, it was sad that an issue of science was becoming a political football. She didn’t know much about football, but she knew that phrase and thought it applied to this situation.

Marie agreed. She did, however, provide fresh information on the government’s reaction to CBS Reports, indicating that the U.S. Department of the Interior was opening a lab to study pesticides, apparently reflecting President Kennedy renewed interest in the subject. “People who knew” had told them that the President definitely watched the program and continued to be engaged by this issue.

“As he should be,” Marie remarked. “The government is doing most of the spraying. Based on his performance on TV, it seems the Ag Secretary doesn’t want to rock the boat with the farmers. Or the chemical companies, for that matter.”

“Still, it’s interesting,” mused Rachel. “I mean, no one benefits more than the farmers from the land being well cared-for, and no one is hurt more when we contaminate it. And the chemical companies may make a whole lot of money from sales of pesticides and insecticides, but only if they’re safe. When their products start killing birds and giving people cancer, their sales are going in the toilet. They’d benefit as much as anyone if their products were used smartly.”

Marie gave a what-can-you-do shrug, then remembered something.

“By the way, the date of the Senate Committee on Government Operations hearing is set for June 4.”

Rachel nodded. June was just around the corner, but she couldn’t help but wonder how she would be feeling.

“And then San Francisco,” Marie added.

They had scheduled Rachel for a speech at the Kaiser Medical Center in October. She was looking forward to seeing San Francisco, never having been to the West Coast, but it did seem a very long time away.

“You’re coming with me for that one, right?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Marie replied enthusiastically.


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