Grassroots environmentalism and the EPA
Carson's work had a powerful impact on the environmental movement. Silent Spring became a rallying point for the new social movement in the 1960s. According to environmental engineer and Carson scholar H. Patricia Hynes, "Silent Spring altered the balance of power in the world. No one since would be able to sell pollution as the necessary underside of progress so easily or uncritically." Carson's work and the activism it inspired are partly responsible for the deep ecology movement and the strength of the grassroots environmental movement since the 1960s. It was also influential on the rise of ecofeminism and on many feminist scientists. Carson's most direct legacy in the environmental movement was the campaign to ban the use of DDT in the United States, and related efforts to ban or limit its use throughout the world. The 1967 formation of the Environmental Defense Fund was the first major milestone in the campaign against DDT. The organization brought lawsuits against the government to "establish a citizen's right to a clean environment", and the arguments against DDT largely mirrored Carson's. By 1972, the Environmental Defense Fund and other activist groups had succeeded in securing a phase-out of DDT use in the United States, except in emergency cases.
The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency by the Nixon Administration in 1970 addressed another concern that Carson had written about. Until then, the USDA was responsible both for regulating pesticides and promoting the concerns of the agriculture industry; Carson saw this as a conflict of interest, since the agency was not responsible for effects on wildlife or other environmental concerns beyond farm policy. Fifteen years after its creation, one journalist described the EPA as "the extended shadow of Silent Spring". Much of the agency's early work, such as enforcement of the 1972 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, was directly related to Carson's work. History professor Gary Kroll wrote, "Rachel Carson's Silent Spring played a large role in articulating ecology as a 'subversive subject'—as a perspective that cuts against the grain of materialism, scientism, and the technologically engineered control of nature."
In the 1980s, the policies of the Reagan Administration emphasized economic growth and removed many of the environmental policies adopted in response to Carson's work. Former Vice President of the United States and environmentalist Al Gore wrote an introduction to the 1992 edition of Silent Spring. He wrote: "Silent Spring had a profound impact ... Indeed, Rachel Carson was one of the reasons that I became so conscious of the environment and so involved with environmental issues ... [she] has had as much or more effect on me than any, and perhaps than all of them together."
Criticisms of environmentalism and DDT restrictions
Carson and the environmental movement were—and continue to be—criticized by some who argue that restrictions on the use of pesticides—specifically DDT—have caused tens of millions of needless deaths and hampered agriculture, and implicitly that Carson was responsible for inciting such restrictions. Carson's concerns about the effects on human health and the environmental impact of DDT have been intensely scrutinized. Political scientist Charles Rubin was one of the most vociferous critics in the 1980s and 1990s, though he accused her of selective use of source and fanaticism rather than the more severe criticism Carson received upon Silent Spring's release.
In the 2000s, criticism of the bans of DDT that her work prompted intensified. In 2009, the libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute set up a website saying, "Millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm. That person is Rachel Carson." A 2012 review article in Nature by Rob Dunn commemorating the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring prompted a response in a letter written by Anthony Trewavas and co-signed by 10 others, including Christopher Leaver, Bruce Ames, Richard Tren and Peter Lachmann, who quote estimates of 60 to 80 million deaths "as a result of misguided fears based on poorly understood evidence".
Biographer Hamilton Lytle believes these estimates are unrealistic, even if Carson can be "blamed" for worldwide DDT policies. John Quiggin and Tim Lambert wrote, "the most striking feature of the claim against Carson is the ease with which it can be refuted". DDT was never banned for anti-malarial use, its ban for agricultural use in the United States in 1972 did not apply outside the U.S. nor to anti-malaria spraying. The international treaty that banned most uses of DDT and other organochlorine pesticides—the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants—included an exemption for the use of DDT for malaria control until affordable substitutes could be found. Mass outdoor spraying of DDT was abandoned in poor countries subject to malaria, such as Sri Lanka, in the 1970s and 1980s; this was not because of government prohibitions but because the DDT had lost its ability to kill the mosquitoes. Because of insects' very short breeding cycle and large number of offspring, the most resistant insects survive and pass on their genetic traits to their offspring, which replace the pesticide-slain insects relatively rapidly. Agricultural spraying of pesticides produces pesticide resistance in seven to ten years.
Some experts have said that restrictions placed on the agricultural use of DDT have increased its effectiveness for malaria control. According to pro-DDT advocate Amir Attaran, the result of the 2004 Stockholm Convention banning DDT's use in agriculture "is arguably better than the status quo ... For the first time, there is now an insecticide which is restricted to vector control only, meaning that the selection of resistant mosquitoes will be slower than before." But though Carson's legacy has been closely tied to DDT, Roger Bate of the DDT advocacy organization Africa Fighting Malaria said, "A lot of people have used Carson to push their own agendas. We just have to be a little careful when you're talking about someone who died in 1964."
Silent Spring has been featured in many lists of the best nonfiction books of the twentieth century. It was fifth in the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Nonfiction and number 78 in the National Review's 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century. In 2006, Silent Spring was named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of Discover Magazine.
In 1996, a follow-up book, Beyond Silent Spring, co-written by H.F. van Emden and David Peakall, was published.
In 2011, American composer Steven Stucky wrote an eponymously titled symphonic poem, Silent Spring, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the book's publication. The piece was premiered in Pittsburgh, February 17, 2012, with conductor Manfred Honeck leading the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.