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Lesson Plan

The Birth of the Environmental Movement: DDT and Rachel Carson

About this Video
Illustrating the complexity of environmental challenges, this 12-minute video shows students the early rise of the environmental movement and how Americans began to rethink how their actions might damage the world around them. It also shows how the work of one woman, Rachel Carson, against the indiscriminate use of DDT was a precursor to some of the environmental challenges of the 21st century. The video is useful for clarifying to students how America came to rely on DDT, how widely it was used, why it was banned, and how policy makers in the modern era are developing solutions for environmental management that are more congruent with the natural world.
Students will learn
  • How mid-20th century Americans viewed the relationship between humans and the natural environment.
  • How the US government came to develop environmental protection policies.
  • How modern governments and scientists are attempting to solve environmental management problems with complex responses that are safe, effective, and environmentally sensitive.
DDT, Malaria, and the Book That Changed Environmental Debate
Subjects
  • Science
  • Environment
  • U.S. History
Topics
  • The Environment and Natural Resources
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
  • 1960s America
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

The release of Rachael Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962 warned that the overuse of pesticides was posing a long-term threat to wildlife, humans, and the environment.

The book documented how the indiscriminate spraying of DDT – dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane - to control pests was washing off into rivers and streams, poisoning fish, birds, and even humans with toxic chemicals.

The message sounded an alarm that led to Congressional hearings. The federal Environmental Protection Agency eventually banned most uses of DDT in 1972.

Silent Spring also challenged the post-war faith that science was only improving life, and created a new public awareness that nature needed to be protected, a concept that fueled the environmental movement in the 1960s.

But some critics pushed back fiercely, attacking the book as “junk science,” and smearing Carson as “emotional.

By the dawn of the 21st century, the assault continued, as critics claimed the ban on DDT was responsible for the rise of malaria around the globe because it was no longer available as a tool to fight against it.

That story was vastly oversimplified. Over time, even places that didn’t ban DDT have struggled to control malaria as mosquitos have become resistant to the pesticides used against them.

Today, there is a powerful lesson in Carson’s work that scientists are rediscovering and putting into practice: pesticides are just one weapon in the war against malaria.

Comprehension Questions
  • Why was DDT so widely used in the 1950s and 1960s?
  • What hidden costs of using DDT did Rachel Carson call attention to?
  • Why is DDT no longer effective against mosquitos?
  • What lessons have modern scientists and policy makers learned from the history of DDT?
  • How have these lessons affected their approach to controlling mosquito and malaria?
Discussion Questions and Writing Prompts
  • How have American attitudes towards the protection of the environment changed since the era of DDT?
  • Have modern Americans become too concerned about the environment, or are they still not concerned enough?
  • While DDT saved human lives by reducing malarial infections, its unintended consequences caused it to be banned. Are there technologies today that are still legal, but which might be banned in the future as we come to learn of their unintended consequences?
  • If humans could unleash genetic modifications upon mosquitos that would eradicate the species entirely, should they do it? Why or why not?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "DDT, Malaria, and the Book That Changed Environmental Debate" Retro Report
“Rachel Carson, DDT and the Fight Against Malaria” Retro Report
Audio Interview: "Rachel Carson: The Pioneering Scientist Who Changed Pesticide Use" WNYC

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes.

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

Critique the central arguments in secondary works of history in multi-media in terms of their historical accuracy.

Skill 5.A: Identify patterns or connections between historical developments.

Theme 3: Geography and the (GEO).