The Original Environmentalist

Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring

by Joel Minor, guest writer; illustration by Lucy Holtsnider, staff artist

In most academic disciplines taught at CC, an FYE or introductory course can trace the field’s origin to a few individuals whose work pioneered the discipline. Drama students study Sophocles, English students have Shakespeare, physicists Newton, and economists Adam Smith. Yet students of environmental studies, like myself, skip straight to Global Climate Change, jumping right into the thick of the biggest issue facing both our discipline and our world. In a subject devoted to problems of the present, there’s a sense in many environmental classes that there is simply no time to ponder the origins of the field and the people that built its foundations.

As I worked my way through the EV major, I learned a few names from the history of the environmental movement, which just emerged in the last century. References to John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold appeared in my textbooks from time to time, but it never seemed to me that any of them had sparked the origin of environmental science and policy as we know it today.

John Muir’s vision of preserving America’s wild public lands certainly helped create the idea of wilderness as we understand it today, and the desire to keep it free of the human footprint. By contrast, Pinchot’s philosophy of “use it or lose it” laid the groundwork for a National Forest system that is used for both logging and backpacking. And I can’t deny that Aldo Leopold’s land ethic inspired tears in my more tender tree-hugging moments: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

But none of those three gentlemen really got to the heart of the ecosystem—the flow of atoms, water, and energy between industrial human society and the human body. All three men focused solely on land that had not yet been developed by humans instead of on the ecosystems that were already colonized or on the fringe of human society. Today, in a world with a growing human population that touches nearly every last corner of the planet, such views seem somewhat archaic.

I must confess that the shadowy origins of the environmental movement never particularly bothered me. The more I learned about present issues—like the industrial-agricultural use of toxic pesticides and fossil-fuel based fertilizers, natural gas wells leaking hydraulic fracturing fluids, and loopholes in the Clean Water Act allowing the destruction of fragile wetlands—the less important the origin of my major seemed. It wasn’t until I took an ecofeminism class last year, and learned a bit more about a name that I’d heard tossed around once or twice before, that the idea of environmentalism having an origin even occurred to me.

Rachel Carson was a shy marine biologist and writer whose passion for the natural world lead her to nearly single-handedly take on the military-industrial pesticide manufacturing complex—and win—at a time when the words “ecology” and “environmental science” had not yet entered the average American’s vocabulary. “Green” was still a color, and “organic” still meant “coming about naturally.” Processed foods, million-acre farms, and city parks  blanketed with neurotoxins were all seen as benefits to human health, not as environmental concerns.

Perhaps Carson’s willingness and ability to fight such a powerful system originated in her own quiet but barrier-breaking life. She was accepted into graduate school for a Master’s in zoology in the 1920s, and was the second female scientist ever hired by what is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She launched a successful career as a government biologist and nature writer while simultaneously making sacrifices in her personal life to raise her two orphaned nieces and care for her aging mother. Her first book, The Sea Around Us, was adapted into a film and won an Oscar for best documentary in 1953.

But what made Carson’s life unique was not that she broke professional barriers as a female scientist. She was extraordinary because she had the visionary foresight of a systems ecologist—one who studies the ways in which the systems of nature are interconnected—and realized that there was something amiss in the postwar consumerist paradise. As a government scientist, Carson was privy to the fact that many of the poisons used in bombs during World War II were being sprinkled over the farm fields that powered America’s baby boom and industrial explosion. Many scientists were equally concerned, and papers began popping up in various journals on the transport of the pesticides (especially the neurotoxin DDT) from farm fields into the surrounding plants, animals, and water. But Carson’s scientific colleagues were limited to their specialty of scientific research. It was Carson’s elegant writing skills, combined with her bold disregard for the power of the pesticide industry, that led to the 1962 publication of the most important book in the history of American environmentalism, Silent Spring.

In Silent Spring, Carson harmoniously combines appealing prose and hard science. The opening lines of the book include a description of a hillside forest: “In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines.” This detail would not be out of place in a great work of fiction. But after drawing in her readers with a comforting description of a utopian forest, Carson drops a bomb: there are no birds in the forest. She spends the rest of the book explaining why. Taking what we now call a systems-ecology approach she elaborates on the interconnectedness and interdependence of the world’s ecosystems.

