Half a century ago today, a book was published that changed the world. Before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring arrived, not a single government in the world had an environment department or ministry. In the years leading up to 1962, people around the world were giddy with the prospects and benefits of technology and scientific discovery. Economies were booming. People were driving cars. Newer and better consumer products were hitting the stores every day. Pesticides and agricultural innovation made more food available and reduced disease risk.
Sure, there were fears about some of our science and technology, especially with the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the U.S. heating up. But few people or governments stopped to consider the environmental consequences of these rapid scientific and technological advances. One in particular was hailed as a great step forward for humanity. Swiss scientist Paul Mueller won a Nobel Prize in 1948 for demonstrating the powerful pesticide properties of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). It was used to combat typhus, malaria and dengue fever, and also to ward off agricultural pests.
Scientists started to become concerned about the hazards it posed, though. In response to a request from the New Yorker, author and naturalist Rachel Carson investigated and wrote an article about the pesticide, which was later expanded into her award-winning book Silent Spring. In researching the topic, Carson found that DDT was also poisoning the environment and wildlife and harming human health. President John F. Kennedy had his Science Advisory Committee investigate the claims. The scientists found them convincing enough to recommend phasing out "persistent toxic pesticides."
Within 10 years of the book's publication, the United Nations Environment Programme was created and the first global environmental conference was held in Stockholm, Sweden. We've come a long way since 1962. Most governments have environment ministries and departments, and people are more aware than ever before of the consequences of our actions on the air, water, soil and biodiversity that we all depend on for our health and survival.
But we still have far to go. We must take this opportunity to celebrate Rachel Carson's great work — and to read the book for the first time, or again if you've already read it. And we must heed its lessons about being careful to understand the consequences of our actions and technologies.