Rachel Carson, a silent, but forceful hero

It is hard to go against the grain. It is especially hard when you are a 5’4″ woman in a man’s scientific world that boldly said we can tame nature. Yet, when Rachel Carson wrote her provocative book “Silent Spring” in 1962, she rocked the world of the chemical industry. PBS’ “American Experience” has an excellent episode on Carson.

While her book was fiercely discredited by various “throw something against the wall” attacks by the chemical industry, it helped define how we need to proceed with more precaution. It laid bare the hubris of those who felt they could control nature.

It also started a grassroots environmental movement. Within ten years, the toxic chemical DDT would be banned and the Environmental Protection Agency would be created. Her testimony to Congress abetted these efforts. The Cuyahoga river in Cleveland catching fire also was a clarion call. Yet, she would not live to see them. She had cancer when she was being interviewed and testifying to Congress dying in 1964.

“Silent Spring” was her fourth best seller. The first was her “The Sea Around Us” published ten years earlier. Her first topic called upon her marine biology degree and work at the National Wildlife and Fisheries Department. Her first published book in 1941 called “Under the Sea Wind” was re-released after the second one’s success and sold well. Her “The Edge of the Sea” published in 1955 also was a best seller.

Her voice came at a time when “more chemicals” was the answer to any question. She was troubled that our arrogance was getting ahead of our wisdom. Her voice gained footing when it became apparent some fishermen had radiation poisoning from drifted winds from a hydrogen bomb test. But, she had been concerned about the unbridled use of pestiides for years.

A few chapters of “Silent Spring” were printed in The New Yorker and caused such an uproar that a Science Commission was set-up even before the book was released. President Kennedy made reference to Carson in a Q/A with reporters. She understood the use of pesticides is necessary – her main thrust is we need more testing before they are used. The chemical industry went after her and said she was undermining progress. She was called a communist and her data was more anecdotal. And, the fact she was a woman unnerved industry scientists, who felt she was infringing on their turf.

The book was a runaway best seller. It was highlighted in 70 newspapers. When she answered her critics, only then did they realize the power of her calm and informed voice. They were unable to silence her, though they gamely tried to stop a CBS Special Report featuring an interview with Carson. While two sponsors were pressured to drop out, CBS held their ground. For every question answered, there were 100 more raised.

The CBS Special Report was seen by as many as 15 million people. Carson was quite believable.  It was so impactful, a Congressional Committee was set-up the next day. A few months later, the earlier established Kennedy commission verified her findings as vindication.

As she told Congress we must measure the hidden costs against the potential gains. Shouldn’t we do that with every issue? And, for that she was vilified. However, her most telling testimony is our children have been born into this chemical age and we don’t know the full impact on their lives. As one historian noted in the “American Experience” documentary, she caused a “paradigm shift.” Thank you Ms. Carson.

12 thoughts on “Rachel Carson, a silent, but forceful hero

  1. Note to Readers: One of the companies that criticized Carson’s book and message was Monsanto. It should be noted Monsanto has several lawsuits to go along with a $2 billion settlement in California with respect to its herbicide Round-up. Apparently, Monsanto has known dating back to the early 1970s that Round-up was more harmful to humans they let on. That is just ten years following “Silent Spring.”

  2. Note to Readers: Two additional comments. “Silent Spring” is the title as Carson wanted the image of pesticides killing off the birds and crickets making everything quiet.

    The other is fighting against the tide is even harder for a lone female who must suffer gender bias. As a female rocket scientist noted, she was always the lone female in every engineering or science class.

    To Carson’s credit, her soft-spoken, matter-of-fact style made her arguments more compelling. It reminds me of the concept, if you want your children to hear you, whisper.

  3. Note to Readers: From an article in “The Guardian” today on Cancer Town – Reserve, Louisiana.

    “This US town has a risk of cancer 50 times the national average. A chemical plant – built on the site of an old plantation – emits a ’likely carcinogen’. Can residents of this working-class, predominantly black community win the right to a safe environment for their children?”

  4. That is an awesome article in honour of Rachel Carson. She, of all those who pushed me, was the main reason I became an activist environmentalist in the late sixties and for the following 1.5 decades. Silent Spring became my environmental Bible and gave me the words and information I needed to speak out. Thank you, Keith, and thank you Rachel.

    • Sha’Tara, I love your sharing a personal connection to Carson. If you get a chance to watch the documentary, please do. I was very impressed by her quiet, informed candor. She disarmed her critics and made people listen. Other authors noted how “Silent Spring” grabbed the audience from the get go. The other surprise to me is she had four best sellers on the environment before there was a movement. She caused the movement. Many thanks for your comments and advocacy. Keith

  5. When your posts are not split – and can be read via email post while off line, I am guilty of reading but not commenting often… This one definitely deserves an extra ‘bravo!’ – she was a leader and inspired many – and awakened many.

    Sometimes I feel as if I’m witnessing her ‘silent spring’ – and it’s eerie when the birds are silent here in the protected forest… Something’s definitely not well here – and for sure our species is most likely the ‘villain’ in the story…

    Thanks for thihs

    • Lisa, thanks for letting me know you are reading when you can. I hear you about the silent echo today. With climate change, environmental impact is occurring – we are seeing the Zika virus in the US and lobsters are moving north. And, butterflies and bees are in jeopardy. We also have an EPA that is enabling polluters more so than ever before. Keith

  6. Note to Readers: Another hero, Sandra Steingraber, biologist, ecologist and author of “Living Downstream” and “Raising Elijah,” picks up on Carson’s concerns over children. She notes most environmental impact tests are measured on an age 50 year old man. They should focus on children – who are closer to the ground, whose lungs and brains are not fully developed, who mouth breath more, and who touch things and place their hands in their mouth more than adults. She adds airborne chemicals settle in trees and fields which are near where children go to school and play. In her mind, doctors need to ask as many environmental questions as heredity ones.

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