As young children played on summer lawns in the two decades following World War II, trucks mounted with chemical sprayers wound through neighborhood streets. The trucks belched DDT fog that was intended to eliminate the insect pests that disturbed the pleasures of summer in America—mosquitoes, elm beetles, garden pests. Neither the children nor their parents understood that they were inhaling toxins while synthetic chemical companies were making fortunes and biologists were gathering evidence that DDT in the wild animal food chain was wreaking havoc on those populations.
We know this now because Rachel Carson knew it and told the world in her compelling book Silent Spring. If you suspect your students doubt that one individual can have an immense, positive impact on the health of our planet, please introduce them to Rachel Carson. America’s History in the Making, Resource Archive includes a powerful passage from Silent Spring and summarizes the significance of her work. Watch the video for unit 19, “Postwar Tension and Triumph,” (start at 18:33) to learn about Carson’s controversial contribution to the field of environmental science.
Carson’s observations in Silent Spring and in her earlier books are anchored to key biology concepts such as the life cycle, species diversity, and systems. In Journey North, A Food Chain Mystery, learn how biological science revealed the unintended consequences of putting DDT into the environment. A companion journal activity guides student reflection on the reading.
Although Carson died about 18 months after the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, she did see some of the impact the book had on the public, state and federal governments, and the scientific community. Silent Spring was on best-seller lists for months. Congressional committees were established to determine if pesticide use should be regulated. Communities began to question whether to continue their use of synthetic chemical pesticides.
Unfortunately, Carson did not live to witness the long-term impact of her message. Today, however, we are the beneficiaries and the stewards of her legacy. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were only 487 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states in 1963. DDT build-up in eagles caused them to lay defective eggs with thin shells that cracked before chicks could hatch. In 2006, 9,789 pairs were counted. That’s the impact that one person can make.