Heroes of Sustainability: Rachel Carson

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

There is perhaps no book that’s made a greater impact on the environmental movement than Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Published in 1962, the groundbreaking work brought to the forefront of American public consciousness the impact of pesticides on the earth, making the New York Times best-seller list for more than 80 weeks. A decade after the book was published (and due to its influence), DDT was banned in the U.S.

Hard at Work
Who was the woman who wrote a book that spurred such action? Carson was born in 1907 and grew up in rural Springdale, Pennsylvania, where she developed a love of nature and reading from a young age. At the Pennsylvania College for Women, she first studied English but then changed her major to biology, and went on to earn a master’s at Johns Hopkins University in zoology. After the death of her father and needing to contribute to the family income, Carson took on a job that melded her two loves of science and writing, penning weekly radio scripts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries that were intended to get the public interested in aquatic life and the bureau’s work.

From there, she went on to become only the second woman hired full-time for a professional position by the bureau, and in her role, she wrote pamphlets and other educational materials for the public. On the side, she contributed articles to newspapers and magazines, with an Atlantic Monthly piece eventually turning into her first book, Under the Sea-Wind. It was well reviewed and today is considered one of the classics in nature writing.

Her next book, The Sea Around Us, garnered the financial security she needed, along with much recognition and a slew of awards. It was turned into a documentary that won an Oscar, although Carson was never happy with the script that was written for the project. She followed up her enormously successful sophomore effort with a third book about the sea, this one titled The Edge of the Sea. It was also quite popular, and completed her look at the oceans from deep under to the shores.

The Environmental Movement
The inspiration behind the work that would come to most define her to popular audiences, Silent Spring, started with a letter her friend published in The Boston Herald, about birds dying on her property because of the DDT sprayed to get rid of mosquitoes. After becoming aware of this, Carson largely focused her scientific research efforts on pesticides, spending the rest of her career examining and writing about their effects.

Silent Spring came as a cry in the wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly written argument that changed the course of history,” wrote Al Gore in an introduction to the book’s 25th-anniversary edition. “Without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.”

Carson died of cancer less than two years after Silent Spring was published, and as such, never fully took in the legacy she left behind. Jimmy Carter awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, and countless academics and citizens alike were influenced by her work.

In Silent Spring, Carson wrote: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

For more information on Carson, visit www.rachelcarson.org.

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