The debt to Rachel

Silent Spring became an anthem that empowered the environmental movement.

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The Viciousness Of the attacks must have stung.

A quiet, private woman who lived with her elderly mother and orphaned grand-nephew and had no taste for celebrity, Rachel Carson found herself the target of furious industrialists and bureaucrats whose agendas she had dared to challenge. Her book Silent Spring, published 50 years ago this spring, accused the United States chemical industry of promulgating the indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides—especially DDT—that was inflicting slow death on the natural world. This toxic rain of chemicals, she wrote, was a “grim spectre” that threatened not only to silence the voice of living things, but to poison humanity.

The empire struck back. Industry spokes ­people and scientists impugned Carson’s credentials, belittled her understanding and assailed her sex. One called her “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature”—as if balance in nature were an abhorrent concept. A former US Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, asked snarkily “why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics”. Since she was physically attractive yet unmarried, he concluded she was “probably a Communist”. Life magazine labelled her “Hurricane Carson” and advised that the tempest be ignored and allowed to blow itself out, whereupon “the real dangers to public health [could] be evaluated, and then controlled by skilled medical men”.

There was the rub: Carson was not a man. She had trespassed into the masculine domain of science, where a woman might be seen but ought not be heard. In a letter to The New Yorker, which had serialized Silent Spring before it came out in book form, a writer remarked, “Isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be OK.”

A faculty member of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, expressed what many no doubt secretly wished when he entitled his review of her book, “Silence, Miss Carson!” But Carson would not be silent. The following year, she testified before President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee and a Senate sub committee on pesticide use. Explaining her sense of mission—the compulsion she felt to tackle an unpopular subject and expose powerful interests—she wrote, “There would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.”

Because she spoke out, the future is a little less blighted and the spring a little less silent for us all. Carson’s book became the spark that ignited the modern environmental movement. She made ecological ideas—new at that time—accessible and comprehensible, just as she had done with her three popular books about the sea. When the US Environmental Protection Agency published its official history in 2010, it noted that Silent Spring “played in the history of environmentalism roughly the same role that Uncle Tom’s Cabin played in the abolitionist movement. In fact, [the] EPA today may be said without exaggeration to be the extended shadow of Rachel Carson.”

What was it about Carson’s message that captured the public imagination? For one thing, she wrote not as an expert lecturing the ignorant, but as one citizen sharing her anxiety with others. When she began her book with the line, “There was once a town in the heart of America . . .”, she was describing her town, in her America. She may have been a scientist and a best-selling author, but she lived in the suburbs and addressed the concerns of her suburban neighbours.

Carson altered the landscape of fear. Postwar America believed that danger came from without—from communism, from nuclear weapons, from the evil machina­tions of foreign states. Just weeks after Silent Spring was published, the Cuban missile crisis unfolded, raising the national paranoia level to extreme. Carson shifted public atten­tion to a conflict that was more insidious and closer to home: the chemical war on nature­ an unwinnable war, she wrote, that catches all life in its violent crossfire. Pointedly, “all life” included human life. The war on nature was ultimately a war on humanity.

The 1950s and 60s were a time when men in white coats were regarded as priests  of modernity. “Better living through chem­istry”—the marketing promise of the DuPont Corporation—was a slogan accepted largely without question. Carson believed that faith was misplaced. “I contend,” she wrote in Silent Spring, “that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscrimi­nately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.”

She wasn’t anti-science or even against the use of chemicals. What dismayed her was the hubris of people who believed they could control nature, as if they were somehow separate from it.

“What hidden fears in man, what long-forgotten experiences, have made him so loath to acknowledge first, his origins, and then his relationship to that environment in which all living things evolved and coexist?” she asked.

As for the “control of nature”, she called it “a phrase conceived in arrogance, born in the Neanderthal Age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man”.

If Carson were alive today, she might be surprised to discover how well entrenched that “Neanderthal” view remains. As it was, she died less than two years after Silent Spring was published, claimed by breast cancer that her doctor knew about, but failed to disclose, for nine months. It is both poignant and tragic that Carson had to contend with human silence, the withholding of the truth, in her private life as well as in her investigative work.

People look for prescience in their heroes, and Carson has been called “a prophet of our times”. She understood earlier than most that trying to save species without securing their habitats was a futile endeavour. She was also an early advocate of marine protec­tion. In words that are as pertinent today as they were when she wrote them in 1958, she declared, “Somewhere we should know what was nature’s way; we should know what the earth would have been had not man interfered. And so, besides public parks for recreation, we should set aside some wilder­ness areas of seashore where the relations of sea and wind and shore—of living things and their physical world—remain as they have been over the long vistas of time in which man did not exist.”

She was mistaken about one thing,though. In 1942, she wrote, “The ocean is too big and vast and its forces are too mighty to be much affected by human activity.” We know differently now. Oceans acidify and sea levels rise, threatening islands and ecosys­tems. Fisheries collapse. Not even the deep oceans escape the impact of human activity. These developments would have depressed Carson, who loved the sea more than any other habitat.

A 50-year anniversary brings commentators out of the woodwork. Some have drawn attention to the pro-business politico-environmental landscape that prevails today despite Carson’s warnings. On fracking, on deep-sea oil drilling, on seabed mineral extraction, the presumption is that the public should trust the “men in white coats”—and their counterparts in pinstriped suits.

In the most recent Carson biography, On a Farther Shore, by William Souder, the author laments that no book on an environmental issue today—climate change is the obvious example—is ever likely to enjoy the influence of Silent Spring, so politically toxic has the environment become and so polarised and partisan the debate.

Carson’s enemies have been vocal, too. If anything, the attacks are harsher now. Carson has been labelled the “queen of green geno­cide” because—it is claimed—she advocated banning the use of DDT, which indirectly led to the death of millions from malaria. She advocated no such thing. She opposed the irresponsible and unregulated use of DDT in agriculture, not its use in mosquito control.

One aspect of her legacy has not been much remarked upon: her advocacy of delight in nature. In her last book, published after her death, she urged parents to nurture in their children “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote to boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength”.

Carson believed that knowledge and mystery could walk hand in hand. Between science and spirit, she never picked sides. A sense of awe and wonder was a necessary curb on the tendency of humans to overreach themselves, and our best motivation to push back against the encroaching silence.

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