The Woman Who Inspired the Environmental Movement

Rachel Carson. Source: U.S Department of Agriculture

As far as one percents go, anthropomorphic climate change denial is definitely one of the stranger ones to be a part of. Even if you enjoy laughing in the face of the scientific evidence surrounding climate change, the idea that not polluting the environment is a bad idea leaves me consistently flabbergasted. It’s probably not the case anymore, but those committed to the environmental movement were often associated with this whole ‘dirty tree hugging hippies’ kind of rhetoric. Perhaps this was an attempt at delegitimising the movement, or maybe there really is no smoke without fire, but behind it all there were scientists responsible for making the information more accessible to the general public. In particular, there is one who was born 111 years ago today, who is often credited with popularising ecology and the effects of human activity on the ecosystem: Rachel Carson.

Silent Spring

Who was she? I guess that depends on who you ask: to the average person, she was a marine biologist and scientific communicator; to others, she was “a communist sympathiser and a spinster with an affinity for cats”. Why the contrast? Following a career as a scientific writer and editor in a governmental position, she published her third book named ‘Silent Spring’ for which she is most remembered. The main point of this book was to bring to the attention of the world how we are part of an ecosystem, as well as how the chemical industry was having an effect on said ecosystem, and therefore by extension our own species. Her main target was DDT, a heavily used pesticide at the time. The result: a barrage of insults from the aforementioned industry. Even though DDT wasn’t banned for agriculture use on a worldwide scale until 2001, Carson’s work resulted in the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA. The most inspiring part was that over 50 years ago she was willing to speak out against private interests, meaning she was anti-corporate interests before it was even cool.

Malaria

One interesting thing I came across in my research, was the potential for DDT to act as an insecticide to kill mosquitos and subsequently prevent the spread of malaria. Certain groups, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute in America go as far to claim that through her work, her “anti-DDT rhetoric contributed to malaria outbreaks”, essentially blaming her for malaria related deaths. A panel of scientists did agree that DDT could be used as an insecticide, however they also said that to use it in such a way can have significant consequences on the health of humans and “should only be used as a last resort in combating malaria”. Another factor against the use of DDT is that insects have been shown to form resistance against it, meaning that safer, more sure alternatives should be preferentially used.

Inspiring a movement

As someone who considers himself quite engaged with the environmental movement, I felt it important to cover these aspects of Carson’s story. It’s a story of how one woman managed to stand up to the chemical industry, and subsequently inspire a movement. While we may never truly find out whether she did like cats, it’s clear that she cared a great deal about protecting not only humans, but the other species who share this planet with us. During the hearing in which she testified against the chemical industry, she was suffering from breast cancer (even wearing a wig to conceal the effects of radiation treatment); sadly, she died shortly after. Thankfully her legacy lives on.

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.