Rachel Carson, a no longer silent but forceful hero (a reprise)

The following piece was posted about three years ago, but I felt it needed a reprise. Women reading this again will fully appreciate a woman speaking up in a man’s world where her gender was used to squelch her arguments. I also reworded the title, as calling her silent is not correct. She was a calm, but informed scientist who backed up her comments with data.

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.

Note, while Greta Thunberg is not a scientist, at least yet, she is one of the more informed people on the risks and problems associated with climate change inaction. Attempts to discredit her are not dissimilar to those that rained down on Rachel Carson. Thunberg is just a teenager, she is just a girl, she is only echoing what her parents told her, she is looking to make a name for herself, etc. Some jerks even said her being on the spectrum made her opinions less valid. None of these comments have fact or data behind them – they are name calling and labelling, which are short cuts when critics don’t have an argument.

Heroes like these two females speak up in the face of adversity. I have actually seen Thunberg live at a rally. There was a name calling heckler in the audience, but the seventeen-year old teen handled him with the aplomb of a seasoned politician, actually better than most politicians would have. He did not want her to speak, so she invited him backstage after the rally to answer any of his questions.


10 thoughts on “Rachel Carson, a no longer silent but forceful hero (a reprise)

  1. There have been so many people desperately warning the world about what we are experiencing today and what is threatening us in the meanwhile near future. It seems to be human that we only act when we feel the fire burning below our behind, although it would have been much easier to prevent this all if people only had listened.

    • Erika, it is literally a burning platform now. I have shared before I read an executive summary of a report sponsored by the largest pension scheme investment managers in the world along with Mercer Investment Consulting on climate change costs back in 2010. These sponsors noted the cost of uncontrolled wildfires, severe droughts, flooded shore regions, more intense storms, etc. This was back in 2010 over eleven years ago. They spoke of tens of trillions of dollars to fix problems in arrears. That might be too low now. Keith

      • Erika, it is. The simple reason is funding. There are about 30,000 websites funded by the fossil fuel industry to either downplay or discredit climate change. There about 700 peer reviewed scientific websites geared to talk about climate change. That is ratio of over 40 to 1. Even the use of climate change is part of the downplaying campaign as the industry did not like the term global warming. So, the scientific community is 97 to 3 in favor of climate change being a man-influenced problem, yet the websites for the other argument are 40+ to 1. With social media, you can see how hard it is to get through. Keith

  2. Note to Readers: While strides are being made, we are late in the game and we need to be more strident with change. We lost twelve years of demonstrative action under two Republican presidents, one who foolishly announced he was pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Change Accord, one of the most inane policy moves of his presidency. Ironically, the former president announced this pullout the day after Exxon Mobil shareholders voted to require their management to share annually progress toward battling climate change. And, this followed two other energy companies’ shareholders doing the same thing earlier in the month. Each of us make major change and require the same from our governments.

    We can begin with using less energy turning thermostats colder in the winter and hotter in the summer; driving less, walking more or using mass transit, or buying an electric of hybrid; turning off all electronics at night, etc. We can eat less meat and cut back on plastic use which will help in several ways. We can encourage the replenishing of forests and mangroves, which absorb so much carbon. We can encourage a wider scale use of solar, wind, water, tidal, etc. renewable energy sources which are on par or more cost effective than coal. And, there is so much more that is needed on greater levels.

  3. Note to Readers: Another hero worth mentioning is Dr. Sandra Steingraber a biologist and ecologist. She is a bladder cancer survivor which is usually environmentally caused. She is an environmental activist who is quite outspoken against fracking, mountain top mining, and waterway degradation by toxic runoff. I have read two of her books “Raising Elijah” and “Living Downstream.”

  4. Excellent piece on some outstanding people Keith.it shouldn’t matter that they are women, only that they are informed.I hope that many more take up the cudgel to knock a few thick heads together.

    • David, thanks. Courage to speak out should be applauded no matter who does it. Carson stood alone against some very big guns and spoke the truth. Thunberg has called leaders on the carpet for window dressing climate change action. Steingraber has spoken in front of the EU parliament and US Congress. I have had the pleasure to hear her speak as well. They all have gravitas.

  5. A good post Keith and a strong challenge to all those deniers who cannot cope with instinctual warnings from within their bodies alerting them to the fact ‘All is not well’.
    One of the more grotesque eruptions on social media is the sight of adults pouring vitriolic hate on a teenager, particularly when they have no comprehension of the natural forces at work on a planet.
    By the bye; being in the UK and but a youth, I first learnt of Rachael Carson through ‘Peanuts’ cartoons, she was referenced by Linus at least once.

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