The Legacy of Rachel Carson

The Legacy of Rachel Carson by Sally Campbell

The following quotations are at the front of Silent Spring:

“Modern man no longer knows how to foresee or to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth from which he and other living creatures draw their food”.
Albert Schweitzer (1956) Bulletin of International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

“I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good. Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively, instead of sceptically and dictatorially.”
E.B White, author

This month I have been reading Rachel Carson, Witness for Nature (2009) by Linda Lear, a compelling biography. It just reminded me that Rachel was not only a citizen scientist, an ecologist, and author but persistent in her science, robust in her defence of natural ecosystems, stood up to bullies, misogynists, insulting PR from the big pharma industries and agriculture after short term profit advantage, and in many ways paved the way for much more acceptance of ecology as an important step in science research, and policy making.

It was in June 1962 that the first instalment of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in The New Yorker. Everyone was talking about ‘this woman’ who claimed that we were destroying the Earth by our misuse of synthetic chemical pesticides. She was already a highly respected nature writer, but in Silent Spring, with huge courage and conviction, she took an extraordinary risk in challenging the government and scientific establishments.

Rachel Louise Carson (May 2,1907 – April 14,1964) was born on a family farm near Springdale, Pennsylvania, just up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh. She was the daughter of Maria Frazier (McLean) and Robert Warden Carson, an insurance salesman. She spent a lot of time as a child, exploring around her family’s 65-acre farm. Her mother Maria had been a teacher until her marriage and was a perfect nature-study teacher, sharing her knowledge in the great outdoor lessons with her two daughters. She shared her knowledge of natural history, botany and birds. Rachel was soon studying the environment for herself and became a marine biologist, author, and conservationist. Out of those studies came the influential Silent Spring (1962) and other writings, which are credited with advancing the global environmental movement.

Rachel began her career as an aquatic biologist in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and became a full-time nature writer in the 1950s. Her widely praised 1951 bestseller The Sea Around Us won her a U.S. National Book Award, recognition as a gifted writer and financial security. Her next book, The Edge of the Sea, and the reissued version of her first book, Under the Sea Wind, were also bestsellers and still in print. This sea trilogy explores the whole of ocean life from the shores to the depths.

Late in the 1950s, Rachel turned her attention to conservation, especially some problems she believed were caused by synthetic pesticides: the dying of song birds in agriculture treated with pesticides. The result was Silent Spring (1962), which brought environmental concerns to an unprecedented number of the American people. Although Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, big pharma, and agriculture, it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, which led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides. It also inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Rachel Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.

Very few books change the course of history and Silent Spring is one which sits alongside Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867). Initially serialised in three successive issues of The New Yorker in the summer of 1962, published as a book in September 1962, and chosen as a book-of-the-month club selection, where US Supreme Court Judge William O. Douglas called it “the most revolutionary book since Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. It initiated environmental movements and still today influences the social policies of every nation.

Sadly, Silent Spring was the final work of Rachel, creative writer and quite brilliant scientific synthesizer. She had become bolder and angrier as she gathered research and looked at the careless attitude of those who spread millions of tonnes of persistent pesticide over the landscape without knowing, or indeed wishing to know, the long- term impact of doing so. The book achieved enormous popularity and broad public appeal before her death in April 1964, of cancer. Still in print, it should be on every politician and citizen scientist’s compulsory reading list.

Silent Spring told the central truth about ecology: that everything in nature is related to everything else. Complexity is there in every interaction we make with nature, big and small. It carefully explained how laying down a barrage of synthetic pesticides might produce something different and immensely more complex than the expected single outcome. The unintended consequences of quick fix insect sprays. So, killing insects, in turn killed birds that ate them, and larger birds or mammals that ate the birds: what we now know as food chain linkage. At that time, and often still today, science and technology and those who worked in those fields were revered as the saviours of agriculture and prosperity. She exposed these experts to public scrutiny and made it clear that at best they had not done their homework and at worst they had withheld the truth. She was one of the first to convince a complacent and increasingly affluent post-war generation that the government, in this case the US Government, could not always be trusted to take care of them and their environment and she urged individual citizens to assume responsibility for understanding the impact of government policies and to challenge those which are clearly wrong.

