Remembering Rachel Carson

Athlyn Cathcart-Keays
Apr 14 · 5 min read

On 14 April 1964, just two years after publishing her seminal text Silent Spring which exposed the widespread destruction of wildlife caused by the use of chemical pesticides, Rachel Carson died. This post is in celebration of her life as an educator, activist, scientist and whistleblower, adapted from an essay written for my Master’s in Sustainability Education.

Having studied biology and zoology, Carson was an experienced natural scientist, who later took a role with the US Fish and Wildlife Services (US FWS). It was here that her work turned to education, when she began writing scripts for a radio show called ‘Romance Under the Waters’, which was intended to make fish biology interesting to the general public.

Rachel Carson. Image: USDAgov (Creative Commons)

Written at the height of the Cold War when the American population lived in fear of chemical attacks and the effects of radiation poisoning, Carson played to these worries and drew parallels between nuclear fallout and the chemical threat of pesticides, questioning the reader’s ability to dread one while ignoring the other: “We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation; how, then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in chemicals that we disseminate widely in our environment?”, she wrote.

We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation; how, then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in chemicals that we disseminate widely in our environment?

Throughout Silent Spring, Carson created an urgent account of the effects of pesticides on human and environmental health by weaving highly scientific information with a poetic narrative of real-life stories from across the US and further afield. Her ability to provide scientific facts alongside anecdotal examples is what makes her an effective educator. It’s not imperative for the reader to understand the science behind how or why pesticides are harming wildlife for example, because tales of its destruction illustrates her points.

It’s within the poetic nature of her storytelling that she is so able to convey the significance of the issue, and plays to the reader’s fears by contextualising the damage in everyday situations: “The breast-fed human infant is receiving small but regular additions to the load of toxic chemicals building up in his body… this begins while he is still in the womb”.

Carson’s love for nature is apparent in her prose, and she directly appeals to the reader’s conscience to not ignore what is happening. Her visceral descriptions of death convey a sense of painful loss, and the responsibility is turned on us. She writes, referring to the slow and painful death of a squirrel: “By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?”.

Her witnessing of the wide-spread damage caused by pesticides led her to exposing this and educate the masses on the scale of the issue. As well as conveying the impact on wildlife and environmental systems, there is a sense that Carson is trying to inform the reader about what they have a right to know, as she is writing not only as a natural scientist and environmentalist, but also as a citizen who is also affected by the health atrocities she uncovers. It is well-established that Carson, who died of cancer in 1964, knew of her diagnosis at the time of writing Silent Spring.

With her fervent highlighting of such issues, Silent Spring has become known as the book that launched the environmental movement, and Carson is said to be the “originator of ecological concern”, and “the first to tap into an idea that other people were starting to feel”. But was Rachel Carson an activist?

The Oxford Dictionary (2009) defines ‘activist’ as “a person who campaigns for political or social change”. I would argue that Carson was not an activist herself, but rather an educator, communicator and perhaps even a whistleblower, who inspired generations of activists through her work, both as an environmentalist and a female scientist.

Carson showed immense bravery by persevering with such a controversial book while operating in the male-dominated world of natural sciences in the mid-20th Century, and is lauded as “perhaps the first ecofeminist”. And not only this, but her writing confronted some of the most powerful corporate and industrial powers in an era when, as she notes herself, “dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged”.

Bill McKibben, environmental activist and founder of the climate campaign group 350.org suggests that Carson was the “very first person to knock some of the shine off modernity”, at a time when technological progress was thought to be the way to control man’s fight against nature. Perhaps partly due to Carson’s position as a female in a male-dominated field, there is a sense that she is reminding us that nature is not at fault here, and that as humans, we are just as much part of the planet as any other living thing. In essence, man cannot overcome natural processes: “The chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire”.

Man is part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself

Ultimately, Silent Spring was a moral call to arms and an indictment of man’s assumed power over the natural world. As a natural scientist, Carson hinted to man’s stupidity in trying to control nature: “man is part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself”. As a nature lover, she wanted to sound the alarm to protect the living earth, and her publication of these findings positioned her as an educator of the masses. In turn, she inspired a generation of activists to campaign on the issues she had uncovered.

In 1963, Carson testified in a congressional review of environmental and pesticide use, which kickstarted a series of policy changes over the following years. After nearly a decade with environmental crises in the spotlight, The Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970, and two years later, it banned the licensing of DDT.

Long after her death, after the cessation of DDT use when rates of mosquito-carried diseases like Malaria were sweeping through the global south, critics took to blaming Carson for this destruction. In reality, the mosquito was becoming resistant to pesticides after decades of use — something that Carson herself had predicted, when she argued that insecticides be used with more care and knowledge of their potentials for harm.

Natural scientist, animal lover, educator or activist, nearly 60 years on from her seminal text, Carson has certainly left her mark in many ways. This year, we experienced another Silent Spring, writes historian Donald Worster, though this time the silence is from “a cessation of industrial civilisation’s usual screeches, roars, and rumbles”.

No witchcraft, no enemy action… the people had done it themselves

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, “the fight once more is against nature” and against the bats that passed the virus between the animal and human world. While the global understanding of the virus has now moved from blaming bats, to blaming politician’s inaction on the pandemic, perhaps we should heed Carson’s advice in this global crisis and the many more that will inevitably come, and remind ourselves that “no witchcraft, no enemy action” has caused this chaos, but “the people had done it themselves”.

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Age of Awareness

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Athlyn Cathcart-Keays

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Freelance researcher, writer & project lead on community & sustainability projects. Interested in land rights, food, nature education🌱 twitter.com/athlynck

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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