Rachel Carson -- Aroused Ecocentric

This summer, I hope to visit Rachel Carson’s homesteadin Southwestern Pennsylvania with my family. Carson would have been 103 last month and, in the months leading up to the launch of our new blog, ecocentric, I've thought of her often, mulling with wonder and gratitude her tremendous influence on all of our lives. In 1962, when Carson published Silent Spring– her thoughtful examination of the environmental devastation wrought by DDT and other pesticides – industry critics pulled out all the stops, calling her, among other things, a "hysterical woman." In retrospect, and gauged against subsequent decades of industry responses to environmental inquiries, the attacks make perfect sense.

Silent Spring, Carson’s fourth book and her third best-seller, "played in the history of environmentalism roughly the same role that Uncle Tom’s Cabin played in the abolitionist movement. In fact, EPA today may be said without exaggeration to be the extended shadow of Rachel Carson. The influence of her book... brought together over 14,000 scientists, lawyers, managers, and other employees across the country to fight the good fight for 'environmental protection.'"

According to Time Magazine, "Even before publication [of Silent Spring], Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that she was... 'unqualified to write such a book.'" The New York Times book review devoted more words to quoting a parody of Silent Spring published by the chemical giant Monsanto than it did to quoting the book itself. While never mentioning Silent Spring or its author, the pesticide manufacturer "adapt[ed]... Carson’s poetic style" in an article entitled, "The Desolate Year," premised on a spring without the use of the chemicals: The bugs were everywhere. Unseen. Unheard. Unbelievably universal. On or under every square foot of land, every square yard, every acre, and county, and state and region in the entire sweep of the United States. In every home and barn and apartment house and chicken coop, and in their timbers and foundations and furnishings. Beneath the ground, beneath the waters, on and in limbs and twigs and stalks, under rocks, inside trees and animals and other insects – and, yes, inside man.

Just in case that didn’t have the desired horrifying effect, Monsanto went on to imply that people might starve:

So the farmers planted and cultivated, and too often the harvest was garbage.... But people had to eat. As food grew scarcer, prices spiraled.

This last excerpt is particularly interesting in that it foreshadowed Monsanto’s current argumentsthat genetically modified organisms are both completely safe and, more to the point, needed to feed a growing population.

In response to the huge popularity of Silent Spring, Monsanto vice president Tom Smith publicly proclaimed that chemical pesticides had not taken a significant toll on wildlife. He was joined by P. Rothberg, president of Montrose Chemical Corporation, the largest producer of DDT (banned by the US 10 years later for posing unacceptable risks to the environment and public health), who derided Carson by saying she was not, "a scientist but a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature." Of course, Carson’s passions and her training reflected her deep regard for that "balance." While today she is most widely associated with Silent Spring, a book focused on land, wildlife and agriculture, Carson was a marine biologist whose three previous books detailed life in the ocean and along its shores. It was precisely Carson’s broad and integrated view of the natural world that made her its eloquent defender – she exemplified the meaning of "ecocentric," telling a national TV audience back in 1963:

We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. The rains have become an instrument to bring down from the atmosphere the deadly products of atomic explosions. Water, which is probably our most important natural resource, is now used and re-used with incredible recklessness. 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.

In addition to DDT, Silent Spring raised alarms about the following chemical pesticides in use at the time:

  • Malathion (banned by the US in 1996 as a hormone disrupter)
  • Dieldrin (banned in 1987 for carcinogenic and immune disruptive properties)
  • Aldrin (banned in 1987 for carcinogenic and immune disruptive properties)
  • Parathion (banned in 23 countries but not the US; toxic to bees, fish and humans; a global ban has been proposed by the World Health Organization; it is illegal to import in 50 countries)
  • Endrin (most uses "cancelled" in US in 1980 due to public health concerns)

Nine months after Silent Spring was published, a Science Advisory committee appointed by President John F. Kennedy issued its pesticide report. The committee chair, Dr. Jerome Wiesner, said the uncontrolled use of poisonous chemicals, including pesticides, was "potentially a much greater hazard" than radioactive fallout. A half century later, we have mountains of evidence detailing how chemical pesticides harm every living creature on Earth – including news this Spring showing that exposure correlates closely with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).Surely Carson’s views – not simply on pesticides, but on humanity’s arrogant, overblown view of our invincible right and ability to endlessly destroy our environment– warrant a thoughtful, extended revisit. In addition to reading her wonderful books and visiting her homestead, on August 29 the public can attend a sustainable feast in her honoron the Rachel Carson Bridge in Pittsburgh, featuring, according to homestead staff, the region’s hottest sustainable chefs, farmers' markets, eco-friendly vendors and groups who work to protect our land, water and air. Who knows, maybe we'll meet up there and toast Carson’s vision – and its legacy in our lives – together.

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