The hostile reaction of the establishment to Rachel Carson was as much that she challenged their moral integrity and leadership. The agrichemical industry and its allies in government treated the book initially as an annoying public relations problem and the chemical lobby threatened to sue The New Yorker, her publisher and supportive conservation organisations. That failed, so they spent huge amounts of money denigrating her science, and tried to persuade the public that pesticides were beneficial, harmless and vital to agriculture and that her conclusions would return civilisations to the Dark Ages. This campaign and spin led the message of Silent Spring and Rachel Carson to ever more publicity. By now, the lucrative industry had become concerned at more government legislation, reduced profits and sagging public confidence, so the agri-industry decided to attack the messenger: a campaign against Rachel personally was set in motion.

The main attack was that she was a scientist who wrote for the public; a calling the scientific establishment consistently denigrated. She was a scientist without a doctorate and without institutional affiliations, and had no colleagues to defend her research. Critics cited her recognised literary achievements, three best-selling books, Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea as if they proved she could not be a true scientist. They inferred that her explanations of complex biology and chemistry were by definition inaccurate and too easily understood by the public. So, she was called ‘a hysterical woman’ who used ‘emotion fanning words’, ‘over sensitive nature’ whose book was ‘more poisonous than the pesticides she condemned’; Silent Spring ‘kept reminding me of trying to win an argument with a woman that cannot be won. She was an alarmist who resorted to unscientific fables, to scare people’. Even a former US Secretary of the Interior was known to wonder publicly ‘why a spinster with no children was so interested in genetics?’ A woman working in public science, at a time when women were not respected as research scientists and in addition she was encumbered by a financially and emotionally draining family, with a fading mother, and care of an orphaned grand-nephew. She also knew after 1960, that she had an aggressively spreading and misdiagnosed breast cancer, which she did not disclose except to close friends but blamed arthritis for her limp and walking stick; but which resulted in her death in April 1964, barely 16 months after Silent Spring was published.

Rachel was hurt and angered by these attacks on her science and personal integrity, but instead of being defensive, presented new and more incontrovertible evidence of pesticide damage and misuse, and charged that, basic scientific truths were being compromised to ‘serve the gods of profit and production’ and described in detail the liaison between science and industry. She calmly and carefully answered questions on TV report programmes and a month later before a subcommittee of the US Senate in support of legislative reforms and more government research set in motion a new spirit of activism. Before Rachel’s death in 1964 over a million copies of her book had been sold.

For Silent Spring the evidence of DDT, Dieldrin, Aldrin and Heptachlor etc was everywhere; dead insects, eaten by birds that died, eaten by bigger birds that then had cracked and broken eggs in the nests. “Birdies”, bird watchers, became involved, counting dead birds, providing additional evidence. In the UK, it was initially counting dead foxes and in 1959 an estimated 1,300 foxes were found dead. But in the UK, it was also the heaps of dead birds. By 1961 over 6,000 dead birds were found on the Tumby estate in Lincolnshire. On the royal estate at Sandringham in Norfolk the list included pheasants, red-legged partridges, partridges, woodpigeons, doves, greenfinches, chaffinches, blackbirds, song thrushes, skylarks, moorhens, bramblings, tree sparrows, house sparrows, jays, yellow hammers, hedge sparrows, carrion crows, hooded crows, goldfinches and sparrowhawks. Over 142 bodies were collected in a special survey and hundreds more over a period of weeks. Gradually, over the years since then UK laws on pesticide use have been tightened.

One major thought I am left with is the unintended consequences to ecosystems, especially longer term. But also, and sadly increasingly, the sense of entitlement that voices of powerful industries and big pharma have in the corridors of power that with their lobbying they can do what they want under the pretext of good food, higher productivity and short-term profit. We must all rally to the protection of the world around us, and on Arran, especially the sea around us.

Underlying all of these problems of introducing contamination into our world is the question of moral responsibility – responsibility, not only to our own generation but to those of the future.

Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring. Reprinted as Penguin Classics 2000
Lear, L. (1997) Rachel Carson- Witness for Nature Mariner Books Edition 2009

Sally Campbell
August 2021


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