Photograph © Condé Nast: “Rachel Carson, Washington, D.C., 1951” by Irving Penn
Rachel Carson’s childhood was spent in a smoky suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, far from the seas and oceans that would one day capture her heart. Her home was near the local glue factory, where she would watch slaughtered horses fed by conveyor belt into an oven; the smell was so rancid that families rarely went outside in the evenings. Without realizing it, she was learning about the impact that companies and chemicals had on animals—even the human animal.
Once she was old enough, Rachel attended the Pennsylvania College for Women, then studied at the oceanographic institute and Woods Hole Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, before receiving her master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University. A gifted writer and scientist, she was made editor-in-chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s publications. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind, written in 1941, told the story of fish and seabirds written in a clear, narrative style. In 1951, she published The Sea Around Us, which was essentially the biographical story of the sea. The book became a best seller and won a U.S. National Book Award. The Edge of the Sea, another bestseller, described the ecosystems of the entire American east coast. She was beginning to address issues that, while at the time were uncommon discussion points, are now critical worldwide issues: climate change, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and dwindling animal populations.
These books prepared her for the arduous research and writing of what would become her seminal work, Silent Spring, published in 1962. It was serialized in The New Yorker, making its way into the homes of average Americans—not just to the desks of scientists and academics. Carson also made an appearance on “CBS Reports” that brought her message into our living rooms. The book primarily focuses on the effect of chemicals on Earth’s ecosystems, but also speaks to their effects on humans, in the form of cancer. The book warns of the dangers resulting from misuse of pesticides, particularly DDT. Through this work, she questioned whether man had a right to manipulate and control nature. She accused chemical companies of intentionally spreading misinformation and public officials of believing those claims without questioning them.
Using tactics that are now commonplace, chemical companies attacked Carson personally—launching publicity campaigns to discredit her science, calling her a Communist sympathizer, accusing her of colluding with the Soviet Union to cause massive crop shortages, and deriding her as a crazy cat lady. Biographer Linda Lear described their characterizations: “She was an alarmist, they claimed… Even a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture was known to wonder in public ‘why a spinster with no children was so interested in genetics.’ Her unpardonable offense was that she had overstepped her place as a woman.” Even today there are those who believe that banning DDT caused massive outbreaks of malaria in Africa due to a rise in the mosquito population. This conflict marked the beginning of environmental issues as a partisan issue.
Less than a year after Silent Spring was published, Rachel Carson—secretly dying of breast cancer—testified before the Senate about the effects of pesticides on the environment. “Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and, in time, return to bring hazard to ourselves.” She lived long enough to see her book become a success, selling over a million copies before her death in April 1964. President John F. Kennedy instructed a science advisory committee to investigate Carson’s claims. Their report eventually vindicated her, finding that overuse of pesticides was causing a buildup of poison in our food chain. However, it took a decade and two subsequent presidents to officially ban the production of DDT in America.
Since the publication of Silent Spring, the environment has become a more divisive issue than ever. As a society, we have chosen not to heed many of Carson’s still-relevant warnings. “Chemical war is never won and all life is caught in its violent crossfire,” she wrote. Today, we see honeybees dying by the hundreds of thousands, and more and more fish and wild game being wiped out by chemicals and lack of stewardship. Leading environmentalist Jonathon Porritt said, “I think she would have been horrified about the state of the planet today. Silent Spring outlined a clear and important message: that everything in nature is related to everything else. Yet we have not taken that idea on board or fully appreciated its significance. In that sense, we have let her down.”
Still, Rachel Carson’s work remains relevant, is cited as an influence on conservational organizations across the world, and was influential in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Carson is considered by many to be the mother of the modern environmental movement. Silent Spring has now sold over two million copies and Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980, by President Jimmy Carter. It remains up to us to heed her message and work toward a cleaner Earth, led by an educated population.
P.S.: Read “The Ocean and the Meaning of Life” from The Marginalian here.
“Rachel Carson examining a specimen” by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Photo credit: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images