“There once was a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. … Then, a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the communities … There was a strange stillness.”
Opening lines from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962)
In 2017, government protection of the environment already is taking a perilous turn. From the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to the erasing of concern for climate change in the new administration in Washington—environmental watchdogs are turning silent.
What an appropriate time to broadcast Rachel Carson, a two-hour documentary on the heroic quest of one woman to confront the industry giants and government officials who were blanketing America with DDT in a deadly attempt at eradicating insect pests. (PBS’s American Experience series is broadcasting the film on January 24, 2017. See below for more information about ways to see the film.)
If you are feeling that your own voice doesn’t matter, these days, watch this true story about how one woman working in an obscure government office, in effect, launched the modern environmental movement.
Yes, it is true that Carson already was a published author when Silent Spring hit like a bombshell in 1962—both in the form of a best-selling hardback and in a landmark CBS news report that the network courageously aired despite withering industry condemnation of its broadcast. But Carson’s earlier books were lyrical reflections on the ocean and the countless species living in the world’s waters. One of those earlier books barely sold 2,000 copies. Yes, she already was an author when she set off her bombshell; but her impact on American life had been minimal until 1962.
If you are a fan of the old West Wing TV series, you’re likely to enjoy the voices of two West Wing regulars. Oliver Platt narrates most of the documentary; Mary-Louise Parker occasionally reads aloud from Carson’s work. Of course, we also have plenty of film footage of Carson herself, even though she died of cancer at age 56 in 1964, just one year after CBS reached millions of Americans with its 1963 broadcast about her work.
Exhaustive research went into this new documentary, digging up amazing film clips. You’ll see, for example, the first White House news conference when President Kennedy was asked about the impact of Carson’s book and he declares that the investigators will study her claim. (And study her claims, they did, ultimately vindicating her book.) You’ll also see startling footage of well-meaning public health workers spraying clouds of DDT and other insecticides around children—in one case sending a cloud into a group of kids eating their lunch at a summer camp and, in another, dousing kids at a public pool.
You’ll also be impressed that the filmmakers do properly balance the story of DDT’s rise as “a miracle discovery of World War II” and the most potent weapon in “a war against the earth.” After all, DDT had, indeed, stopped a scourge of malaria in a number of Pacific islands, where American soldiers were dropping in large numbers, and it stopped a deadly outbreak of typhus in Italy in the immediate aftermath of the war. You’ll understand why, in the 1950s, the embrace of pesticides seemed to make sense.
But, the most powerful reason to watch this documentary is to watch the transformation nationwide touched off by one, shy, relatively reclusive woman who dared to expose the growing body of facts and research-based evidence that the men in power (and nearly all were men in that era) had chosen to ignore.
Bravo, Rachel! Your story lives on!
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GET THE DVD—You also can pre-order a DVD of the documentary on Amazon.