Eco-Pioneer Paying It Forward: Rachel Carson’s Legacy

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, which warned of the far-reaching dangers of deadly pesticides and was widely regarded as a catalyst for America’s conservation, clean air and water and environmental protection movements.

Now author Laurie Lawlor and illustrator Laurie Beingessner bring her message to today’s youth in the children’s book, Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World. Carson’s life—from her childhood fascination with nature to becoming a college graduate and biologist to writing Silent Spring before her death in 1964—is told in easy-to-understand terms. An epilogue recounts her legacy for all generations.

Carson encouraged readers to rethink fundamental values about the relationship between people and nature and not to suppose that, “Nature exists for the convenience of man,” as she put it. One of the vivid examples of life’s interconnectedness that Carson cited occurred in Clear Lake, California, between 1949 and 1957. To eradicate gnats, three sprayings of DDD, a cousin of DDT, were applied, killing western grebes that breed on floating nests. When scientists examined the dead birds, they found astounding levels of DDD and realized that it occurred because the birds fed on lake fish that fed on DDD-laden plankton, passing the toxic pesticide up the food chain in “a whole chain of poisoning.” Carson also warned of potential human cancers resulting from handling pesticides and eating contaminated fish. The state Department of Public Health consequently banned DDD in 1959 and the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants subsequently banned DDT for agricultural use worldwide in 2004.

Along with the enactment of many environmental laws, Carson’s work helped spur the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The advent of Earth Day, in 1970, led Mark Hamilton Lytle to write in his biography of Carson, The Gentle Subversive, that, “No event could have done more to celebrate the ideals that Rachel Carson bequeathed to the environmental movement.” Her legacy lives on.


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