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The Gentle Subversive
APRIL 19, 2012 TAGS:
By Steve Goldstein
There is no silence in the spring of environmental activism today, and Rachel Carson would be pleased.
Widely regarded as the godmother of modern-era environmentalism, Rachel Louise Carson would have been 106 years old May 27. She died of cancer on April 14, 1964 two years after the publication of Silent Spring, a scholarly but evocative book that spotlighted the dangers of the pesticide DDT. Her global warning alarmed millions and enraged the chemical industry and became the inconvenient truth of her time.
DDT was ultimately banned, and her seminal book -- a staple of many a school curriculum " led to Carson's name being affixed to parks, trails, schools and nature centers as she came to virtually embody the nascent movement to protect the natural environment. London's Daily Telegraph recently called her "the most influential environmental and campaigner of the modern world." Philanthropist Teresa Heinz said her fellow Pennsylvanian "opened the window for all of us to participate in changing the world."
Silent Spring is considered by many to be the founding text of environmentalism, and with it Carson continued the muckraking tradition of Upton Sinclair, whose book The Jungle exposed conditions in the meatpacking industry. Carson today is cited as a signal influence by such environmental activists as actor Robert Redford, venture capitalist John Doerr and British economist Sir Nicholas Stern. She influenced a generation of young women to become writers and scientists and inspired others of both sexes to take on corporate malfeasance. One biographer calls her "the gentle subversive."
Shy and bookish as a girl, reserved in adulthood, "Ray" Carson immersed herself in biology after changing her major from English in her junior year at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College). The native of Springdale, Pa., a rural town on the Allegheny River north of Pittsburgh, arrived in Washington in 1935 bearing a master's degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University. Hired by the government at $6.50 a day to write scripts for a radio nature show, Carson became a fulltime science writer specializing in marine biology and worked for what became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until 1952.
After writing best-selling books about ocean life, including The Sea Around Us, Carson returned to a subject she had touched upon in a government press release: the potential harm from use of the pesticide DDT.
"The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became," Carson later wrote. "I realized that here was the material for a book. What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important."
Carson was uncomfortable as a revolutionary, and she was not the first to warn of pesticide dangers, but her at once lyrical and chilling vision of the future read like a call to arms: "It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of scores of bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh."
Serialized in The New Yorker in 1962, Silent Spring led to the banning of most uses of DDT, the enactment of a series of environmental laws and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical industry responded with scorn and character assassination, painting the careful scientist and nature lover as "a hysterical woman" and campaigning against the book even before its publication. As a result, Carson kept secret the breast cancer that would eventually take her life, fearful that her work would be seen as driven by anger and bitterness instead of scientific observation.
The ripples from Carson's stone thrown into the pond of scientific discourse changed the parameters of environmentalism from a narrow view of park and landscape to a much broader consideration of the effects of man on the natural world. The power of Silent Spring all but overshadowed her luminous and widely read trilogy: Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of The Sea.
Testifying before Congress in 1963, Carson urged new legislation to protect the environment. Environmental experts say that she is still relevant today because her work can be extrapolated to include other toxins.
On June 9, 1980, President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded Carson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. The main conference room at the federal EPA is named for her and, on Earth Day in 2006, a bridge in Pittsburgh was renamed in her honor. Patricia DeMarco, director of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, said that the writer "was instrumental in turning passive lovers of nature into activists."
Carson's residence in Silver Spring, Md., a Washington suburb, was named a National Historic Landmark in 1991 and today houses the Rachel Carson Council, a pesticide watchdog group. The Rachel Carson Prize, founded in Stavanger, Norway, is awarded to women who have made a contribution in the field of environmental protection. A Sense of Wonder, a one-woman play based on her life, has been performed regularly since 1995. In England, Breaking the Silence, a new play celebrating her crusade, will begin performances in the fall.
Carson's legacy is not without controversy. At a hearing in the Maryland State Senate this year meant to honor the writer, State Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a doctor, said that the ban on DDT has resulted in "millions more" deaths from malaria. More recently, two congressional attempts to honor her centennial were blocked by lawmakers who believe Carson was too alarmist about DDT. Internet chat rooms that debate the scientific merit of global warming sometimes include derogatory messages about Carson.
Earth Day often revives interest in Carson's work and evokes testimonials from those like former vice president Al Gore, who cite her as an inspiration in work and life. In an introduction to the 1994 reissue of Silent Spring, Gore wrote that Carson's book ranked with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as the rare book that transformed society. Silent Spring is still available in bookstores and may never be out of print, having sold 150,000 copies in the last five years alone.
Steve Goldstein is a longtime journalist who lives in Chevy Chase, Md.
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