Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
Perspectives
2012 / 7
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring Encounters and Legacies
Edited by LAWRENCE CULVER CHRISTOF MAUCH KATIE RITSON
RCC Perspectives
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
Encounters and Legacies
Edited by
Lawrence Culver, Christof Mauch, and Katie Ritson
2012 / 7
3Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
Contents
Introduction
Christof Mauch and Katie Ritson
Stop Saving the Planet!—and Other Tips via Rachel Carson for Twenty-
First-Century Environmentalists
Jenny Price
Reading Silent Spring as a Challenge for Contemporary Environmentalism
Lawrence Culver
A Fable for Bloomington
Lisa Sideris
Rachel Carson and an Ecological View of Health
Nancy Langston
Rachel Carson’s Daughter
Joan Maloof
Saint Rachel
Christof Mauch
Carson Survives through the Silent Spring
Akrish Adhikari
Rachel Carson Scholarship—Where Next?
Maril Hazlett
07
11
31
35
39
43
49
55
59
7Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
Christof Mauch and Katie Ritson
Introduction
Perhaps no other US book has caused as strong a stir as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
Like a tsunami, it shattered established worldviews not just in the United States, but
around the globe. The book’s message about the threat of pesticide abuse reached a
wide audience; there is evidence that the so-called ecological revolution was caused
in no small part by the 1962 publication of Carson’s book. Silent Spring became an
immediate bestseller and remained on the New York Times list for 31 weeks. Several
years before Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968) and Barry Commoner (The
Closing Circle, 1971) predicted the threat to humanity through overpopulation and
resource exploitation, Silent Spring led to new environmental awareness and a vision
that translated into tangible political action.
The scholarly legacy of Silent Spring is felt not just by biologists and ecologists charged
with monitoring the health of the natural world, but also by historians who research the
interactions between human societies and their environments. The Rachel Carson Center
for Environment and Society (RCC) in Munich is a research institute devoted to precisely
this kind of scholarship; its choice to adopt the figure of Rachel Carson in its name, despite
its location far from the Atlantic shores where she lived and wrote, also says something
about the global importance of Carson’s books. It is increasingly clear that Rachel Carson’s
career was not purely a feature of the North American postwar political landscape, but a
significant rallying point for environmental awareness around the world.
With the international response to Rachel Carson in mind, the RCC organized three events
in 2012 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication. The first was
the launch of a digital exhibition detailing Rachel Carson and her Silent Spring; the ex-
hibition is freely accessible on the internet, hosted by the Environment & Society Portal
(environmentandsociety.org). The second was the co-sponsorship of the plenary session
of the conference of the American Society of Environmental History (ASEH), held in
Madison, Wisconsin in March 2012. The keynote address and the panel of the session
discussed the legacy of Silent Spring for today’s generation of environmental scholars.
And the third event was an essay competition, with the call for submissions in junior
(under eighteen years of age) and senior categories circulated around the world. An
Jenny Price is a writer and historian, Los Angeles Urban Ranger, and research scholar
at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. She’s the author of “Thirteen Ways of
Seeing Nature in L.A.” and Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America.
Katie Ritson studied at the University of Cambridge and at LMU Munich and has an MA
in comparative literature. She is managing editor at the Rachel Carson Center for Environ-
ment and Society.
Lisa Sideris is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University. She is
author of Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection (Colum-
bia, 2003) and editor (with Kathleen Dean Moore) of a volume of interdisciplinary es-
says on the life and work of Rachel Carson titled Rachel Carson: Legacy and Challenge
(SUNY, 2008).
The volume also draws on the insights of entrants in the Silent Spring essay competition, held in
November 2011 by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.
7Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
Christof Mauch and Katie Ritson
Introduction
Perhaps no other US book has caused as strong a stir as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
Like a tsunami, it shattered established worldviews not just in the United States, but
around the globe. The book’s message about the threat of pesticide abuse reached a
wide audience; there is evidence that the so-called ecological revolution was caused
in no small part by the 1962 publication of Carson’s book. Silent Spring became an
immediate bestseller and remained on the New York Times list for 31 years. Several
years before Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968) and Barry Commoner (The
Closing Circle, 1971) predicted the threat to humanity through overpopulation and
resource exploitation, Silent Spring led to new environmental awareness and a vision
that translated into tangible political action.
The scholarly legacy of Silent Spring is felt not just by biologists and ecologists charged
with monitoring the health of the natural world, but also by historians who research the
interactions between human societies and their environments. The Rachel Carson Center
for Environment and Society (RCC) in Munich is a research institute devoted to precisely
this kind of scholarship; its choice to adopt the figure of Rachel Carson in its name, despite
its location far from the Atlantic shores where she lived and wrote, also says something
about the global importance of Carson’s books. It is increasingly clear that Rachel Carson’s
career was not purely a feature of the North American postwar political landscape, but a
significant rallying point for environmental awareness around the world.
