Rachel Carson: A cry in the wilderness that changed the world

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Rachel Carson

In 1961, the Western world was witnessing an alarming decline in bird populations. Biologist Rachel Carson identified the cause: insecticides like DDT were poisoning food chains, from insects upwards. In her book, Silent Spring, Carson wrote:

“Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song. …

“These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes — nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good” and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil — all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides,’ but ‘biocides.'”

It’s hard to imagine a time when people did not understand that pesticides are toxic. This is brought home visually by newsreels from the ‘40s and ‘50s showing beachgoers in clouds of DDT and young children trailing after the sprayer truck in their neighborhood as if it were the ice cream man. While previous authors had proposed pesticides as a possible cause of the declining bird population, none of them wrote with Carson’s eloquence. Silent Spring was published in a serialized form in the New Yorker during the summer of 1962 and in book form that autumn. It sold over 2 million copies.

Fierce opposition to the book came from the chemical industry which threatened legal action. Carson was accused of being unscientific and hysterical, and a she was attacked for being an unmarried woman (which, according to the Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, made her a Communist). In the end, these attacks backfired. CBS broadcast a special report about Carson and her critics. The two perspectives can be summed up in these two quotes from the show:

Robert White-Stevens (Assistant Director of the Agricultural Research Division of American Cyanamid): “The crux, the fulcrum over which the argument chiefly rests, is that Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist, the modern scientist believes that man is steadily controlling nature.”

Rachel Carson: “Now, to these people, apparently, the balance of nature was something that was repealed as soon as man came on the scene, when you might just as well assume that you could repeal the law of gravity. The balance of nature is built on a series of interrelation­ships between living things and between living things and their environment.”

Carson went on to explain: “We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a very tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Now I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged, as mankind has never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature but of ourselves.”

Reactions to the program spurred a congressional review and eventually led to a reversal in national pesticide policy, including a nationwide ban on DDT. Silent Spring is credited with inspiring the environmental movement and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. In the introduction to 1992 edition, former Vice-President Al Gore wrote, “Silent Spring was a cry in the wilderness that changed history.” Unfortunately, Carson did not live to see all of this. She died of cancer in 1964. But just months before he death, despite her failing health, Carson testified before two Senate subcommittees on the interdependence of the human and natural worlds and the dangers that unregulated pesticide use posed to both.

changedworldBut it was not just her identification of pesticides as a biological hazard that made Carson the “mother of the environmental movement” — it was the insight that she drew from this realization, the insight into our interconnectedness with our environment:

“For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan or the Salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence. We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm leaf-earthworm-robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life — or death — that scientists know as ecology.”

Following in the spirit of John Muir and Aldo Leopold before her, Carson bore witness to the interconnected nature of all life: “It is useless to attempt to preserve a living species,” she wrote, “unless the kind of land or water it requires is also preserved. So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all — perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows.” This insight would inspire future environmentalists, deep ecologists, and Neo-Pagans.

Carson saw humanity standing at Robert Frost’s proverbial fork in the road: “The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.” She believed that only an abiding sense of wonder could lead us down the road less traveled toward the preservation of the earth. In a speech accepting the John Burroughs Medal in 1952, Carson said:

“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.

“There is certainly no single remedy for this condition and I am offering no panacea. But it seems reasonable to believe — and I do believe — that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”

Carson is less well known for her other writings, including a trilogy about the sea, exploring ocean life from the depths to the short. There she expressed an almost religious reverence for the sea, which she considered the womb of life and its tomb: “In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutations, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea — to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.”

Neo-Pagans today are indebted to Rachel Carson, both for her unflagging activism and as well as for vision of the interconnectedness of all life.

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Updated 9/5/14

One thought on “Rachel Carson: A cry in the wilderness that changed the world

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