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The Environmental Movement

Rachel Carson’s testimony before Congress about the danger of pesticides.

Rachel Carson speaking before Senate

Rachel Carson speaking before Senate Government Operations subcommittee studying pesticide spraying, 1963. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, LC-USZ62-111207

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Statement of Rachel Carson Before the Subcommittee on Reorganization and International Organizations of the Committee on Government Operations. 

Environmental Hazards Control of Pesticides and other Chemical Poisons

June 4, 1963

Rachel Carson’s statement to Congress on June 4, 1963. 
Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss with you this morning the problems of environmental hazards and the control of pesticides. Thank you for letting me speak today about the environment.
The contamination of the environment with harmful substances is one of the major problems of modern life. The world of air and water and soil supports not only the hundreds of thousands of species of animals and plants, it supports man himself. In the past we have often chosen to ignore this fact. Now we are receiving sharp reminders that our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves. The problem you have chosen to explore is one that must be resolved in our time. I feel strongly that a beginning must be made on it now, — in this session of Congress. For this reason I was delighted when I heard, Mr. Chairman, that you were planning to hold hearings on the whole vast problem of environmental pollution. Contamination of various kinds has now invaded all of the physical environment that supports us — water, soil, air, and vegetation. It has even penetrated that internal environment within the bodies of animals and of men. It comes from many sources: radioactive wastes from reactors, laboratories and hospitals, fallout from nuclear explosions, domestic wastes from cities and towns; chemical wastes from factories, detergents from homes and industries. Pollution is a major problem. We must take action now. Chemicals are in the water, soil, and air we need. They are also in animals and humans. These chemicals come from many places, including factories and homes.
When we review the history of mankind in relation to the earth we cannot help feeling somewhat discouraged, for that history is for the most part that of the blind or short-sighted despoiling of the soil, forests, waters and all the rest of the earth’s resources. We have acquired technical skills on a scale undreamed of even a generation ago. We can do dramatic things and we can do them quickly; by the time damaging side effects are apparent it is often too late, or impossible, to reverse our actions. These are unpleasant facts, but they have given rise to the disturbing situations that this committee has now undertaken to examine. The history of humans shows us that we rarely care about the environment. This is sad. By the time we see damage to the environment, it is too late to do anything.
I have pointed out before, and I shall repeat now, that the problem of pesticides can be properly understood only in context, as part of the general introduction of harmful substances into the environment. In water and soil, and in our own bodies, these chemicals are mingled with others, or with radioactive substances. There are little understood interactions and summations of effect. No one fully understands, for example, what happens when pesticide residues stored in our bodies interact with drugs repeatedly taken. And there are some indications that detergents, which are often present in our drinking water, may affect the lining of the digestive tract so that it more readily absorbs cancer-causing chemicals. In attempting to assess the role of pesticides, people too often assume that these chemicals are being introduced into a simple, easily controlled environment, as in a laboratory experiment. This, of course, is far from true. The danger of pesticides is part of the bigger problem of pollution. Chemicals go into water, soil, and bodies and create damage. It is hard for scientists to know how bad it is, but it could be deadly. Once the chemicals are in the environment, they are hard to control.

“Rachel Carson’s Statement before Congress”, 1963. Statement of Rachel Carson Before the Subcommittee on Reorganization and International Organizations of the Committee on Government Operations. Rachel Carson Council.

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Background

The post-war boom took a huge toll on the environment in the United States. Developers cut down forests in order to build new homes and shopping malls. America’s reliance on cars increased air pollution. Household chemicals like laundry detergent, lead-based paint, and pesticides seeped into and contaminated the country’s ground and water. 

In 1962, marine biologist Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring. In it, she described how the American way of life damaged the environment in a way the general public could understand. Her research focused on how common pesticides led to animal and human deaths. Silent Spring soon became a best seller. Many historians credit Rachel for single-handedly launching the environmental movement in the United States.

By the early 1970s, the impact of environmental activism was becoming clear. The government demonstrated its commitment to slowing environmental destruction through the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and several laws that safeguarded the environment.

About the Document

In 1963, a documentary inspired by Silent Spring aired on national television. In response, the U.S. Senate announced it would hold hearings on pollution the next day. Congress was particularly concerned with whether it should regulate the use of pesticides and other chemicals. On June 4, Rachel Carson testified. This document is a transcript of her remarks. 

Vocabulary

  • environmental movement: A social and political movement that started in the 1960s in America to protect the environment and resulted in changes to policies and laws. 
  • hazard: A danger.
  • pesticides: Chemicals that kill bugs, which harm crops or animals.
  • testify: To give testimony.
  • transcript: A written version of something a person said.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the overall argument of this document? Do you think it is effective? 
  • Why did Rachel Carson argue that Congress needed to take action immediately?
  • Why are pesticides and other chemicals dangerous to the environment? 
  • What was Rachel Carson’s research, and how does it relate to the Environmental Movement? 
  • Look at the photograph accompanying this document. What do you notice? What do you think it was like for Rachel Carson to testify? 
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Suggested Activities

  • Silent Spring and other publications specifically pointed to the connections between post-war life and environmental decay. Ask students to pair this document with the resources on suburban life and American consumerism and consider how these resources speak to each other. 
  • Explore the history of the environmental movement in greater detail by connecting this resource to the resources found in “Unit 4: The Environmental Movement, 1960s–1980s” in New-York Historical Society’s Hudson Rising curriculum.
  • Rachel Carson is part of a long and often overlooked history of American women in STEM. Connect her testimony to resources describing other women scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and more in WAMS.

Themes

GEOGRAPHY AND THE ENVIRONMENT; ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE; SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND MEDICINE

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