With the international response to Rachel Carson in mind, the RCC organized three events
in 2012 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication. The first was
the launch of a digital exhibition detailing Rachel Carson and her Silent Spring; the ex-
hibition is freely accessible on the internet, hosted by the Environment & Society Portal
(environmentandsociety.org). The second was the co-sponsorship of the plenary session
of the conference of the American Society of Environmental History (ASEH), held in
Madison, Wisconsin in March 2012. The keynote address and the panel of the session
discussed the legacy of Silent Spring for today’s generation of environmental scholars.
And the third event was an essay competition, with the call for submissions in junior
(under eighteen years of age) and senior categories circulated around the world. An
8 RCC Perspectives
inspiring breadth and variety of responses arrived in Munich from every corner of the
globe: from Canada and Western Australia, Sicily and the Philippines, from Reunion Island
off the coast of southern Africa and from Japan, from Korea and Brazil, Macedonia and
Taiwan, Indonesia and Nepal, and others besides. In cooperation with our partners, the
International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations (ICEHO), the American
Consulate in Munich, and the British Council, the RCC provided a panel of judges from
three continents, who each read every entry: and while the two entries printed in full in
this volume are deserving of their winning status, the diversity of views and opinions that
the essay competition provided overall was a dazzling tribute to Rachel Carson’s capacity
to inspire and impassion.1 If we had been able to add other languages besides English into
the competition, we are sure we would have received an even greater and richer collection
of writing.
This volume is the direct result of the ASEH panel and the essay contest, and just as Rachel
Carson was able to unite academics and laypeople, scientists and housewives and farmers
in her writing, so this volume has brought together a set of responses quite different in
origin and interest that serve to highlight the different ways in which Carson’s writing can
be read and interpreted. The keynote address at the ASEH conference by the environmen-
talist and writer Jenny Price is reproduced here, as are the responses by Nancy Langston,
Christof Mauch, and Lisa Sideris. Further insights are provided by the contributions of
scholars of environmental history Lawrence Culver and Maril Hazlett. The two competition
essays printed in full are by Joan Maloof, a retired biologist from the United States, and by
Akrish Adhikari, a schoolboy from Nepal.
The RCC Perspectives is a free publication, designed to nourish discussion and dialogue
on environmental questions and provide a forum for scholars and thinkers engaged in a
broad spectrum of topics related to society and environment. This volume is conceived as
a commemoration of the encounters with and legacies of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
fifty years after it was originally published; we hope that over the coming half-century, the
figure of Rachel Carson, her writing, and the many responses they engender, will continue
to inspire reflection on the state of the natural world and our place in it.
1 Our thanks go in particular to Jane Carruthers (ICEHO, South Africa), Leila Ones (US Consulate, Munich), and Julia Rawlins (British Council, Berlin), who made up the panel of adjudicators together with the authors of this introduction; and to Arielle Helmick and Agnes Kneitz at the RCC, who helped with the organization of the essay contest.
9Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
We act as if the oceans and other natural elements were only resources, not
living beings like us. We act as if they could never end. The current predato-
ry model, which puts us at war with Nature, can make us very rich. But what
will we do with money in a devastated world?
Elenita Malta Pereira, Brazil
Carson warned against the loss of sentiment, of forgetting man’s mystical
relationship with nature, of distinguishing, dissecting, and dividing the re-
lationship with nature. Ecologists understand the balance of science and
sentiment, the fate of the environment depends on it.
Andrew Mackenzie, Great Britain
Rachel Carson explains how it is arrogant for people to assume superiority
over nature. Nature is both fragile and powerful.
Soo Yean Ahn, South Korea
My thoughts have turned to wonder—not simply to the “sense of wonder”
as it exists in those of us who are predisposed to wonder, but to how such
wonder or predisposition arises in the first place. . . .We are nature obser-
ving itself. We are nature thinking about itself. We are nature wondering
about nature.
Laurent Laduc, Belgium / Canada
Trees do not talk. But when they are gone, one will realize their voice. This
is the silence of the tree.
Melvin Jabar, Philippines
11Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
Keynote address at the plenary session of the American Society for Environmental History
29 March 2012, Madison, Wisconsin.
Jenny Price
Stop Saving the Planet!—and Other Tips via Rachel Carson for Twenty- First-Century Environmentalists
Rachel Carson was a visionary. She’s a towering figure in the modern environmental
movement. She’s widely considered to be its founding voice, and she has remained its
conscience. In love with nature since she was a child, she went on to a career as an
aquatic biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service—which she had to break down
many gender barriers to do—and then to write best-selling science and natural history
books about the sea. Her writing combined remarkable factual accuracy with remar-
kable lyricism. In 1962 her fearless book Silent Spring, which exposed the widespread
dangers of DDT and other pesticides and forthrightly attacked the chemical industry,
helped ignite widespread environmental awareness, and in the ensuing decade not
only led the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban the domestic use of DDT,
but also led to the founding of the EPA itself, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act,
and Earth Day. After she died, two years later, of breast cancer, her last, posthumous
book The Sense of Wonder, about her nature outings with her grandnephew Roger,
would celebrate the importance of introducing children to the joys of nature to nourish
their capacity for wonder.
