Rachel Carson’s legacy lives on
The Abiding Legacy of the visionary Rachel Carson
Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC
In the Catholic world, 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council which transformed our understanding of what it means to be a Catholic in the 20th century. The Council changed the ways Catholics viewed many aspects of Church life and practice. The Council viewed the Church, not primarily as a highly structured, hierarchical organisation, but as the mystery of God’s saving love, present in our world. It emphasised the equality of believers based on our common baptism and membership of the “people of God.” Other changes involved the introduction of vernacular languages for the celebration of the liturgy, and a serious effort to reach out to other Christians and other Faiths through ecumenism and respect for other religions. Though some people are attempting to downplay or even decry the achievement of Vatican II, the impact of the Council was revolutionary.
Another revolutionary event happened in September 1962. The book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, was published on September 27th 1962. Like Vatican II, this book has had an enormous impact. Many people argue that the modern environmental movement owes it origins to this book. Silent Spring describes the impact of synthetic chemicals, especially organo-chlorines, such as DDT, on the natural world. DDT was first synthesized by Paul Hermann Müller in 1874. By 1939, it was discovered that it could kill insects. It was widely used during the Second World War to kill mosquitoes in order to eradicate malaria and was also used by soldiers at the front to control lice. Müller, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948.
Carson argued, that DDT did not only kill what humans call pests, but as it made its way up the food chain it threatened bird and fish populations, and ultimately human beings as well. She pointed out that once these pesticides entered the biosphere they were carried through the food chain right around the world and affected bird and fish populations in the places such as the Arctic, even through these pesticides were never used in those places.
It is interesting that much of the data and case studies used by Carson in Silent Spring were already known to the scientific community. What Carson did in her book was to assemble the scientific data in such a way as to make it understandable to ordinary citizens who might have little scientific training, and then draw stark and far-reaching conclusions from the data. By doing this, Rachel Carson spawned a revolution and encouraged others to attempt similar feats in other places where pollution was threatening the natural world. She popularised modern ecology and opened up the discourse to non-scientists who were passionate about protecting the natural world. In the book, Carson, though not an overtly religious person, does add a moral argument to the arsenal of her scientific knowledge. She believed that human beings did not have the right to poison other creatures nor did she believe that nature was there to serve only humans.
Carson was well aware that in writing what she herself called the “poison” book she, a single women, would be taking on the might of some of the largest and most politically powerful corporations on the planet. Silent Spring sold more than two million copies. It made a powerful case for the idea that if humankind poisoned nature, nature would in turn poison humankind. On June 4th 1964, Rachel Carson testified before a US Senate subcommittee on pesticides. She told the Senators “our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves” None of the Senators were aware that though she was only 56 years old, she was dying of cancer. She already had a mastectomy. The cancer had spread to her pelvic which made sitting down difficult.
I would argue that since 1962 environmental issues have grown larger and more urgent. Yet no single work has had the impact of Silent Spring. It is not that environmentalists have not attempted in every way possible to convince the public about the importance of addressing issues such as climate change and the extinction of species before serious and permanent damage is done to the fabric of life on earth. Despite all of the widely disseminated information huge swathes of US public opinion does not ‘believe’ in climate change. Climate change, which is probably responsible for the unprecedented drought in the US this summer has barely surfaced in the 2012 presidential election.