Today marks the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring. For many, her book also marks the dawn of American environmentalism. Yet 50 years later, a new cloud of misinformation, misdirection and misanthropic attempts to stop any action on climate change renews Carson's clarion call for action to stop careless polluters.
The product of four years worth of labor, Carson's Silent Spring carefully and coherently detailed the threats pesticides pose to public health and the environment. She translated the work of scientists and made the impacts of pesticides personal. The prospect of chemicals like DDT leading us to a spring without songbirds was a chilling warning of the dangers we faced. As Time magazine put it in 1999: "Before there was an environmental movement there was one brave woman and her very brave book."
The polluter industry was not as kind. Soaked with sexism, efforts to discredit Carson's work painted her as "hysterical" and "over empathetic." One major pesticide manufacturer threatened her publisher with a lawsuit and openly suggested that Carson was subject to "sinister" (read: Soviet) influences.
But like a daffodil piercing thawing ground, Carson's work broke through. With 50 years of hindsight, only the industry sounds hysterical. An independent review board commissioned by President Kennedy substantiated the findings illustrated in Silent Spring. In truth, Carson never called for an outright ban on pesticides. She always insisted that chemicals have a place in society. Instead, she argued that citizens had a right to know about the dangers posed by pesticides -- it was up to them to decide what to do after that. As Carson wrote in Silent Spring, "If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones -- we had better know something about their nature and their power."
Rachel Carson was attacked by the chemical industry using a playbook that the tobacco industry first developed: discredit the messenger, foster doubt and denial about the science and call for additional research.
Half a century later, polluters still spend millions on the 3-D strategy -- Discredit, Deny and Delay. And its climate scientists who have felt the brunt of these blows in recent years. When private emails from climate scientists were stolen in the fall of 2009, opponents of actions to address climate change pounced. They smeared scientists, turning honest emails about tree rings into a tree ring circus.
But the scientists were exonerated and right. Our planet is warming and the consequences are deadly. The very next year after the email theft -- 2010 -- tied for the warmest on record. Natural disasters in 2011 resulted in the most costly toll in history -- $154 billion worth of worldwide losses from floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires and other extreme weather events. 2012 gave the continental United States the hottest July ever, and a drought on par with the worst months of the 1930's dust bowl.
These extreme weather events, documented in a new report by Henry Waxman and myself, are having a profound impact on public opinion. According to a poll from the Civic Society Institute, 81 percent of Americans are concerned about increased drought, safe drinking water and extreme weather events.
While powerful, the polluter playbook is no match for the truth and those brave enough to shout it from the rooftops. That is the lesson of Rachel Carson. Her courage inspired citizens to demand change, even as polluters tried to silence the author of Silent Spring.
Now we must find ways to translate the implications of the massive collection of climate science in ways that empower people to demand action to reduce carbon pollution.
Silent Spring opened people's eyes to the dangers of pesticides. This past scorched summer should do the same for climate change. Let's hope 50 years from now people will mark this year as a turning point.
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