Rachel Carson is considered the mother of the environmental movement for good reason. She was a dedicated marine biologist who loved all of nature and communicated this passion to the public. Far ahead of her time, her research, compelling writing and activism sparked a shift in consciousness that led to the banning of the pesticide DDT and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Her work holds increasing relevance today.
Silent Spring, published in 1962, exposed the dangers of pesticides and sparked the fight against chemical corporations and polluters. Her earlier major works, Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea exposed non-scientists to the wonders of ocean life and were best-sellers.
Scientist for the people. During the Cold War after WWII, the dangers of radiation fallout were just being recognized. Newly industrializing farms conducted widespread pesticide spraying. Government and industry pushed the idea that all pests could be eradicated by chemical poisons and that progress comes when “man” conquers nature. “Better Living Through Chemistry” was a celebrated DuPont slogan.
Carson disagreed with these sentiments and argued for seeing humans as part of nature — not its conquerors. She was fascinated by the interdependence of earth, air, water, plants, and creatures. She believed it was crucial for the public to understand the unfiltered truths of science. Much of the danger she predicted from poisonous chemicals, radiation, pollution and climate change has come true beyond her worst predictions. Microplastic particles invade the food chain, hydraulic fracturing pollutes the water supply, pesticides are tied to cancers and global warming is speeding up.
In Silent Spring Carson explained in an easily understood, personal way the harmful effects of ignoring human impact on the environment. She collaborated with many scientists she met in her career who freely shared their studies and ideas to her book. This fourth book, published only two years before her death, became a runaway bestseller and, in spite of vicious attacks by industry, won prestigious awards worldwide.
The book sparked public outrage over the damaging impacts of pesticides and led to bans on DDT and other chemicals originally developed as weapons of war. In 1970 the EPA was established “to protect human health and the environment.” Its creation was a testament to public concern, but the agency was given limited powers and within a few years was accused of colluding with chemical companies. Much stronger protections are needed.
Undaunted by opposition. Red-baited and denigrated, Carson was viciously attacked by chemical corporations, big agriculture, scientists-for-hire, and government agencies because she was a female scientist challenging the abuse of nature for profit. Media campaigns tried to discredit her as hysterical and outlandishly romantic, but her facts were backed up by copious references.
Carson had only a master’s degree and was not a laboratory scientist, so she was labelled “a cat-loving spinster.” Monsanto called her book “a high-pitched and emotional screed.” American Cyanamid biochemist Robert White-Stevens called Rachel Carson “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.” Ezra Taft Benson, the Secretary of Agriculture, wrote President Eisenhower that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was “probably a communist.”
Carson was also lesbian-baited. She never married, saying she just hadn’t had the time. She had a deeply loving relationship with Dorothy Freeman, a neighbor whose husband was a nature photographer. Although they only spent a few days together over a 12-year period, they exchanged over 900 letters.
She was the sole support and caregiver for her mother and a niece’s son. She stoically carried on her work through ulcers and eventually breast cancer, which caused her early death in 1964 at age 56.
Carson’s legacy. Organic food and endangered species concerns were seen as faddish and ridiculous at the time her writings were published. But many of the problems she raised are a reality today: resistant superbugs, pollution, infertile soil, disappearing species and rising sea levels.
Intrepid women environmental warriors have followed in her footsteps and faced not just discredit and ridicule but physical attacks. Karen Silkwood was a nuclear-industry employee and whistle-blower, who was poisoned with radiation and died in a car crash in which her documentation of Kerr-McGee wrong-doing disappeared. Judi Bari was a dynamic feminist, union organizer and leader of Earth First! who worked to build cooperation between environmentalists fighting to preserve the redwood forests and rank-and-file timber workers. She was seriously injured by a car bomb, then accused by the FBI of planting it herself.
The increasing control of big corporations over government, science, and media makes the fight to save our planet both more difficult and more urgent. Yet the environmental movement is growing, led by indigenous people.
In her 1962 speech to the Women’s National Press Club, Carson stated that manufacturers finance studies of their own products’ safety, filter out the proof of harm, and only tell the public the positive morsels. She proclaimed, “The screening of basic truth is done … to accommodate to short term gain, to serve the gods of profit and production.”
Her message caused a paradigm shift toward environmental protection, and is more vital today than ever. She believed that when people had the facts, their grassroots action would make change. It’s imperative to prove her right.