But you already know that. This room is full of environmental historians, and I bet
nine out of ten of you know everything I just said, and more: That in the wake of
Silent Spring, the chemical industry attacks her as a hysteric, a spinster, a Commu-
nist. That President Kennedy directs his Science Advisory Committee to launch a re-
port on pesticide safety. That Congress convenes a hearing at which Carson testifies.
You know all that. There’s a very sizable literature on Rachel Carson—biographies,
children’s books, commemorative anthologies, documentaries—by historians, as well
as by scientists, writers, and activists. In 1980 Roger accepts the Presidential Medal of
Freedom on her behalf. By 1996 she appears on Time’s list of the hundred most influ-
ential people who shaped the century. In A&E Biography’s TV special on the hundred
12 RCC Perspectives
most influential people of the millennium, which they count down in order of impor-
tance, she’s number 87—more significant, apparently, than Eleanor Roosevelt, Suley-
man I, and Steven Spielberg and only eleven slots behind the Beatles. And in the 1993
PBS American Experience documentary, Meryl Streep does Carson’s voice—Meryl
Streep—with an uncanny Rachel Carson accent.
Okay. Rachel Carson is a hero. I’m sure many of you agree with me on that. We’ve seen
a lot of books since 1962 that have brilliantly exposed a lot of environmental messes,
but Silent Spring still stands out. It blows me away for what it accomplished, but I’m
a writer, and it also blows me away with its precision, its poetry—and, again, because
it is just utterly without fear.
Still… Right now I’ve got a pile, more like five piles, of books about Rachel Carson
on my coffee table at home. And when you read this literature, one of the things that
really fascinates me is how consistently, or really wholly and entirely, hagiographic it
is. Almost relentlessly hagiographic. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite
like it. Certainly not for John Muir, Aldo Leopold, or any other figure I can think of in
environmental history. Or Gandhi? Mother Teresa? Oh yes, there’s a lot of criticism.
Yes, in the 1960s, the chemical industry and its many defenders attack her and say she
wants the Russians to win and the insects to take over the world—or maybe both—and
the industry, though it’s gotten more polite, has continued to spew skepticism. And in
the recent renewal of the debate over DDT, some self-appointed bloggers on the extre-
me right-wing end claim she’s murdered 35 million Africans who have died of malaria,
and Hitler killed a lot fewer people, and so forth. But among the environmentalists and
historians and writers? The mainstream literature on her life and legacy? Well, this is
the most G-rated, wholesome biography I’ve ever seen—but what really intrigues me
most is that there are almost no hard questions about her. I’m generalizing a bit, but
the literature is almost all about what we might learn from her life and work. Granted,
I haven’t unearthed all the journal articles. But while the most prominent works ask
questions about Rachel Carson, they don’t, to my knowledge, really question her deci-
sions, her writing, her beliefs, her motives.
And that should jolt any historian awake. First of all, no one lives a G-rated life. What
really seems odd here, though, is that Rachel Carson was born in 1907—fully 105
13Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
years ago. That’s 12 years before my father, who was forty years old when I was born,
and I’m now profoundly middle-aged (which I’m actually not allowed to say in L.A.).
Silent Spring was published in 1962, and her first book Under the Sea-Wind appeared
in 1941. In the ensuing 50 to 70 years, has there been anything—anything at all—that
we might have determined we shouldn’t learn from her?
History—to paraphrase my favorite quote—is the art of making the strange familiar
and the familiar strange. That’s our power, right? We recognize the past as strange,
and then we try to understand its logic. We thereby render the present—the things
we take for granted—fully historical, a little bit strange, and then we can question the
present, and make it seem not so inevitable, and thereby know that we can shape the
future. It seems to me, though, especially as I read about Rachel Carson’s beliefs and
ideas, that we’re making the familiar familiar. Rachel Carson herself, and especially I
think her ideas, aren’t quite in history.
Here’s my Dad—who’s actually my hero, to be honest. He had as much integrity as
anyone I’ll ever know, or will ever know of, and I like to think that anything that’s right
about my ideas and values comes from my father. As a lawyer, he defended people on
the blacklist during the McCarthy era, and he fought hard for desegregation. But did I
find any of his ideas problematic—say, about capitalism—which were forged through
his experiences in the Depression, World War II, and the postwar middle-class expan-
sion? Oh, yeah. I used to tell him that my politics were the same as his, but just if you
Left: The author’s father, Elmer Price (Courtesy of the author).
Right: The author and her father (Courtesy of the author).
14 RCC Perspectives
took his politics to their logical conclusion—and my Dad, of course, who was born in
1919, thought that pronouncement from his beloved baby-boomer daughter was…
well, that it was a load of crap.
My guess is that almost everyone in this room is both a historian and an environmen-
talist. So tonight, I want to take a stab at making Carson’s ideas not so timelessly right,
and not so inevitably ours. Not to debunk Carson—not at all—and not to deconstruct
because it’s so fun or because I can. Rather, I’ll try to use the powers of history to
ask questions about contemporary environmentalism and the things we most deeply
believe in.
And when I read the literature about Carson, along with Carson’s work itself, I find that
I keep asking a few questions. There are three questions, really, that just nag at me.
The first is: Why the sea? Actually, this question has been asked a lot, but I think we
can ask more questions about the answers. So my first question is: Why the sea? And
after that: What did Roger think? And finally: Why no criticism?
