Before Greta Thunberg, This Woman Tried to Save the Planet — On the continued legacy of Rachel Carson

Aimée Gramblin

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Rachel Carson, 1944.US Public Domain/WikiCommons

Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring (1962), brought to the American public’s attention the hazards of pesticide use on the environment. By tackling a smaller part of a larger dilemma, Carson gained both negative and positive attention from scientists, politicians, industry, and the public.

In Silent Spring, Carson displayed her respect for the universe and her fear for how her species was ignorantly abusing an environment that sustained eons more time than the blip that may be humankind.

Carson was awed by nature; her reverence showed. She believed that the two largest problems between nature and society were the tendency of humans to be blissfully ignorant until an irreversible crisis presents itself paired with the human tendency to produce ideas, inventions, synthetics, and biohazards at a rate much faster than nature.

This imbalance would take incomprehensible amounts of time to undo.

Carson believed that the damage we caused to our own — and other species — was so great that it would likely end in the extinction of homo sapiens sapiens. In order to get a grasp on the situation, Carson believed we must get involved in politics, education, research, investigation, and proactive interaction with scientists, industry, government, and media. She believed that our species needed to use alternative methods to environmentally hazardous chemicals. Carson believed if we didn’t take these actions, these hazardous chemicals would eventually infect and threaten all aspects of life on earth.

Carson has remained pertinent for over 50 years and is considered one of the founders of environmentalism which has given way to the sustainability movement. Rachel Carson’s message was urgent in the 1960s, it’s even more urgent now as climate change and limited resources are becoming impossible to ignore.

Rachel Carson — Modern Environmentalist

Rachel Carson grew up in Pennsylvania. In the 1920s she began studying biology in the graduate department at John Hopkins University. In the 1930s Carson worked for the Bureau of Fisheries as a research scientist and in 1949 she was appointed Director of Publications at the Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1951, Carson’s book, The Sea Around Us, was published, followed by The Edge of the Sea in 1955.

The publication of Silent Spring in 1962 jumpstarted the environmental sustainability movement (Jamison and Eyerman, p. 92–93). Carson was ambitious and effectively demonstrated advocacy can change things. Her life’s work cemented her in the history of science canon as a catalyst for environmentalism and the sustainability movement. Carson is one of the first examples of a modern environmentalist.

Rachel Carson and E.E. Just

Carson’s contemporary, E.E. Just, held similar views. Just was a Black scientist in the U.S. While Just endured racism, Carson worked in a field dominated by white men. Just and Carson, due to their minority status, were possibly seen as more radical than they actually were.

Both Carson and Just were anti-mechanists who saw the need to observe and gain an understanding of a complete picture of life.

“By virtue of of its peculiar organization in space as well as in time, however, the living thing occupies a level in the natural world above that of all chemical compounds.” E.E. Just, p. 14

Carson would have agreed with Just this is the way it should have been, but the use of pesticides now altered what ought to be reality into a frightful poisoning and contamination of all species. The power of pesticides to alter the species made Carson question:

Do species or chemicals now stand higher in the natural world? Which actually holds more long-term power?

The Danger of Taking a Reductionist Point of View

Carson and Just see danger in the reductionist approach. Just believed using a mechanistic, reductionist approach was dangerous. He believed the “cell is never a tool” (Just, p. 28). The cell should be seen as a specimen to be put under observation and measured by tools.

Similarly, Carson saw the danger in the reductionist view of pesticide use. The reductionist stance is pesticides kill insects that bear disease and cause crop failure. But, this doesn’t take into account the whole biological picture.

Carson believed pesticides needed to be specimens put under intense investigation before being used in the reductionist view of the pesticide industry.

In 1962, almost 50 years ago, Rachel Carson wanted us to see that by solving one rather small problem, the pesticide industry was causing the vast problem of poisoning earth.

All life on earth is interconnected and by poisoning one thing, we risk that poison traveling far and wide.

Carson’s grim vision of the future if our species didn’t change its ways did get the public’s attention.

CBS Reports on “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson”

Carson’s book Silent Spring was so controversial that when CBS came out with an edition of CBS Reports called “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson,” all of their corporate sponsors pulled out from the production with the exception of Kiwi Shoe Polish.