Carson describes the biochemistry of DDT and other pesticides, breaking down their chemical structures and portraying why and how they affect the nervous systems of animals, including humans. Then she tackles the transport of chemicals through the ecosystem, educating her readers—whose high school science courses, if they existed, likely contained very little of such information—about the movement of groundwater, basic soil science, the food chain, and plant nutrition. Gradually, Carson works her way up the food chain, from the soil to plants to insects and to birds, illuminating the principle of bioaccumulation and explaining how thinly spread pesticides nevertheless end up in massive quantities of animals at the top of the food chain, leading to untimely deaths and illnesses. Those top predators include birds, explaining the increasingly empty skies above American farms and forests. They also include, as Carson eloquently explained in her chapter “The Human Price, human beings themselves.

The magic of Silent Spring is that Carson is not only able to explain complex ecological principles that were only beginning to be understood by science in clear, colloquial language, but also that she is simultaneously able to explain the connections between the natural world and human society. She easily transitions between the political situation that lead to the industrial production of agricultural pesticides and the mechanisms through which plant roots extract nutrients from the soil. She discusses forests as biotic communities and the decision of neighborhood associations to spray their parks with herbicides with equal ease. As a result, she succeeds where Muir and Leopold never even realized they had failed: She explains the world around us as equally shaped by natural and human processes, and, more importantly, as shaped by the interaction of those two processes. Modern day environmentalism was born.

Yet Carson’s work did more than create an avenue for theoretical discussion of the human impact on the natural environment and how that impact circles back to impact human bodies. In showing that it was possible to question the practices of the military-industrial complex, she created a niche in the public policy realm where people could voice concern regarding environmental issues. She created a forum in which to discuss how we humans rely on nature for our very being, and to question how we impact nature accordingly.

Most importantly, she did so with great political success. The use of DDT in America was banned within two years of the publication of Silent Spring. The Environmental Protection Agency was created eight years later, and major laws regulating pollution of the air, water, and soil were enacted within fifteen years of the book’s publication.

Without Carson, environmentalism might still be confined to futile attempts to preserve wilderness and public lands and to prevent the spillover of industrial pollution into our formerly pristine mountains and forests. Instead, today we have a robust set of environmental laws that have created the framework for the protection of human health and ecosystems in America.

Even more than her work in the public sector toward establishing environmental regulation of pollution and pesticides, Carson sits at the forefront of American environmentalism because of her role as an activist. Environmentalism is a discipline built through shared activism for the common goal of a clean environment, and few activists have been as dedicated as Carson. She wrote and published Silent Spring while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, enduring an exhausting schedule of book promotion and talk show appearances, as well as testifying before Congress even as her body was giving out. She died just two years after the book was written, long before she could see the results of her legacy.

Indeed, during the short period that she survived following the book’s publication, Carson was mostly faced with criticism, directed not at the book’s content but at her, because she was a woman. A memo from a former Secretary of Agriculture to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower concluded that she was “probably a Communist” because she was physically attractive but unmarried. (In fact, it was rather difficult to find a husband as a professional scientist single-handedly raising two orphaned nieces and later an orphaned great-nephew during the 1930s and 1940s.) Similarly, a board member of the Federal Pest Control Review Board commented on the record, “What’s she so concerned with genetics for? I thought she was a spinster.” Yet Carson weathered the personal attacks admirably, continuing to speak out fearlessly against the power of pesticide companies and their political influence, and even calling out universities that accepted funding from pesticide companies.

As the original environmentalist, Carson set an example of devotion to scientific truth, clear visions of the bigger picture of the earth as an interconnected system, and fearless advocacy in the face of powerful enemies. It turns out that students in CC’s Environmental Program do have their own original prophet to match Sophocles, Darwin, and Shakespeare. If we can each strive to live up to our Founding Mother’s example, the world will be a much cleaner, safer, and more beautiful place.

The Original Environmentalist


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