My own attempt to interpret Rachel Carson, in history, comes from trying to answer
these three questions. I’ll hazard my own emerging interpretation quickly, at least
initially—I’ll confess, I’m a little scared to do this—but my own stab might go so-
mething like this:
Rachel Carson has a difficult childhood—a solitary and often painful childhood.
Her only close relationship is with her mother, who in the early 1900s, when Car-
son was born, was a disciple of the nature-study movement. And as a child, Carson
finds much beauty and wonder in the wilds of nature, and also great solace, a
refuge—especially from very painful and frequent twists of fate in her family. And
this will continue into what will in many ways become a painful adulthood, marked
by a degree of social isolation along with frequent crises in her career and espe-
cially at home—and will lead, above all, to Carson’s great love of the sea. And to
Carson, the ocean becomes the part of the natural world where she finds the most
solace—that’s least human, that’s outside human control and governed instead by
timeless eternal rhythms, and that’s so vast that humans can’t possibly change it.
And when she writes Silent Spring, her only political book, and the only one that’s
not about the sea, she does do it in part out of real concern for people and other
15Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
living things and the ecosystems they share—but her real, fundamental motive
is that after World War II, with the one-two punch of first, the bomb and nuclear
fallout, and second, the dangerous spread of toxic pesticides, she concludes that
in fact no part of nature is outside our control or the power of humans to alter or
degrade or outright destroy it, and she in fact mostly writes Silent Spring out of
the depths of heartbreaking disappointment and real anger that even her beloved
sea is not inviolable. And then, after the publication of Silent Spring, the specific
circumstances of her personal and professional life as a woman stir up a kind of
perfect storm of the intertwined meanings of women, nature, virtue, authenticity,
and history, in which Rachel Carson is the perfect apostle for the idea of nature as
authentic and timeless—an idea that has so often rendered the idea itself outside
of history and also resistant to critique, and which, in turn, can render its perfect
apostle resistant to historicization and immune to criticism.
How many of you are thinking: well, that’s a load of crap. And how many of you are
thinking, but what about Roger? What happens to Roger?—which I’ll get to later.
Was Rachel Carson a superb scientist? Yes. Was she a singularly gifted writer? Yes.
Was Silent Spring important? We might not have the EPA, or bald eagles for that
matter, without it. Do I admire Rachel Carson? OMG, she rocks! This is the rather
slight woman who says, “I can offer no excuse for not being what people expect,” in
response to people who assume that any woman who writes a book like that must be
absolutely huge. The woman who knows, as she’s writing Silent Spring, that she’ll be
viciously attacked for being emotional and hysterical and a female know-nothing. And
who, in the prefeminist era of the early 1960s, when the agricultural scientist who’s
the major spokesman for the chemical industry gives 28 speeches in the three months
after Silent Spring is published and essentially froths at the mouth, well, she, calmly
and coolly, while she’s dying of cancer, grants CBS one interview and blows the other
guy out of the water by coming off as a clearly knowledgeable scientist and as the
quintessential voice of reason.
Was Rachel Carson a saint, or a prophet? No. She was human. And 50 to 100 years later,
her legacy is, and must be inevitably, mixed.
I’ll step away from Rachel Carson for now—but I’ll come back.
16 RCC Perspectives
Maybe a few years ago, I started to think about a new project, about what seems to
be a new, twenty-first-century brand of environmentalism—the green this, green that,
green everything explosion. On one hand, this “green” revolution seemed to move in
a direction that many of us (including historian William Cronon and writer Michael
Pollan, who in particular have influenced my own thinking) had been arguing for.
The twentieth-century focus on the preservation of wilderness as the real, authentic
counterpoint to the artifice of modern life doesn’t seem to define the heart and soul
of this environmentalism. Rather, it pays a lot of attention to everyday life—to what
we do in our everyday environments. And yet, it seemed to inherit, at least to a frus-
trating degree, the twentieth-century persistent blindness to environmental inequi-
ties—to the dramatic inequities in the distribution of environmental problems, and
also in the distribution of the solutions. And also, some of it just seems weird. I kept
reading newspaper and magazine articles about the great things people were doing to
achieve ultimate Green-itude, and a lot of it just felt somehow wacky. It just felt kind
of “off”—such as replacing all five of your cars with Prius hybrids (though I do live in
L.A., where we specialize in 17,000-square-foot, LEED-certified houses).1 Or throwing
out all your old lightbulbs and buying new ones. Or refusing to let your son play on
a baseball team because the nearest one is 20 miles away and that’s too much global
warming entirely. Really? Or becoming a devout locavore and blogging and tweeting
about it all the time on an iPad and iPhone made in China. I mean, seriously? Your kid
can’t play baseball? That’s how you want to stop global warming?
All this stuff sounded vaguely wacky, and I wanted to understand why. And to my
dismay, my new project led me back to my old project on twentieth-century environ-
mentalism. I’m dismayed in part because I’m apparently right in line to become one of
those people who has one idea in an entire career. Still also, seriously?—because these
wacky green acts, as well as the persistent blindness to inequities, still, again, for
God’s sake, seemed to me, as I kept pushing at the logics behind them, to be rooted in
this persistent, powerful American definition of nature as a place that’s separate from
humans, and as the real world and the authentic counterpoint to modern life.
