This article was originally written by Jack McGovan for Delta-S. It is the first of a series on the women who made sustainability what it is today. 

As far as one percents go, anthropomorphic climate change denial is definitely one of the stranger ones to be a part of. Even if you enjoy laughing in the face of the scientific evidence surrounding climate change, the idea that not polluting the environment is a bad idea leaves me consistently flabbergasted. It’s probably not the case anymore, but those committed to the environmental movement were often associated with this whole ‘dirty tree hugging hippies’ kind of rhetoric.

Perhaps this was an attempt at delegitimising the movement, or maybe there really is no smoke without fire, but behind it all there were scientists responsible for making the information more accessible to the general public. One, in particular, born 112 years ago, is credited with popularising ecology and the effects of human activity on ecosystems: Rachel Carson.

The Silent Spring

Who was she? I guess that depends on who you ask: to the average person, she was a marine biologist and scientific communicator; to others, she was “a communist sympathiser and a spinster with an affinity for cats”. Why this contrast? Following a career as a scientific writer and editor in a governmental position, she published her third book ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 for which she is most remembered. This book marked a shift in her writing from inspiring prose to a more engaged style to protect the life that was disappearing before her eyes.

The main point of this book was to bring to the attention of the world how we are part of an ecosystem, as well as how the chemical industry was having an effect on said ecosystem, and therefore by extension on our own species. Her main target was DDT, a very popular pesticide at the time. The result: a barrage of insults from the industry. Even though DDT wasn’t banned for agriculture use on a worldwide scale until 2001(!), Carson’s work resulted in the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA. The most inspiring part is that, over 50 years ago, she was willing to speak out against private interests, meaning she was anti-corporate interests before it was even a thing.

Malaria

One interesting thing I came across in my research, was the potential for DDT to act as an insecticide to kill mosquitos and subsequently prevent the spread of malaria. Certain groups, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute in America go as far to claim that through her work, her “anti-DDT rhetoric contributed to malaria outbreaks”, essentially blaming her for malaria-related deaths.

A panel of scientists did agree that DDT could be used as an insecticide, however, they also said that to use it in such a way can have significant consequences on the health of humans and “should only be used as a last resort in combating malaria”. Another factor against the use of DDT is that insects have been shown to form a resistance against it, meaning that safer, more reliable alternatives should be preferentially used.

Inspiring a movement

As someone who considers himself quite engaged with the environmental movement, I felt it important to cover these aspects of Carson’s story. It is a story of how one woman managed to stand up to the chemical industry and inspire a movement. Rachel Carson cared a great deal about protecting not only humans but the other species with whom we share this planet.

During the hearing in which she testified against the chemical industry, she was suffering from breast cancer (even wearing a wig to conceal the effects of radiation treatment). Sadly, she died shortly after the congressional hearing. Thankfully her legacy lives on and she will be remembered as one of the original inspirers of the environmental movement.

This article was originally published by Jack McGovan in Delta-S

Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.