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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.

In 1962, the publication of “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson set the stage for the environmental movement. Carson’s carefully researched book exposed the hazards of the pesticide D.D.T. and raised tough questions about how human behavior might damage the environment. Her work forecast some of the major environmental challenges of the 21st century. The video is useful for clarifying to students why America came to rely on D.D.T., how widely it was used, why it was banned, and how policymakers in the modern era are developing solutions for environmental management that are more congruent with the natural world.


Students will:

  • Examine the impact of “Silent Spring” on the use of pesticides in the U.S.
  • Compare how mid-20th century Americans viewed the relationship between humans and the natural environment to attitudes in today’s populations.
  • Review the events that led to the establishment of the E.P.A. to develop environmental protection policies.
  • Cite an example of how modern governments and scientists are attempting to solve environmental management problems with complex responses that are safe, effective, and environmentally sensitive.
  • U.S. History
  • Civics & Government
  • Biology
  • Geography
  • Environment
  • Gender Studies
  • Environment
  • Public Health
  • Biology
  • Civics and Government
  • U.S. History
  • 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.

Essential Questions
  • Why was D.D.T. so widely used in the 1940s through the 1960s?
  • What hidden costs of using D.D.T. did Rachel Carson call attention to?
  • Why is D.D.T. no longer effective against mosquitos?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "DDT, Malaria, and the Book That Changed Environmental Debate" Retro Report
Florida mosquitoes: 750 million genetically modified insects to be released BBC News
The Story of Silent Spring Natural Resources Defense Council
When it Comes to Pesticides, Birds are Sitting Ducks Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute
Optional: Cat Drop Columbus City Schools
Optional: Biomagnification Activity Penn State Extension
“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, and related consequences.

Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

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

Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.

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

Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.

Human activities have significantly altered the biosphere, sometimes damaging or destroying natural habitats and causing the extinction of other species. But changes to Earth’s environments can have different impacts (negative and positive) for different living things. Typically as human populations and per-capita consumption of natural resources increase, so do the negative impacts on Earth unless the activities and technologies involved are engineered otherwise.

Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity

Apply concepts of statistics and probability to support explanations that organisms with an advantageous heritable trait tend to increase in proportion to organisms lacking this trait.

  • Organisms, and populations of organisms, are dependent on their environmental interactions both with other living things and with nonliving factors.
  • In any ecosystem, organisms and populations with similar requirements for food, water, oxygen, or other resources may compete with each other for limited resources, access to which consequently constrains their growth and reproduction.
  • Growth of organisms and population increases are limited by access to resources.
  • Similarly, predatory interactions may reduce the number of organisms or eliminate whole populations of organisms. Mutually beneficial interactions, in contrast, may become so interdependent that each organism requires the other for survival. Although the species involved in these competitive, predatory, and mutually beneficial interactions vary across ecosystems, the patterns of interactions of organisms with their environments, both living and nonliving, are shared.

Ecosystems are dynamic in nature; their characteristics can vary over time. Disruptions to any physical or biological component of an ecosystem can lead to shifts in all its populations.

  • Natural selection occurs only if there is both (1) variation in the genetic information between organisms in a population and (2) variation in the expression of that genetic information—that is, trait variation—that leads to differences in performance among individuals.
  • The traits that positively affect survival are more likely to be reproduced, and thus are more common in the population.
  • Natural selection leads to adaptation, that is, to a population dominated by organisms that are anatomically, behaviorally, and physiologically well suited to survive and reproduce in a specific environment. That is, the differential survival and reproduction of organisms in a population that have an advantageous heritable trait leads to an increase in the proportion of individuals in future generations that have the trait and to a decrease in the proportion of individuals that do not.
  • Adaptation also means that the distribution of traits in a population can change when conditions change.
  • Adaptation by natural selection acting over generations is one important process by which species change over time in response to changes in environmental conditions.
  • Traits that support successful survival and reproduction in the new environment become more common; those that do not become less common. Thus, the distribution of traits in a population changes.

Construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems.

Construct an explanation based on evidence that describes how genetic variations of traits in a population increase some individuals’ probability of surviving and reproducing in a specific environment.

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

Theme 3: Geography and the (GEO).

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