1 LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification verifies that a building is built accor- ding to a list of “green standards.” In the United States, the average single-family house is around 2,400 square feet.
17Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
And while historians have tracked this idea through the heart and soul of twentieth-
century environmentalism, I think, and I’m dismayed to suggest, that we now really
need to track it through the twenty-first-century movement—when we’re all, apparent-
ly, trying to save the planet. And when we all, I think, desperately need to stop saving
the planet.
I think there are two really big, common rhetorics that lie right at the heart of much
of the green revolution—and that both are rooted squarely in this definition of nature.
I think they play out in both action and policy in very real ways. I think they’re at the
heart of a lot of the wackiness, as well as the class divide—and that the class divide is
itself connected to the wackiness. And I’ll call these two big rhetorics the “I Problem”
and the “We Problem.” (And I should be clear that I’m not critiquing all of environmen-
talism—every solar panel, every local food market, every wetlands regulation. I’m just
tracking these particular, powerful cultural currents.)
So: the green revolution’s I Problem, and the Green Revolution’s We Problem. I’ll leave
my script—I’d like to do a medium-sized and kind of more informal sidebar—and then
I want to return to Rachel Carson.
What’s the I Problem? It’s the rhetoric that emphasizes the importance of individual
virtuous acts. You see the I-centered rhetoric everywhere. It’s the conviction that I, per-
sonally, can save the earth. That if only each of us, individually, can possibly find it in
our hearts to care, and to do the right thing, well, then, couldn’t we save the world? It’s
the “change your lightbulbs now” approach—and in fact, I think the humble compact
fluorescent light bulb has come to shine as one of the chief icons for this way of thinking.
And what do energy-efficient light bulbs have to do with the historically powerful
definition of nature as a place that’s separate from humans? As the estimable critical
theorist Raymond Williams has helped us understand, there’s a long Western tradition
of seeing nature as a realm that’s separate from corrupt human society. And once you
set a natural world apart from the human world, it can then become a realm above
and outside human judgment. It becomes the ultimate source of moral authority—the
“natural,” and not relative, source of truth and virtue. (In fact, Williams’s great insight
is to show how the concept of what’s “natural”—say, as applied to human values such
as gender norms—draws its authority from this concept of nature.) And if nature is the
18 RCC Perspectives
real and absolute source of truth and virtue, then what could be more virtuous than
protecting it? In fact, there’s been a long association of American environmentalism
with personal virtuous acts. Which is why I give myself a little pat on the back every
single time I throw something into the recycling bin—about seven to eight times a
day—and think I’m queen for the day when I screw in a weird-looking light bulb.
Individual virtue, I think, plays out in the Green Revolution very concretely. You can
track it very tangibly, I’ll argue, through the common acts of wackiness—and also
through the class divide—in a few different disturbing ways.
The author’s advice column, “Green
Me Up, JJ,” on LA Observed: Native
Intelligence, web- site, 25 February
2010 (Courtesy of the author).
19Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
Here’s the first way: acts of Greenitude to protect nature have commonly become acts
of ultimate virtue. Green acts, in other words, can trump other values and other kinds
of virtuous acts—say, such as making your child happy by letting him or her play base-
ball. You can’t do that because you absolutely have to stop global warming?—even
though you could reduce your energy use in a thousand other ways (such as not living
in an exurb2 in the first place).
Green acts can commonly shine as the most virtuous acts—and this, of course, is the
logic behind greenwashing, right? Greenwashing has generally referred to the use
of green acts (say, printing iTunes cards on recycled paper) to cover up much larger
environmental sins (say, spewing air pollution from factories in China). It can rightly,
though, refer as well to using green acts to cover up much grander social and econo-
mic sins (say, slave-labor-like conditions in those factories).
Here’s the second way that the obsession with personal virtue plays out in very con-
crete ways: In a society in which we readily identify ourselves and our values by what
we consume, and in which we consume to be virtuous, well, we consume to be virtuous
Greenies. And consume and consume. So we buy the new light bulbs and throw out
the old ones. We junk or trade the old car (or the three old cars) and buy Prius hy-
brids—and if you buy five Priuses, you’ll save five times as much energy as if you buy
one Prius. As if the more energy you use, the more you can save. As if all Priuses sail
into the sky at night, under cover of darkness, to gobble up carbon whenever Presi-
dent Obama, or maybe Al Gore, flashes the green bat signal. Obviously, some of these
virtuous acts of consumerism actually create more environmental problems than they
solve. If you junk your perfectly good Toyota Corolla for a new Prius, for example,
you’ll have to drive 41,630 miles just to erase the carbon debt that manufacturing
that Prius creates. Or to quote the surprisingly honest slogan in the recent ads for the
Chevy Volt: “Electric when you want it, Gas when you need it.” The light bulb or the
energy-efficient car can actually be a marker of virtue as much as, or more than, a
purchase that will actually make a real difference.