At great expense, CBS still produced and aired the episode. In this show, Rachel Carson, Dr. White-Stevens, Secretary of Agriculture, Friedman, and various other officials were interviewed.

This show and CBS made the public aware of some startling facts about pesticide use.

  • 150 people died each year due to pesticides
  • The number of injuries at the time was unknown
  • As much as 80% of the pesticides missed their target when sprayed from airplanes
  • While there were no pesticide regulations concerning water, milk was being regulated for infant consumption
  • With minute traces of pesticide within the system of the pheasant, the male bird displayed characteristics of the female (such as markings) and the reproductive system was adversely affected.
  • Some pesticides were found to cause cancer and tumors in experimental lab animals
  • Pesticides had to be used on ripe crops which made it impossible to get rid of them
  • There was inadequate inspection of shipments of food from one state to another
  • The FDA was not protecting consumers

The content of this CBS Reports episode must have been shocking to its audience. The lay public was made aware of the dangers of pesticides not only on themselves but on future generations of their children and grandchildren.

During the program, Carson proposed that more funding be allocated to inspections of food shipments, legislation requiring pesticides be tested for genetic effects be enacted, and tests and research performed on animals.

She did not advocate an immediate discontinuance of pesticides, rather a gradual shift to other methods of control.

“Man is part of nature, and his war of nature is inevitably a war against himself.” — Rachel Carson, White Paper

In Chapter 2 of Silent Spring, Carson wrote, “How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death to their own kind?” (Carson p. 9).

Nature and Society Need to Be Managed in Symbiosis

According to Carson, we were managing our society in a way that was completely incompatible with nature. She used the example of suburban programs that put Elm trees along city streets to make the community more aesthetically pleasing.

This action gave an unnaturally large haven to beetles deadly to Elm trees. If people had left nature alone, the beetles wouldn’t have overpopulated in their newly increased habitats which they were quickly destroying (Carson, p. 10). Carson also wrote of farms that concentrated on only one crop, therefore making it easy for a “bad” insect to grow beyond its normal level of the population (Carson, p.11).

“Nearly half of the 180 or so major insect enemies of plants within the United States are accidental imports from abroad, and most of them have come as hitchhikers on plants.” (Carson, p. 11).

Carson wanted the public to know pesticides impact air, soil, water, and even produce toxic chemical rain.

The problem with the management of society and nature was mainly our complete lack of knowledge and education about the immediate effects of pesticides and the effects of long-term use of pesticides.

To Move Forward, Society and Science Must Engage in Discourse and Work Toward a Common Goal

In Silent Spring, Carson proposed ways in which society and science had to change together in order to address the problems she discussed.

Carson said there must be adequate investigations by state and federal agencies and the people who use the chemicals should be educated about their potential risks. Research needed to be performed on how pesticides affect the ecosystem.

The bridge between the scientific community and the public needed to be gapped so the public would become acutely aware of the dangers associated with pesticides.

Carson believed, perhaps with naive optimism, that if the public had complete knowledge of pesticide use and risk, they would protest their use and participate in alternate methods of control.

“A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available…All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong.” (Jamison and Eyerman, p. 99).

Carson believed most strongly in education, and once educated, in agitation. She probably felt that political, economic, and industrial agitation were worth the price of sustaining life long-term — even those entities that fought so hard against her ideas.

Carson’s Continued Influence Today

Carson’s work, especially Silent Spring which sold over 2 million copies, is credited with bringing about the formation of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), even though this occurred after her death. Many credit Carson with the origination of Earth Day.

For a more recent overview of Carson’s contribution to science, watch the 2019 PBS series: Rachel Carson: She Set Out to Save a Species…US. Greta Thunberg reminds some of Rachel Carson, so much so that there are even people who believe Thunberg is Carson reincarnate. The Rachel Carson Award was established in 1991 and is awarded every two years. Environmental activist, Thunberg, is the most recent award recipient in 2019.

Our species seems to be waking up to Carson’s message — we must find a way to host a symbiotic relationship between science and nature — humanity and nature.

We risk losing our species’ evolution if we don’t start using our capacity for whole-picture and long-term thinking. We will face extinction if we cannot figure out how to value lives beyond our own time here on earth.

Originally printed in Lessons From History on November 2021.

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