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On February 3, 2017, Representative Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) introduced H.R.861, a bill to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency at the end of 2018. Gaetz justified destroying the EPA by claiming that “Today, the American people are drowning in rules and regulations promulgated by unelected bureaucrats and the Environmental Protection Agency has become an extraordinary offender.” President Trump meanwhile is launching his own attack on the EPA, appointing Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier and former attorney general of Oklahoma, to lead the agency. Trump’s budget for the EPA includes a nearly 25% cut in funding and 20% reduction in staffing. The Trump administration has also frozen grants and funding for the EPA and limited its communications with the public. Collectively, these actions are part of a lengthy history of attacks on the EPA by conservatives.

We thought it would be useful to look at the history of the EPA and ask some important questions: why was it created? What is its mission? Has it been successful? Today’s post will be the first in a series that tries to answer those questions. So to begin, we have to start with Rachel Carson’s monumental environmental book, Silent Spring.


Rachel Carson 

The publication of Silent Spring in 1962 catalyzed the environmental movement in the United States. During World War 2, the Allies used DDT, a pesticide, to control insect populations and limit the spread of typhus, malaria, and other diseases. DDT soon became available to farmers as an insecticide. By the late 1950s, farmers, chemical companies, and the Federal government were all using DDT as part of programs designed to eradicate insect populations. Scientists, members of communities where DDT had been sprayed, and others soon noticed serious environmental consequences. A friend of Carson’s wrote to her in a letter that the birds on her property all died after an aerial DDT spraying. Carson soon came into contact with researchers who had begun cataloguing the links between the spraying of chemicals, like DDT, to the development of cancers. Carson spent several years gathering scientific research on the environmental, physiological, and ecological damage caused by pesticides.

Carson’s book combined all of this research into a devastating portrait of humanity’s largely negative impact on the environment. At the beginning Silent Spring, Carson described a bucolic American town with thriving farms and rich with animals and natural resources. Soon, however, “a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change.” Livestock dropped dead. People became sick and died within hours. The birds vanished. “It was,” as Carson wrote, “a spring without voices.” The cause of all this pestilence? “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it to themselves.” How had they done it to themselves? Carson explained that

The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life.[1]

Silent Spring became a media sensation. The New Yorker published the book in serial form in its magazine. The Book of the Month club selected it as the book of the month for October 1962. While well-regarded by the scientific and academic communities for its rigorous research, the American chemical industry did not take kindly to Silent Spring. Velsicol, a chemical company, threatened to sue Houghton Mifflin (the publisher), The New Yorker, and Audubon Magazine if they published the book or excerpts from it. Robert White-Stevens, a biochemist at American Cyanamid (a chemical company), criticized Carson, saying, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”

Despite the attacks from chemical companies, Carson’s book became a rallying cry for those who believed in protecting the environment and not dying of cancer from pesticides. Carson, however, died of from complications relating to breast cancer in 1964 and did not live to see the full impact of her work. Tomorrow we’ll move forward into the late 1960s and look at the impact of Silent Spring on the growing environmental movement and the creation of the EPA.

[1] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring: Fortieth Anniversary Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002) , 1-6.