Sarah Phillips

Studying the origins of the environmental movement as we know it today may be valuable in determining how to accelerate it.  The events that took place and the public sentiments that persisted in the early stages of modern environmentalism can largely be drawn back to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962 (Lineberry).

In the early 1960s, pesticides like DDT – “one of the greatest discoveries of World War II”, according to an issue of Time magazine from that period – were used extensively to protect homes and crops from disease-spreading insects (Lineberry).  This use by countless citizens (in products ranging from aerial sprays to wallpaper) came after the chemical prevented many soldiers from contracting typhoid and malaria during the war (“Legacy”).  By 1963, U.S. production of DDT had peaked at 81,154 tons.

Researchers had discovered the dangers of pesticides such as DDT – liver diseases, birth defects, cancer – before the publication of Silent Spring, but Carson’s work conveyed this information to the general public in an impactful and comprehensible way (Lineberry, “Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane”).  She explained how only a portion of the chemicals discharged into an ecosystem actually reach their target, while the rest are left to circulate through the environment – and often, into food chains ending in human consumption (“Legacy”).  The public was shocked to learn that those chemicals might even be transferred from mothers to their children.

While Carson did not support a blanket ban on DDT or other pesticides, which would have been extremely difficult to achieve given their popularity, she passionately advocated for policy decisions that were more scientifically informed.  Her influence was so far-reaching that it is thought that her work may have “set the stage for the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970” (Lineberry).

However, it is important to realize that the history of the environmental movement began long before Silent Spring (“Historian”).  In fact, Carson’s “call for change led growers to switch to pesticides that were less persistent and less toxic for consumers, but that were more toxic in the short term and worse for farmworkers’ health” (“Historian”).  Understandably, a large number of the first American environmentalists were people of minority demographics – often, farmworkers – fighting against the terrible effects of pollution and other issues on their living conditions.  And environmental issues continue to disproportionately impact minority groups today. 

While it is essential to examine efforts by environmentalists who successfully encouraged pro-environmental changes in the past if we are to continue their work, we also have an obligation to remember those for whom those efforts were too little and too late.


“Historian Looks at Popular Roots of Environmental Movement | UMass Lowell.”, Accessed 7 Sept. 2023.

‌“Legacy of Rachel Carsons Silent Spring National Historic Chemical Landmark.” American Chemical Society, Accessed 7 Sept. 2023.

‌Lineberry, Cate. “How Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” Awakened the World to Environmental Peril.” HISTORY, 20 Apr. 2022, Accessed 7 Sept. 2023.

“Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) Factsheet | National Biomonitoring Program | CDC.”, 2 Sept. 2021, Accessed 9 September 2023.