Environmental Health from Historical Perspective

When Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring in 1962, it caused an international outcry and led to a ban on DDT a decade later. Prompted by desire to impart her vision of the fragility of the natural environments to the people, Carson also demonstrated many of them the real costs of living in a technologically advanced society. The book revolves around the idea that environmental health and human health are inextricably linked. Today, more than half a century after Silent Spring came into print, Carson’s set of convictions continues to resonate and carries as much urgency as it did in 1962; hence the need to peruse it repeatedly. The fact that people are somewhat healthier in 2014 than they were at the time when Silent Spring was published, while flocks of birds are still warbling in a cheerful chorus and herds of mustangs are roaming wild on the plains of North America, implies that the outlook for the future is not as persistently gloomy as Carson thought. Moreover, the author’s inexhaustible campaign against the use of DDT also greatly affected malaria control programs, resulting in the deaths of millions people in malaria-stricken Africa and Asia. Thus, there are reasonable grounds to believe that Carson’s blistering diatribe against the use of DDT had negative effects too. The overarching aim of this paper is to analyze the relationship between the environment and health as seen from the perspective of Rachel Carson.

First of all, it would be wise to explore the historical setting of Silent Spring. The author had always been vehemently averse to aerial spraying, including DDT. Her interest in writing about the hazards of DDT was stoked in 1958 when she received a letter from a colleague lamenting bitterly over bird kills on Cape Cod caused by DDT sprayings. Although Carson was already a best-selling author at that time, she could not persuade her magazine to assign her a story about the baneful impact of DDT. Under these circumstances, Rachel Carson decided to write a comprehensive book on the issue, and after four year’s lucubration she produced a meticulous account of it. The bottom line of Silent Spring is that the extensive use of DDT and other similar pesticides irrevocably damages birds and animals as well as contaminates the whole food chain. The eloquence of Carson’s prose was instrumental in depicting the insidious effects of pesticides. She began her book with a story of a nameless American town, which “lay in the midst of a checkboard of prosperous farms”, “famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life”, where “oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color”, “wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye through much of the year” and trout lay in shady pools (Carson, 2002, p. 1-2). However, “a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change” (Carson, 2002, p. 1-2).

Notwithstanding the negative effects that Silent Spring had on the environmental policies, it also sparked the modern environmental movement. Carson argued that maladies sweeping the shoals of fish and flocks of cattle could eventually sicken humans because pesticides causing them made their way up the food chain. Carson’s ideas found an echo with many other environmentally conscious people, thereby giving a powerful fillip to the emergence of the environmental movement. Following the publication of Silent Spring, a series of inauspicious events in the 1970s emphasized concerns of people about the environment and led to the consolidation of the movement. When residents of the Love Canal housing development near Niagara Falls “reported abnormally high rates of illness, miscarriages, and birth defects, investigators learned the community had been built on top of an underground chemical waste disposal site” (Gillon, 2010, p. 156). At the same time, a series of accidents at nuclear power plants further intensified the fear of nuclear meltdowns, led to demands for stricter regulations of the industry, and enhanced the feeling that the Earth needed stewardship (Gillon, 2010, p. 156-157). As mortal dangers to the environmental health were becoming more and more evident, environmental health regulatory agencies began to mushroom out with a view to tackling the problems associated with the ecosystem. On the other hand, the reaction to the book created the blueprint for how the chemical industry should defend itself against the nascent environmental movement.

Explaining the rationale behind writing Silent Spring, Rachel Carson said that citizens had the right to feel secure in their own homes against the intrusion of chemicals used by others (Brody, 2012, p. 2). Judging by the highest standards, she desired to balance the application of powerful chemicals at the time when the majority of scientific communities ignored ecology and accorded it the bar sinister. Under such circumstances, the chemical industry had the latitude in doing whatever it deemed necessary in the name of progress. However, Silent Spring “made a powerful case for the idea that if humankind poisoned nature, nature would in turn poison humankind” (Griswold, 2012). What is more important, it sent the hitherto-indifferent world countries scurrying to concert their tactics to deter the threat of inexorable ecological perdition. The biggest achievement of Silent Spring is that it adduced unassailable evidence of the connection between environmental health and human health. Summing up Carson’s arguments, this connection lies in the fact that harmful pesticides, such as DDT, contaminate public food supplies and cause various illnesses in the susceptible people, in particular children. Today, as the world remains divided on the issue of environmentalism, it remains to be seen whether Carson’s predictions will come true in the nearest future.

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