With much of America’s West Coast burning and Southeast Coast flooding, it’s amazing that the subject of climate change has barely been mentioned in the Susan Collins-Sarah Gideon Senatorial slugfest.

Instead, Mainers have been treated to a nightly barrage of dueling television ads in which Collins and Gideon have attacked one another for every real and imagined misstep of their careers. Yet in a state which can rightly claim to have birthed the environmental movement and which remains in the forefront of progressive environmental policy, one hears scarcely a word from either candidate about climate change.

Thanks to all the downtime afforded me by the pandemic shutdown, I’ve caught up on my recreational reading in the past seven months — pulling books off the shelf that have been gathering dust for years. The best read of all has proven to be Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in September 1962. It’s rare that a single book is able to change cultural paradigms and redirect national policy, but Carson’s is definitely one of those.

Trained at Johns Hopkins University as a marine biologist, Carson worked for 17 years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service while simultaneously writing highly regarded popular books on nature. She left government service in 1952 to devote herself to being a full-time author and began research for Silent Spring in 1958.

Although she resided in Maryland, she summered from 1953 until 1963 (the year before her death) in Maine on Southport Island, where she wrote, relaxed and explored its beaches and tide pools.

Poetically eloquent and meticulously researched, Silent Spring exposed the enormous damage that the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides and herbicides were wreaking on the environment in the aftermath of World War II. Millions of gallons of chlorinated hydrocarbons (the best known being DDT) and alkyl phosphates were sprayed on crops, forests, lawns, roadsides, swamps and marshes in the mistaken belief that insect pests (like mosquitoes and Japanese beetles) and nuisance plants (like sage and crabgrass) could be surgically eliminated from nature.

The disastrous consequence, as Carson persuasively argued, was that the man-made chemicals dumped on water, soil and plants were killing or sterilizing birds, fish, mammals and beneficial insects while subjecting people to neurologic injury, endocrine disorders, genetic damage and cancers. And, in a cosmic irony, the pests these toxic chemicals were supposed to eliminate invariably developed genetic resistance and became, after brief periods of reduced numbers, more numerous than ever.

Silent Spring gave voice to a fledgling environmental movement that called into question the then generally accepted belief that pollution was an unavoidable cost of progress.

It led to the first Earth Day demonstrations on April 22, 1970, to creation of the Environmental Protection Agency the same year, and, thanks to the tireless legislative efforts of another Mainer, U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, to passage of the Clean Air Act (1970) and Clean Water Act (1972).

It also spurred enactment of other environmental and wildlife safeguards in the early 1970s, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Endangered Species Act, Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act, and Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act.

Maine is again showing its leadership in environmentalism by promoting alternative solar, wind, biomass, and hydroelectric energy projects in order to reduce reliance on fossil fuels — the primary generator of greenhouse gases that are driving global warming.

On September 22, the Maine Public Utilities Commission approved 17 renewable energy projects, most of them solar, having a combined generating capacity of 492 megawatts. That’s equivalent to about 55% of the 900 megawatts produced by the Maine Yankee Power nuclear plant which operated in Wiscasset between 1972 and 1996. Solar power, which is far safer and cheaper than nuclear, is now even cost-competitive with gas-fired electricity generating plants.

A Maine Congressional delegation unified behind a systematic national and international approach to fighting climate change could become the greatest catalyst for responsible environmental policy since Rachel Carson wrote her seminal work and Edmund Muskie safely guided the Clean Air and Water Acts through legislative minefields.

Most scientific study on climate change dates from the 1990s, decades after Carson’s death, but climate change represents even more of a threat to the health and survival of humankind today than the chemical pollution which so concerned her in the mid-20th century.

That’s why our two Senate candidates need to campaign about something more serious than whether Collins has been in Washington so long “she isn’t working for us anymore” or whether Gideon “voted to raise property taxes” while serving on the Freeport Town Council.

A real debate on climate change would be an excellent place to start.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]


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