Which plays out very concretely in policy as well: In 2009, for example—hard on the
heels of the economic crash—the federal Cash for Clunkers program offered a rebate
of up to $4500 to trade in any car that got 18 miles or less per galllon (mpg) for any
2 “Extra-Urban:” the prosperous commuter towns beyond the suburbs.
20 RCC Perspectives
new car that got at least 22 mpg. Or, if you traded in an SUV, the new one had to get
at least 2 mpg or more than the old one. Two miles per gallon. The program almost
certainly increased emissions overall. It was really an economic recovery measure, but
it was packaged as an environmental measure. And while it likely didn’t do a thing to
reduce energy consumption—in fact, very much the opposite—it assured stressed-out
Americans that this particular way to spend money would be particularly virtuous.
Here’s a third way that the I Problem, or the obsession with personal virtue, plays
out—which is, in fact, that it just flat-out encourages an overemphasis on the actual
importance of individual action, especially compared to systemic or regulatory action.
It emphasizes changing your light bulbs versus transforming the national energy grid.
It focuses on buying nontoxic paints and carpets versus banning toxic paints and
carpets. Not that individual action can’t be important—but there’s a lopsided faith
in its effectiveness, and in personal versus more collective kinds of virtue. While you
see the “50 simple things (or 10 things, or 24 things) you can do to save the earth (or
the planet)” lists all the time, none of them ever says, Vote!, or Pay your taxes!, or
Stop fudging your deductions, for goodness sake!—which would likely be a lot more
effective than changing your light bulbs. Much less: Hold Apple accountable! Or: Buy
low-VOC paint for the people who work for you! Or, especially: Pay more to the people
who clean and paint your houses, so that they can buy low-VOC paint!
In fact, if you look at what all three of these concrete manifestations of the I Problem
share—whether praising green acts as über-virtuous, or consuming to save the planet,
or overemphasizing the importance of individual acts—well, what they all have in
common is that all three of them encourage the underlying assumption that every in-
dividual enjoys the equal or same ability to do all of this stuff. In other words, what the
I problem makes invisible is that not all individuals can afford to buy new light bulbs
or green up their houses—and, in general, and more important, that not all individuals
contribute equally to environmental messes, and also that not all individuals suffer the
consequences equally.
At the same time, the notion of green virtue really and actively relies on these dif-
ferences. We say, “if everyone would just change their light bulbs.” Yet if everyone
did—which is what we need to happen, and why we need regulation—then using the
energy-efficient light bulbs wouldn’t be virtuous. I wouldn’t be queen for the day. It’d
21Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
just be what everyone does—just as, for example, we don’t really think about how our
cars adhere to federal emissions standards. The culture of individual green virtue—
which is often about virtue as much or more than environment—really depends on
everyone not engaging in green acts.
All in all, what tends to happen is that the people who can least afford the low-VOC
paints and organic foods get, well, how should I put it . . . triply screwed. As an example,
consider the most basic problem of air pollution. On average, the folks with the lowest
incomes contribute least to air pollution. They breathe the worst air both at home and
at work. And they have the fewest resources to green up their houses and yards—and
thereby to become virtuous environmentalists.
And we wonder why there’s a cultural class divide in environmentalism—and why
there’s so much cross-class resentment. And why so many people think that environ-
mentalism is not about them. Not that you shouldn’t use the new light bulbs if you
can—but rather, the cultural association with virtue gets extremely problematic.
So what is the We Problem? It’s captured by the mantra, We are all in this together. It’s
the incredibly powerful Man and Nature rhetoric. Man screwed up the planet, and now
Man has to save it. You see this rhetoric, too, everywhere. Al Gore, after all, named his
initial campaign against climate change the We Campaign.
The We Problem, too, is very obviously rooted in the vision of nature as separate
from the human world. Man has screwed up that world, the real world. If you think
about the daily environmentalist mantra—Save the Planet—what does it really mean?
It doesn’t mean the whole planet. If it did, we wouldn’t be recycling; we’d be building
a very large machine that can fight off asteroids. The Planet, or the Earth, really means
Nature—the real and enduring part of the World. It means the World that’s not us.
This “Man-and-Nature” rhetoric of course encourages us to think of the environment
as one unitary thing—the major icon for this way of thinking and seeing, of course,
being the image of Earth from Space. And seeing nature as one, unitary thing plays
out, too, in everyday culture and in policy in very concrete ways. To begin with, it,
too, encourages the association of virtue with environmentalism. The Earth from
Space icon suggests a small, fragile planet, which you can hold in your palms—and in
22 RCC Perspectives
environmentalist iconography, one of the most recurrent images is, in fact, of human
hands cradling the earth.
What I mostly want to talk about here, though, is that the We rhetoric—or seeing
nature as unitary—encourages a decidedly weird fungibility. In other words, it can
encourage us to see all green acts—no matter what you do or where you do it—as ac-
complishing the same goal. So perhaps I own an SUV (I need it for the kids!—and I do
like Range Rovers, they’re sleek), but I recycle, and I’ve got an energy star DVR, and I
eat local broccoli. These actions may all address very different sets of problems—but
they all save the planet. Again, this, too, is how greenwashing works, right?—which
is to say, we’re screwing things up there, but we’re madly saving the planet over here.
