Environmental science books rarely make best seller lists. But in 1962, Rachel Carson’s nonfiction book Silent Spring became an incredible exception to this rule. Now, it's given credit for helping launch the EPA and the first celebration of Earth Day in 1970.
Rachel Carson was a marine biologist and nature writer—her 1951 book The Sea Around Us became a national bestseller and won a National Book Award. She was also an early believer in the dangers of pesticides, which were developed thanks to military-funded science research after World War II.
In 1958, a friend of Carson’s wrote to The Boston Herald, describing the death of birds on her property after the area was sprayed with DDT to kill mosquitoes. She sent a copy of the letter to Carson, inspiring her to study environmental issues associated with chemical pesticides.
Soon Carson was invested in a four-year research project, and began collecting examples of DDT’s effects on the environment and reaching out to journalists and scientists who could help her with her cause. This eventually led to a book deal and The New Yorker offering Carson the opportunity to write a series of articles about her research.
The book’s title was inspired by a line from a John Keats poem, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” which contains this line: “The sedge is wither’d from the lake, And no birds sing.”
In spring of 1959, Rachel Carson wrote a letter that was published in The Washington Post, attributing the recent decline in bird populations—”the silencing of the birds”— to the overuse of pesticides.
In the same year, Carson attended FDA hearings about the high levels of the herbicide aminotriazole in U.S. cranberry crops, causing all cranberry products to be pulled from shelves. At the hearings, Carson was frustrated by the expert testimony brought forward by the chemical industry representatives—her research directly contradicted many of their claims.
Carson and her publishers expected that the book would receive harsh criticism for being so critical of chemical pesticides. To help combat this, they sought out support for the book ahead of its release. This included having the book’s chapters reviewed by scientists, Carson attending the White House Conference on Conservation in 1962, and promoting the upcoming serialization of the book in The New Yorker.
Carson also got a lucky break when Silent Spring was selected as the “Book-of-the-Month” in October 1962—as Carson herself said, this would “carry it to farms and hamlets all over the country that don’t know what a bookstore looks like—much less The New Yorker.”
Unfortunately, all of the book's vetting and promotions did not stop personal (or sexist) attacks on Rachel Carson. In a letter to former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson wrote that Carson was “probably a Communist,” because she was unmarried even though she was physically attractive.
And, as Carson and her publishers predicted, the chemical industry was still extremely critical of Silent Spring. Velsicol Chemical Company even threatened to sue Carson’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin. However, the book's publishing went ahead as planned.
So much negative attention from the chemical industry only served to draw more attention to Silent Spring, which was widely supported by both the academic community and public opinion. The controversy led to a CBS Reports television special, The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson, which helped further public support of the book.
Later, Carson would testify before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee and a U.S. Senate subcommittee to make policy recommendations.
All of the media coverage surrounding Silent Spring served to shift public opinion on conservation, and today, the book is widely considered to be one of the biggest contributors to the environmental movement in the 1960s.
In 1967, the Environmental Defense Fund was formed, marking the first step taken toward limiting the use of DDT.
A few years later, in 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was formed—and that April, the first Earth Day was celebrated around the world.
The 1992 edition of Silent Spring includes an introduction from environmentalist and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. “Silent Spring had a profound impact,” wrote Gore. “Indeed, Rachel Carson was one of the reasons that I became so conscious of the environment and so involved with environmental issues ... [she] has had as much or more effect on me than any, and perhaps than all of them together.”
Today, with five decades of Earth Day history behind us, it’s clear that Rachel Carson’s efforts impacted many others, whether directly or indirectly. Some of these environmentalists are widely known—Greta Thunberg, the teenager who sailed across the Atlantic to attend the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, became TIME’s Person of the Year.
But many more people are protesting on much quieter levels.
In 2013, 30 Greenpeace activists protested Russian oil digging in the Arctic, a decision that resulted in a prison sentence of 15 years. In Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg, journalist Ben Stewart tells the story of these protesters and their time in prison—and his campaign to have them released.
Authors are also continuing to call attention to climate change with fictional books. In fact, the 2019 National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize in Fiction winner, The Overstory, is an ode to the natural world—and especially trees.
These activists and authors are all important parts of the conversation about the environment and continue to add to Earth Day history—and they all owe something to Rachel Carson, who started the conversation almost 60 years ago.
Featured photo of Rachel Carson: Wikipedia