Rachel Carson's AHA! Moment, Chapter 4 - all chapters at bryantwieneke.com/blog
4. Rachel had done several articles for the FWS on harmful pesticides like DDT, but it had not become a real focus. Her focus had always been the story of the sea and the plant and animal life along the coastline that was largely unaffected by humans.
But it was becoming increasing apparent that the story line was changing. There were frightening stories in scientific publications showing how natural cycles of life were being disrupted by humans and their use of chemicals. The preeminent one was DDT, which was getting a lot of attention.
As was her wont, Rachel began to research this phenomenon. It was shocking to her that there was so much evidence that DDT and other pesticides were dangerous, and yet use of them was skyrocketing in the United States. They were considered some type of wonder drug by farmers, whose crops were threatened by voracious insects. The recommended solution was often to apply large amounts of toxic substances to rid an area of naturally occurring insects or plants.
As a scientist, what Rachel could not understand was how these chemicals were being sold to anyone and used anywhere with impunity, when no one had studied what effects they might have – not on the bugs or the weeds, because there was no doubt they were being eradicated – but on the surrounding ecosystem. When crops were sprayed, the chemicals stayed in the ground until they were washed away, but they did not deteriorate. They were still potent, capable of killing not only the insects they had been sprayed to kill, but many others that came into contact with the chemical residue.
And not just insects. Small animals were dying in droves, as were birds. Fish in streams where the groundwater emptied were dying. Trees and plants that were fed by these streams were also found to contain DDT, or the other chemicals being used.
And what happened to the people who ate these contaminated plants or drank from these contaminated streams, river and reservoirs where they emptied?
No one knew. The chemicals killed the pests that killed their crops, and that seemed to be enough for the farmers and food producers and grocery stores of the nation. And it was, in fact, a wonderful thing. Crops were saved, and the American public could be confident that there would be no food shortage due to pests, as there had been many times before and almost surely would be again without these chemicals.
But at what cost?
That was the question that began to haunt Rachel Carson: at what cost were we protecting farmland, as well as orchards and rose gardens and front lawns?
Rachel considered herself an ecologist, and she was concerned about the entire ecosystem because each part was dependent upon the other. The system held together in a delicate balance that had existed for generations, centuries, millennia. Yes, it had adapted to changes in climate or types of flora and fauna being introduced into the system, and balance had eventually been restored. But now, thanks to these foreign and highly toxic substances, that balance was being upended in a way that was dangerous to the ecosystem, and ultimately, to the same human beings who were spraying the chemicals.
And everyone else in the country.
The more Rachel read about DDT and other pesticides, the more convinced she became that they were threats to the health of the ecosystem, wildlife, and humans. It seemed only reasonable to conduct extensive research into these chemicals before they were thrown willy-nilly onto crops throughout the nation. And people needed to know what this stuff would do to if enough of it built up in their systems.
Of course, the fact that these chemicals could or would build up in people’s systems was considered ridiculous by those enjoying this euphoric wave of victory over the insects. They would say they were spraying fields, not people. They would say they were killing rapacious insects that were eating food grown for humans, food that we needed to survive. At the height of humans’ victory over these destructive and nettlesome pests, few users of the chemicals, which included an array of governmental agencies, wanted to look a gift horse in the mouth.
It seemed to Rachel that the U.S., and by extension the whole world, could be going down a rabbit hole with this attitude. We needed food, and therefore we needed to protect farmland, but there was evidence these chemicals, especially DDT, were destroying our farmland, not saving it, and affecting unintended targets like harmless insects, plants and animals. Then, given their staying power, these chemicals had the potential to go far beyond the sprayed area and poison above- and below-ground water sources.
Where did it stop?
Rachel realized that it stopped at everyone’s dinner table. In the foods Americans ate and the water Americans drank.
In 1958, Rachel had three phone conversations that led her to make a commitment to the cause – not of eliminating chemical pesticides, but of obtaining the scientific evidence that would allow the U.S. government to make informed decisions about their use. She was not a crusader, but she was in a unique position, as a well-known writer and scientist, to offer an opinion that people might listen to, including policy-makers who were basking in the glow of an effective means to control insects that had plagued farmers for decades, even centuries.
Her idea was to write a book that chronicled incidents where pesticides were used and their effects were measured, both immediately after their application and down the road, where the ecology of an area might have suffered consequences. It was research that she knew how to do, though in this case it would be challenging to find data that showed any effects from spraying, except the elimination of the pests.
But concerned scientists and the news media had already started to do some of this research, and watchdog groups had sprung up with the goal of proving the dangers of the pesticides. It was not a surprise when the chemical companies denied there was any link between these negative events and their product, but that’s why it was so important to get a scientist without an agenda to sift through all the information and convey the results of this research and analysis to the public.
That was not to say Rachel did not have any preconceived notions about pesticides. She would not be pursuing this avenue if she didn’t suspect something was amiss. But she would follow the data and present it without prejudice. In fact, she desperately hoped she would discover that the pesticides were perfectly harmless and had no side effects whatsoever.
To be honest, she doubted it. She had already seen too much anecdotal evidence to think there was nothing to the charges that these chemicals did damage to plants and wildlife, and possibly people. But as a scientist and a person, she hoped there was a balance to be achieved, a way to use the chemicals responsibly that allowed farmers to reap the benefits of suppressing destructive pests without contaminating the environment. Maybe it was just a matter of degree, that there was a safe amount of pesticides that could be used without affecting anything but the bugs they were designed to kill.
Rachel hoped so.
Before beginning the project, she made three important calls in April 1958. One was to with Paul Brooks, editor in chief at Houghton Mifflin, who had published The Edge of the Sea. They had already communicated on the subject, and she was now communicating not only her intention to work on a book about pesticides and their effect on the environment, but how she planned to do it.
Brooks enthusiastically supported the project.
Rachel also called the science editor at Newsweek, Edwin Diamond, who would serve as a collaborator on the project. He was on board.
The final call was to William Shawn, editor in chief at the New Yorker, which had helped propel her into perhaps the most popular nature writer in the country with its serialization of The Sea Around Us. Mr. Shawn agreed to run two segments from her book about chemical pesticides.
With the prep work done, Rachel set out to write the type of book she had never thought she would write. She collected her material and asked her agent and publisher to send additional material to Southport. Soon, her cabin there was stuffed with books, magazine pieces, newspaper articles, and governmental agency reports that had been released in the past few years.