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Sept. 21, 2012
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine

Carson's classic 'Silent Spring' turns 50

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - "But man is part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself," said Rachel Carson, a western Pennsylvania biologist and writer who penned one of the seminal environmental books in history, "Silent Spring." Her book turns 50 Sept. 27 and continues to inspire both academics and laypersons.

"When I teach an environmental education course, I point to 'Silent Spring' as one of those elements that really did start the modern environmental movement," said Daniel Dziubek, Slippery Rock University professor of parks and recreation.

Dziubek said Carson was one of the first scientists who wrote in a common-language style and was an environmental pioneer because she examined pollution from a global perspective.

SRU has been a leader in environmental education since its 1889 founding and has taken many steps and implemented policy to promote environmental awareness and commitment to sustainability. Carson's groundbreaking work, like SRU's approach to sustainability, examines problems and proposes solutions from a global point of view.

"What Rachel Carson uncovered through 'Silent Spring' was a more global view of the effects of chemicals on the environment," Dziubek said. "It was a focal point. It was a lens through which people now began to see the broader impact that human activities were having on the environment."

"Silent Spring" documented the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment, especially birds. Carson accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation. Her work was influential in the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972 and provided impetus for the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other groups. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore has cited Carson and "Silent Spring" as influences behind his environmental activism.

Dziubek said her book was controversial when published. "She was threatening the very existence of the chemical industry," he said. "Even though the chemical industry felt threatened by her book, it captured the imagination of the general public."

The Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, the birthplace and childhood home of Carson, marked the 50th anniversary by launching a "Pollution Prevention Week" Sept. 20 in conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A Marine biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson's other books include "Under the Sea-Wind," "The Sea Around Us" and "The Edge of the Sea."

"Carson's legacy is that she awakened the nation to the perils of carelessly spreading insecticides and other chemicals that were killing many species and sickening humans," said Langdon Smith, SRU professor of geography, geology and the environment. "She did this at great personal cost, as the multimillion-dollar chemical industry attacked her with a $250 million campaign to discredit her work. Her research held up under scrutiny, however, and as result the United States banned the use of DDT, and Congress passed important environmental regulations to safeguard our health."

Smith said her work might have had an even greater impact on the grassroots conservation movement.

"Some people working in the conservation community give her credit for jump-starting the entire modern environmental movement," Smith said. "Before going to graduate school and teaching at SRU, I worked for a conservation group called the 'Greater Yellowstone Coalition.' I asked the executive director of the group how he became involved in doing environmental work, and he handed me a dog-eared copy of 'Silent Spring.' 'She started it all,'" he told me.

Carson, who died in 1964, never called for banning pesticides, Dziubek said. He said she was the first ecologist to quantify the harmful effects of pesticides.

"She focused on awareness, and people were made aware that actions had consequences," he said. And sometimes those actions have unforeseen consequences that are bad. That's what she was trying to get across."

Dziubek said he admires her as a scientist and communicator and references "Silent Spring" in graduate classes "Environmental Education and Environmental Issues.

"She was a biologist and a researcher, but she was also a writer," he said. "She could communicate information to people that perhaps hadn't been achieved before her. She was trying to communicate scientific information in what was a non-scientific way."

From an awareness standpoint, "Silent Spring" is a good place to start to educate oneself about environmental issues, he said.

"It's a good place to start to look at how somebody who is a biologist and who is trying to look at the big picture was seeing the effects on, for example, the bird populations," he said. "That's why she called it 'Silent Spring' because she wasn't hearing the birds in the spring."

"Rachel Carson looked at not just the impact of chemicals on water and air, but the impact globally on how all of these things fit together," Dziubek said. "After her book, we witnessed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency as a watchdog for the environment. Now we have a focus on how we can continue to educate people about the environment - not just specifically a focus on resource conservation. Now we're looking a how the human species is being affected by things that we never even considered. I think she opened our eyes to those considerations."

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.