Silent Spring’s 50th anniversary recognized on Earth Day 2012

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Silent Spring is credited with sparking the environmental movement. (view larger image)

Fifty years have passed since the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the book many credit with sparking the environmental movement – and an anniversary worth celebrating on Earth Day, April 22.

The book has deep connections to Michigan State University, from the late MSU ornithologist George Wallace’s research that was featured prominently in the book to the establishment of the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU and a legacy of environmental science research being conducted today.

Before Carson’s book, DDT was touted as a cure-all pesticide suitable for solving many of the world’s problems, including eliminating malarial mosquitoes, the beetles responsible for spreading Dutch elm disease and even treating lice on humans. To protect the stately elms that lined MSU’s campus drives, the university, like many other institutions and municipalities, used DDT liberally, employing misters to treat the trees.

“Silent Spring,” which is ranked No. 2 on New York University’s Top 100 Works of Journalism, is widely credited for opening the world’s eyes to the negative effects of many pesticides and helped lead to the banning of DDT in the United States in 1972. Wallace gave “Silent Spring” the living – and dying – imagery of flocks of terminal robins. His research showed that the unwitting birds, after feasting on DDT-filled worms, suffered seizures and died.

Wallace’s work and MSU’s legacy of environmental research is what attracted Thomas Dietz, MSU assistant vice president for environmental research, to the East Lansing campus. A prominent climate change researcher, Dietz understands researching a controversial subject in the face of zealous detractors.

“Her book, and others published at that time, transformed my interest from being purely scientific to a mix of science with the intent of providing good advice for policy,” said Dietz, an MSU AgBioResearch scientist. “Sadly, people attacked her personally and questioned her motives, as opposed to debating the science on which the book was based. It’s a sad pattern we still see today where, rather than work to come up with creative solutions related to climate change, people often bully and attack the messengers.”

He admires the work of Wallace, Carson and other scientists who conduct their research despite scathing attacks and, in some cases, even death threats, Dietz added.

Jianguo (Jack) Liu, an MSU AgBioResearch scientist and holder of the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU, remembers reading “Silent Spring” in college.

“Rachel Carson was a pioneer, and her work inspired me,” said Liu, who still has a first edition of “Silent Spring.” “As the first person to hold the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, I am honored to continue her legacy, especially knowing the scrutiny she faced as a result of the book.”

Liu, after publishing a paper in Science, came under similar fire when he demonstrated that a world-famous giant panda reserve in China was not protecting the country’s iconic wildlife as intended.

“It took a long time for the government and many others to understand all of the issues involved,” Liu said. “But I am glad that there have been many positive changes – the co-author of the Science paper is the director of the reserve, several important policy changes have been implemented and the panda habitat has been improving.”

To view a video celebrating the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, click here

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