The chemical industry thrived in postwar America. One major development was the creation of plastic used to create everything from household furniture, to Tupperware, telephones and music records. A second focus was on pesticides. Some of the same organophosphate compounds used to develop chemical weapons during the two world wars was now being applied to the creation of both pesticides and fertilizers. Farmers were elated over their newfound ability, through the use of pesticides, to grow so much food without being hampered by insects and weeds. However, enthusiasm over this 'green revolution' was short-lived when evidence showed whole ecosystems being disrupted as a result of heavy pesticide use.
It was, in particular, the damage caused by the use of DDT, an organic pesticide which Stuart A. Kallen in his book,
A Cultural History of the United States: The 1950s,
describes "was as prevalent in the fifties as automobile tailfins" (p. 106) that brought about an environmental consciousness not seen before. As the ill effects of this chemical surfaced, people began to realize that DDT was a harmful poison that tainted drinking water and killed wildlife. DDT also became linked to an increase in cancer rates in humans. The uninterrupted use of this pesticide continued until 1962 when Rachel Carson wrote her highly researched exposé,
. In it she warned that the unabated use of chemical pesticides like DDT would result in the destruction of vast amounts of our nation's wildlife. Carson became the catalyst which eventually led to the banning of DDT in both the U.S. and Europe in 1972.
Throughout the nation an environmental movement began to grow. Both the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society boasted burgeoning memberships. Oil spill disasters spurned public consciousness and the environmentalist-sentiment that no longer could industrial progress be allowed to continue unchecked when it was wreaking irrevocable damage on our natural world spread. By the late sixties our nation witnessed a very active back-to-earth movement as people began to rediscover the beauty of our natural world. Typical of these times was the emergence of recycling centers, people's parks, health food stores stocked with organic foods and rural farm communes.
By the early 1970s the attitude of the American public reflected this growing concern over protecting our natural resources and as Edmund H. Harvey Jr., the editor of
Our Glorious Century
, informs us, the environment was rated our country's "most pressing domestic problem" (p. 361). A series of important legislation was passed during this decade and the Environmental Protection Agency was established.
Who was this seminal figure who set the stage for this environmental movement, who warned us of the urgency of saving our earth and, indeed, of realizing our interconnectedness with all of nature before it was too late? Let's take a look.
Rachel Carson, former marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was also a nature author of considerable renown. Her books--
Under the Sea Wind, The Edge of the Sea
The Sea Around Us
(which remained on the New York bestseller list for 86 weeks) spoke of the interconnectedness of nature and all living things. In 1962, after year of arduous research, Carson published her book,
In this book she used her formidable skills as a writer to alert the world to the danger to our environment of unharnessed technological progress. In
Carson exposed the very harmful effects brought about by DDT. It took Carson years to write this book. She was compelled to finish it even amidst such trials as the death of her beloved mother in 1958 and having to undergo major surgery for breast cancer in 1960. According to Adele Glimm in her book,
Rachel Carson: Protecting Our Earth,
Rachel Carson "knew that this book was important, probably the most important work she had ever done or would ever do" (p. 88).
After its publication, Carson faced a barrage of attackers from the chemical, farming, and food industries. She also received both love and hate letters from the public. Not only was Rachel receiving a lot of mail in response to her book, but also the U.S. government received many letters from people alarmed by what they had read. In the Spring of 1963, the U.S. Congress began to investigate pollution and to determine how government groups could best cooperate together to control it. Rachel was called to testify before this committee to speak about pesticide pollution. She came prepared with 55 pages of meticulous notes and a list of experts who had read and approved her manuscript. Rachel made her case with both scholarly documentation and eloquence. As a result of her testimony, Congress began to pass bills to protect our environment.
While other revolutionaries used fiery speeches, violent and nonviolent tactics and political campaigns, Rachel Carson used her writing skills to create books that very powerfully influenced social change in American life.
Plateaus and Pivotal Events
Rachel Carson entered her first plateau when she switched majors while studying at the Pennsylvania College for Women. She gave up the study of literature for science, particularly, biology even though the road of a female scientist at that time was anything but smooth. According to Candice F. Ransom in her book,
Listening to Crickets: A Story of Rachel Carson,
"In the 1920s, science was not considered a 'proper' career for a young woman. Rachel was aware that there were few jobs open to a female biologist. But she listened to her heart. She knew she was making the right move" (p. 18). Carson graduated with high honors and received a scholarship in the zoology graduate school program at Johns Hopkins University. She went on to become a marine biologist and a writer of several books about the sea and its natural systems.
The pivotal event came in 1958 when Carson received a very troubling letter from a friend, a newspaper editor in Massachusetts, Olga Owens Huckins. She wrote about the large number of dead and dying birds found in her town after an aerial spraying of its marshes with DDT to get rid of mosquitoes. Olga personally witnessed the agonizing death of many of its birds. Useful insects like bees and grasshoppers also had been killed. Ironically, the mosquitoes had not been destroyed but instead had come back with a vengeance! Sickened by this report and prompted by her concern that these harmful effects probably were not limited to animals and insects but also were probably affecting humans, Carson began in earnest to read extensively about pollution and pesticides. The research she compiled was used in her book,
Carson entered her second plateau with the publication of
In this book she made a proposal considered very radical at that time--industry needed to be regulated in order to protect our natural environment. Her view that our world's natural resources needed to be properly cared for clashed with the Eisenhower administration's desire to relax existing conservation policies and open the forests, mountains and rivers to suburban development. Rachel became the catalyst for changing our view of man's relationship with the natural environment. It was through her efforts, her articles, books and speeches that she informed the public that the natural world was in grave danger if man continued his reckless treatment of the natural environment.
The pivotal event came with the aftermath of its publication. Rachel Carson was often pigeon-holed (stereotyped and marginalized) as a 'nature nut' by critics. She met with a lot of adversity, especially from the chemical industry. "There was money to be made advertising, selling and using chemical pesticides and money to be lost when a Rachel Carson suddenly told the whole world that many of these chemicals were dangerous to people and all natural life" (Glimm 200, p. 90). In the end, Carson was victorious and strict measures were taken to protect our vulnerable environment. The message of
still resonates today. As Catherine Reel exclaims in her book,
Rachel Carson: The Wonder of Nature,
"Nearly 30 years after her death, her words still bring the beauty and the harmony of the natural world to life" (p. 65). It is up to us to preserve it.
I will include the following response journal questions for my students to choose from after reading:
· How did the times in which Rachel Carson live influence her actions?
· How did her love of nature and beliefs about the natural world guide her actions?
· Write an entry that could have appeared in Carson's journal during the time when she first learned about the destructive effects of DDT
· What type of person do you think Rachel Carson was? Use information from the story to explain your answer.
· Imagine that you are going to give a talk to your class about Rachel Carson. Write two important ideas that you would use in your speech.
· What quality do you most admire in Rachel Carson?
Elvis Presley, Malcolm X and Rachel Carson, leaders in their time, went through many changes in their character development and they have each left us with enduring legacies. The social movements they were so closely linked to helped shape the decade known as 'The Fifties' making it the distinctive and memorable era that it became, one that we in the new millennium look back upon fondly with not just a little bit of nostalgia. In Lesson Plan III I will ask my students to explore the impact that each of these figures had on our society. I will use a bubble frame to organize the information and the conclusions we arrive at.