Earth Day Reflections on Silent Spring and the Organic Movement

Happy Earth Day! Since the first Earth Day in 1970, April 22 has served as a reminder to consider how our actions can make the earth a healthier place for all its inhabitants. We also celebrate the victories of the pioneer environmentalists who fought to reduce pollution in our water and air through regulations and government oversight.

Last Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Rachel Carson, a personal hero of mine and the author of the movement-launching treatise Silent Spring. Reflecting on the legacy of Silent Spring recalls the intertwined histories of the environmental and organic movements. Both movements are concerned with the health of the land and its inhabitants, and the two have marked tremendous victories over the past 50 years.

Ten years after the publication of Silent Spring, which chronicles the impacts of pesticide DDT on ecosystems and humans, the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the agricultural use of the pesticide. This was in response to a suit brought by the Environmental Defense Fund, which itself was formed in response to the impacts of DDT highlighted in Silent Spring.

Even the existence of the EPA is a testament to Carson’s impact. She had testified before Congress expressing her concern of an inherent conflict of interest due to the same agency – the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – being responsible for both promoting the interests of agribusiness and regulating pesticides. Though Carson died of cancer in 1964, the Environmental Protection Agency she had advocated for was created in 1970, just months after the first Earth Day.

In recent years, the organic movement has focused more of its energy on collaboration with the USDA. In 1990, after years of advocacy efforts, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) which created the National Organic Program, housed in the USDA. National organic standards were implemented in 2002. Thanks to strong pressure from many in the movement, this year’s farm bill (the law that deals with policy affecting USDA) includes increased funding for organic programs.

Today there are over 5 million acres of certified organic farm and ranchland in production in the United States. Organic sales are growing and pesticide use is on a slow decline. Even as our movements occasionally end up head-to-head (for example, on wetlands buffers), it is important to remember our shared origins and the journey together.

“The choice, after all, is ours to make,” Carson concludes towards the end of Silent Spring. “If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our ‘right to know,’ and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.” And work towards that course together.

Update: After I posted this essay, Tilth member Larry Warnberg shared a powerful story about how Silent Spring impacted his life, and gave me permission to share it here:

“Thanks for the timely essay reminding us of Rachel Carson’s milestone. Her book was also a big influence on my life. Growing up in Longview I was exposed to a lot of DDT, riding my bike behind the fogger that regularly passed down the alleys of our neighborhood, adjacent to our backyard gardens where we grew a lot of food. School friends were dying of cancer, I had bone cancer at the age of 14. Someone brought me a copy of Silent Spring in 1964 which I read while lying in a hospital bed recovering from amputation of a big toe. That single book changed the trajectory of my life more than any other.

Silent Spring and my bout with bone cancer motivated me to get training in a helping profession. After grad school in clinical psychology I worked 4 years as a pediatric psychologist in a children’s hospital in Tulsa, OK. There I teamed with a social worker and the Docs treating cancer patients, and helping their families through the ordeal. That experience led me to seek work of a more preventive nature, eventually leading to oyster farming in Willapa Bay, developing methods of growing shellfish without using pesticides.”

– Larry Warnberg


The Recurring Silent Spring, H. Patricia Hynes, Pergamon Press, 1989

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962