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The woman who brought Monsanto to its knees

May 27, 2016

Happy Birthday, Rachel Carson

“We are accustomed to look for the gross and immediate effects and to ignore all else. Unless this appears promptly and in such obvious form that it cannot be ignored, we deny the existence of hazard.”

This quote is not about Donald Trump’s climate change denials; it is from SILENT SPRING, published in 1962, challenging the notion made popular by the chemical industries of the postwar 50s that “better living through chemistry” was the answer for us all. Rachel Carson was the first scientist to call national attention to the danger caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides by demonstrating their damage–from the insects they directly targeted all the way up the food chain to mammals, including people. The world almost lost bald eagles, falcons and many other species because of it. Carson declared, “A chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its crossfire.” She was among the first to point out that to save a species, first its habitat must be saved. And she was alone in pointing it out with a literary style and poetry that caught the world’s attention.

Rachel Carson.jpg

Carson began her career as a biologist, writing for what would become US Fish and Wildlife Service. This after receiving her doctorate in biology from Johns Hopkins University at a time when women in science were accused of going to grad school, not to earn a doctorate but to marry one. For USFS, she wrote a scientific paper her boss said was unsuitable for a science publication– but would be perfect for a magazine. Atlantic Monthly was happy to oblige. She followed the article up with many more, and published three books of writings about the sea and its wildlife. Her biology work continued, and she became more and more convinced that pesticides were killers, but not just of “pests.”

SILENT SPRING first appeared in serialized form in the The New Yorker Magazine. It caused an immediate uproar in the agribusiness industry which closed ranks to mount a loud public campaign against Rachel Carson personally. When Houghton Mifflin released the book three months later, it hit the bestseller list. Carson’s science was less a target then she herself was. She was labeled hysterical by the chemical industry, which also criticized her for being childless. But President Kennedy took serious notice, and he went on to create the Environmental Protection Agency. Monsanto, maker of DDT, even sponsored a ride at Disneyland, “Adventure thru inner Space” to win over the public. But Carson prevailed, and years later DDT was banned, allowing affected species to begin on the years-long road to recovery.


Carson’s efforts spearheaded the modern ecology movement, but she never lived to see it. Eighteen months after the publication of SILENT SPRING, she was dead of cancer at 56. Her legacy and her tireless fight continue to keep her relevant, and a quick look at the environment today reminds us that her struggle against unchecked pesticides by agribusiness needs to carry on. Representative Tom Coburn of Oklahoma even now blames her for the spread of malaria, although she never called for a ban on DDT, only for its careful use, and mosquitos have now proved resistant to DDT, something she warned against. Coburn recently blocked a congressional bill to honor her.

But most of all I shall remember the Monarchs”

 Carson wrote this to a friend at the end of her life. I believe she would’ve been horrified to learn that Monsanto is still killing the wildlife she loved, especially Monarch Butterflies. If you’d like to carry on the fight in her absence, there’s something easy you can do–sign this petition calling for the elimination of Monsanto’s indiscriminate use of the pesticide ROUND UP, believed by scientists and admitted by Monsanto to be responsible for the disappearance of milkweed (the only plant Monarch Butterflies can lay their eggs in), and therefore, a large contributor to the looming extinction of the species.

Monarch Petition


On this Memorial Day holiday weekend, you might be looking to grab a good beach read. Well, don’t grab SILENT SPRING. As ornithologist Connor Mark Jamison states, it can be “dense and technical.” Instead grab one of her earlier sea books, full of wonder and and razor-sharp prose. UNDER THE SEA WIND follows three marine inhabitants, including a Sanderling in a vivid, harrowing account. And if you find yourself on Santa Monica bay reading it—you may glance up to see a pelican, a cormorant or a peregrine falcon— which at one time were considered lost to DDT.

Carson is the hero in the survival of untold numbers of species devastated by pesticides.

She’s long been mine. Happy Birthday, Rachel

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