"The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been
uppermost in my mind---that, and anger at the senseless brutish things that
were being done. I have felt bound by a solemn obligation to do what I
could---if I didn't at least try I could never be happy again in nature. But
now I can believe I have at least helped a little."
--Rachel Carson, letter to a friend.
Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was a scientist, writer, naturalist and, many say, the mother of the environmental movement. Inspired by an outstanding biology
teacher at Pennsylvania College
for Women (later Chatham College), Rachel switched her major from English to
biology. While studying at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole,
Massachusetts, she fell in love with the sea. By the age of 28, she was writing science radio scripts for the Bureau of
Fisheries, which in 1936 led to a full-time job as a junior aquatic biologist.
To make ends meet, Rachel wrote feature articles on marine zoology for the "Baltimore Sun." Carson's lyrical style made the
scientific facts she penned more accessible. Her
eloquent prose led to the publication of her first and favorite book in 1941,
Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist's Picture of Ocean Life. By 1949, she had become Chief Editor of Publications in what would become the Fish and
Wildlife Service (FWS).
Carson's second book, The Sea Around Us, explored the origins and
geological aspects of the sea. It won the National Book Award and sold more
than 200,000 copies, enabling her to retire from the FWS to write full time.
In 1955, upon completion of The Edge of the Sea, the final book in her
trilogy about the sea, Carson began focusing on her growing
concern over the effects of chemicals and pesticides on the environment.
"The more I learned about the use
of pesticides," she recalled, "the more appalled I became and 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." At this very important moment in her life, one wonders
if she drew strength from the words of her hero, DR. ALBERT SCHWEITZER, who
once said, "Truth has no special time of its own. Its hour is now - always."
It was then that she wrote her environmental classic, Silent Spring.
Originally serialized in the New Yorker magazine in June 1962, Silent Spring
quickly developed a reputation as the book that started the modern
environmental movement. This brave woman laid out the startling
facts of what man was doing to nature and ultimately to himself.
Carson's underlying philosophy was that humans are interdependent with
nature. She argued that industrial activity
was causing permanent damage to the Earth's ecosystems. Her focus on the
indiscriminate spraying of pesticides like DDT showed how toxins, once in the
food chain, can have severe, unpredictable and far-reaching ecological
consequences. She pointed out that something that kills a worm or plant
would most likely sicken or kill whatever ate the worm or plant. Also, she wrote how
chemically treated soil leads to destruction of beneficial biological species, resulting in imbalance to the ecosystem, transference of the toxins to ground
water and possibly to the plants growing in the soil. In humans, she was
concerned that while eating one product with some toxic residue might not be
harmful, no one knew the future health problems of combining various
products, each with its own "residue."
The agricultural and chemical
industries responded to Silent Spring's publication with an aggressive
smear campaign, calling her unprofessional, a "hysterical female" and even
a communist. Although gravely ill with breast
cancer, Rachel Carson continued to alert the
world to the increasing dangers of
pesticides and chemicals. Her research and conclusions were verified by a
science advisory committee appointed during the Kennedy administration.
Since Carson's first warnings, ecological problems resulting from chemical and pesticide use have become worse according to an article
in the Los Angeles Times (3/29/00) entitled "Farmers Using More Chemicals, Analysis
"Despite a growing organic movement and a shift by some big
growers to less toxic methods, the amount of harmful pesticides used by
California growers has increased by 5% per acre since 1994, according to the
study by the Pesticide Action Network, a nonprofit group that advocates
reducing the use of toxic chemicals in farming."
According to statistics
from the Environmental Protection Agency, sales of pesticides increased from
$500 million dollars in 1962 to $11.9 billion dollars in 1997.
Carson wrote of the "truly extraordinary array of alternatives to the
chemical control of insects." It's about time we make use of them. The cry
of "Organic, please!" is becoming louder and this consumer power is
helping slow the assault of pesticide pollution even when governments do not.
In the words of Rachel Carson, "The choice, after all, is ours to make.
If, after having endured much, we have at last asserted our 'right to know,'
and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless
and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those
who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should
look about and see what other course is open to us."