Rachel Carson: One reluctant activist


It is Earth Day as I write. I’m reminded of a meaningful American story:

Rachel Carson, who published “Silent Spring” in 1962, wrote the book in layman’s terms and alerted humanity to the possibility of nature’s web of life being torn asunder by chemical pollutants. Thus, “Silent Spring” sparked the global environmental protection movement. Rachel Carson was a quiet university and government scientist whose previous books on marine ecosystems remain relevant today.

By 1958, Carson’s focus had shifted to the massive over-use of pesticides, especially DDT. “Silent Spring’s” poster kids were tiny songbirds developing within their eggs in warm nests — yet crushed by their mothers’ mere weight because DDT was migrating through the food chain. Among its deadly sins, DDT turned birds’ shells to mush. “Silent Spring” became a New York Times bestseller and has been read by millions worldwide.

I remember! I was in grade school when the adults in my hometown were discussing that book on every street corner. They were uneasy. We lived surrounded by California industrial agriculture and my townspeople shuddered to realize how heavily we were being exposed to birth-defect and cancer-causing toxins. I can even remember the intensely acrid smell of DDT as Grandpa hand-pumped it in the orchards.

Rachel Carson was called to D.C. to defend the conclusions of her book before congressional and presidential panels. Within a decade, the sale and use of DDT was banned in North America. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency was established. The EPA website states: “There is no question ‘Silent Spring’ prompted the government to take action against pollution years before it otherwise might have moved.”

Alas, Carson passed away just two years after “Silent Spring’s” publication, at the age of 56 — herself a victim of cancer. But she had bequeathed her future royalties from “Silent Spring” to the Sierra Club (founded in 1892 by another trailblazing naturalist, John Muir). And grateful we are that our yards still sing with songbirds!

  • Average number of square miles by which Arctic sea ice melted each day last summer: 36,400.
  • Rank of this retreat in the meteorological record: 1.
  • Page on which an “Apology to Native Peoples of the United States” is buried within the Defense Appropriations Act of 2010: 47.
  • Number of years before a Native American researcher discovered it there while studying the 67-page law: 3.
  • Number of the 400 wealthiest Americans termed “small business owners” under House Republicans’ definition: 237.
  • Portion of U.S. households now having a higher tax rate because of January’s “fiscal cliff” compromise: 3/4.
  • Percentage of likely voters identifying themselves as Tea Party members in 2010: 24.
  • In 2012: 8.
  • Portion of the world’s privately-held guns that are owned by Americans: 1/2.
  • Number of U.S. children under 13 killed by firearms between 2006 and 2011: 680.
  • Chances of receiving a commutation of sentence under President Clinton: 1 in 90.
  • Under George W. Bush: 1 in 780.
  • Under Barack Obama: 1 in 6,631.
  • Years since Haiti’s deadliest earthquake: 2.5.
  • Estimated number of Haitians who perished then: 217,300.
  • Number still living in displaced persons camps: 358,000.
  • Number of damaged houses in Haiti marked as unsafe and unlivable: 246,182.
  • Estimated number of Haitians now living in these houses: 1 million.
  • Number of new homes built since the quake: 6,500.
  • Percentage of reconstruction contracts awarded to Haitian firms: 1.2.
  • Percentage won by U.S. firms inside the Washington beltway: 67.6.
  • Number of days (by today) since cholera was introduced into Haiti by U.N. workers: 919.
  • Number of resulting cholera cases there: 635,000.
  • Percentage of Haiti’s cholera cases among the world’s total in 2011: 57.
  • Days since the epidemic began that the U.N. has not apologized: 919.

Sources: Center for Economic and Policy Research, Harpers Index Online, Navajo Nation Messenger, Sierra magazine.