Every anniversary of Rachel Carson’s contributions brings new books and a flood of reviews, this more than forty years after Silent Spring, the 1962 book that woke us up to the hazards of poisoning the world with chemicals. May this continue.
Of course not everyone cheers her wake-up call. There are many with vested interests in the commercialization of everything, no questions asked about environmental effects. So beware.
Even her friends too often distort her message, and who she was. Some of this is inevitable because we always reinterpret things form a current point of view; but some of it is careless language and perhaps over-enthusiasm.
For example, one reviewer enthused that Silent Spring brought “immediate results” by prompting the federal government to regulate persistent pesticides uses. But it took ten long years of stubborn legal advocacy by the nascent Environmental Defense Fund, from 1962 to 1972, to force EPA to adjust to these embarrassing facts. And few have noticed that although most uses of DDT were restricted in the U.S., no hindrances were put on industry to continue producing and exporting this chemist’s panacea.
Language is a climate of opinion: it frames and encumbers what we are trying to say. This is why Ecology was called a subversive science. Carson was said to have subverted the fundamental values of her time, partly to encourage a less homocentric world-view. But are our fundamental values dependable? What oversight of the history of ideas confirms or questions such self-confidence? The notion that the last few hundred years have been marked by Progress still rules, if increasingly shaky.
More aware of our own mixed history, we must learn to see, and value, Rachel Carson as the sensitive prophet and naturalist she was. Not scientist, or biologist, or even ecologist. These specialists are all still too reductionist, too controlling, as even one of the greatest among them, Carl Woese the microbiologist, warned in 2004 when he called d for “A New Biology for a New Century.”
Carson, who became an habitué of the Marine Lab at Woods Hole, and the National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, knew their work and respected their insights. But she was already into that new biology Woese wants, listening to the wind, more akin to James Lovelock’s Gaia than to Watson and Crick’s double helix. Naturalist was title enough. She knew that we must relearn to let Nature be.