So Apple screws up the environment all around China, but the company redeems itself
with its new data center in North Carolina that’s LEED-certified platinum—and after
all, they do print the iTunes gift cards on 100% recycled paper.
The acts you engage in to save the planet, then, become interchangeable—but also
exactly where you do them becomes not very important. There’s a kind of geographic
cluelessness to the Save the Planet environmentalism—by which anything you do here
or there benefits the whole planet
And again, the geographic clueless-
ness in this rhetoric plays out in very
real ways in policy—most obviously
perhaps in the enduring enchantment
with offsets and trading programs.
Such programs tend not to be geogra-
phically specific. And the many cri-
tics of offsets and trading have made
trenchant economic and political ar-
guments—but what we’ve missed, I
think, is that these programs at once
are rooted so powerfully in enduring
cultural assumptions. We’ve missed
the cultural and rhetorical power of
The author’s advice column, “Green
Me Up, JJ” on LA Observed: Native
Intelligence, web- site, 25 February
2010 (Courtesy of the author).
23Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
the idea, rooted in our Man-and-Nature definitions of nature, that you can trade an
environmental mess here for a clean-up there.
The We rhetoric, then, entirely ignores that not all environmentalist acts accomplish
the same thing, and also that these acts don’t clean up environmental messes to the
same degree. Even more important, though, I think, is that, again, the rhetoric almost
entirely makes invisible that some people are more responsible for those messes than
others. And it also makes invisible that some places are a lot dirtier than other places.
A whole lot. The Man-and-Nature way of thinking blinds us to the extreme, dramatic
inequities in where environmental problems are, specifically. It also then inevitably
blinds us to dramatic inequities in the solutions, which so often fail spectacularly to
address the geography of where the messes actually are (and who creates them).
Environmental justice activists, not surprisingly, almost universally object to trading pro-
grams. While advocates of carbon trading argue that carbon itself is not toxic, most car-
bon emissions come with other emissions that are—and if a program allows industries
to pollute as much or more in some places if they pay to reduce pollution elsewhere, then
it’s just not that difficult to predict that these “some places” will most likely be the low-
income areas that already suffer the worst industrial pollution. Historically, we know, the
lower-income communities in this country—those with the least economic and political
power—have borne the brunt of the consequences of environmental problems. Hor-
rible air, and tainted water, and toxic working conditions, and no green space: We have
consistently sacrificed these communities. And yet, in 2009, California’s cutting-edge
plan to reduce carbon emissions, widely hailed as the model for a federal plan, relied on
cap-and-trade to make the largest share of the cuts—despite vehement objections from
a parade of health professionals, community activists, and, to no avail, the Air Resources
Board’s own internal environmental justice advisory committee.
Again, no wonder environmentalism—both in everyday culture and often in sanctioned
environmental policy—alienates and fosters resentment in lower-income communities.
Yet one can argue that one of the great perpetuating factors of these environmental
messes (just one) has been the sacrifice of some communities to benefit others. In
other words, if you really want to clean up the whole planet, well, wouldn’t it make a
lot more sense to clean up the biggest messes preferentially? Shouldn’t we now focus
24 RCC Perspectives
on the sacrifice zones? Again, I’m generalizing, and yet, environmentalism, I think,
too often historically has been about making the cleanest places cleaner. It’s shown a
stubborn blindness to inequities, and too often has encouraged a kind of trickle-down
environmentalism—which works about as well as you would expect. Addressing en-
vironmental inequities is important for reasons of justice—which is what the environ-
mental justice movement has focused such a bright light on—and clean air should in
fact be a basic right. And also, we will never—ever—clean up the air in Los Angeles,
or any other mess, as long as we tolerate sacrifice zones. Similarly, everyone should
have the basic right to parks and green space—and at the same time, you can’t create
a healthy urban watershed, or clean up the air anywhere, if you only have parks and
green space in affluent communities.
Environmental justice has to be about justice—but I’d argue vociferously that it has to
be about environment too. If you really want to address the ways in which we really are
all in this together, on just this one planet, then you have to fundamentally understand
and take seriously—and your solutions have to address—the ways in which we are
decidedly not all in this together.
In sum, these two rhetorics—the I Problem and the We problem—are rooted deeply
in the historically powerful vision of nature as separate from humans. They commonly
play out in everyday action and in policies. And they encourage a blindness to inequ-
ities that not only alienates essential public support for environmentalism, and often
works actively against the health and interest of people, but also often works against
the health of the environment.
I’ve come to believe that the tenacious cultural class divide in environmentalism is
the biggest barrier that environmentalism faces—to achieve such essential goals as
slowing climate change, revitalizing watersheds, preserving park space, eating healthy
foods, breathing clean air, and drinking clean water. And that to break down the class
divide, we have to stop saving the planet and start inhabiting it. We have to start using
and altering and transforming and preserving it, with each other, sustainably and equi-
tably, for the health of people, communities, and ecosystems. And that to do that, we
have to dislodge these rhetorics.
25Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
So: Why the sea? What did Roger think? And why no criticism? And what do these
three questions tell us about Rachel Carson’s legacy?
To stand at the sea . . . is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as
any earthly life can be. These things were before man ever stood on the shore of the
ocean. . . . they continue year in, year out, through the centuries . . . while man’s
kingdoms rise and fall. – Rachel Carson, Under the Sea-Wind, 1941.
Why the sea?—and I’ll slow down a bit this time for these questions.
. . . And to Carson, the ocean becomes the part of the natural world where she finds
the most solace—that’s least human, that’s outside human control and governed
instead by timeless eternal rhythms, and that’s so vast that humans can’t possibly
change it. And when she writes Silent Spring, her only political book, and the only
one that’s not about the sea, she does do it in part out of real concern for people
and other living things and the ecosystems they share—but her real, fundamental
motive is that after World War II, with the one-two punch of first, the bomb and nu-
clear fallout, and second, the dangerous spread of toxic pesticides, she concludes
that in fact no part of nature is outside our control or the power of humans to alter
or degrade or outright destroy it, and she in fact mostly writes Silent Spring out of
the depths of heartbreaking disappointment and real anger that even her beloved
sea is not inviolable. . .
. . . in the days before Hiroshima I used to wonder whether nature . . . actually need-
ed protection from man. Surely the sea was inviolate and forever beyond man’s
power to change it. . . . But I was wrong.

Rachel Carson, from Scripps College Bulletin, July 1962 (3 months before the publication of Silent Spring).

Carson wrote her first book Under the Sea-Wind—said to be her favorite—entirely
from the point of view of the sea and its creatures, with no human presence. In her
second book, The Sea Around Us—the book that made her famous—a few scientists
and explorers appear briefly, and she includes a few pages on oil exploration. Accor-
ding to historian Gary Kroll, she did write a full chapter on using the sea—“The Ocean
and a Hungry World”—that addressed the debate at the time about whether to harvest
plankton and fish as major food sources. She decided to cut this chapter. Her last sea
26 RCC Perspectives
book, too—Edge of the Sea—is all natural history. As she worked on Silent Spring,
she ran through a number of possible titles, which included The Control of Nature and
Man Against the Earth.
The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in
my mind—that, and anger at the . . . 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.

Rachel Carson, from a letter she wrote to friend and nature writer Lois Crisler in the wake of Silent Spring, 1962 (quoted in Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, 1997).

Why the sea? Where does that question lead? Rachel Carson is one of the great American
apostles for the vision of nature as the real and timeless world outside the troubled
human world. The book’s legacy, I think, is indeed mixed. It’s double. Much of what
Silent Spring set in motion is acutely invaluable. It awakened public awareness about
real and frightening environmental dangers, and it led to groundbreaking and foun-
dational institutional structures to grapple with these dangers. Why did Carson write
Silent Spring, though? Well, Carson generally helped cement this problematic vision
of nature at the very core of modern environmentalism. And that, I think, is a more
troubling part of her legacy.
What did Roger think?
Roger Christie, the famous boy in the book The Sense of Wonder, isn’t an easy guy to
find, or to find out about as an adult—which is itself interesting. He’s not thanked in
the biographies. The literature does say that after Carson dies, her editor Paul Brooks,
not her family, takes him in—though Roger doesn’t appear in the acknowledgments
for the biography Brooks writes, or in the index and even barely in the book. Reading
this literature, you have to begin to wonder. Where’s Roger? Is he alive? Is he, like, in
prison? Or worse than that, does he maybe work for DuPont or something?
He’s not highly google-able, but you can get a few hits. In 1980, he accepts the Presi-
dential Medal of Freedom on Carson’s behalf. But where does he live? What does he
do? In 1993, he shows up as one of the talking heads in the PBS American Experience
27Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
documentary—but not one of the main ones. He says, “I never forgot that I had an-
other mother who was a real mother, but, you know, Rachel was my mother too.” He
clearly loved Carson and admired her. He also says, “She would find something inter-
esting and call me over . . . She was a great one for getting down and hearing under the
rocks.” Nice, but he doesn’t say, Hey, we got under the rocks together!—or Wow, those
outings were amazing! And what does he do? If he were a biologist, or a scientist or con-
servationist of any sort, the PBS documentary would say, wouldn’t it? Finally, in 2007,
the centennial of Carson’s birth, his local newspaper publishes a feature on him. He lives
in Harvard, Massachusetts. He’s married and has two sons. He’s a recording engineer.
That same year, the Washington Post quotes him in an article about a rescreening, which
he’ll attend, of the 1963 CBS special. He says, “She would lie for hours on a blanket in
the woods . . . and see what would come and go.” Some of the outings, he says, “were
a little too boring for me.”
There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature, the as-
surance that after night, dawn comes, and spring after the winter.

Rachel Carson, in This Week Magazine, 1952.

Roger must have had such a painful childhood. He lost two mothers by the age of twelve.
He was, according to Carson’s chief biographer Linda Lear, a somewhat difficult and
undisciplined child. One wisp of critique I find in this literature is that Carson, while
she loved Roger and devoted a great deal of time to him, might not have been the most
skilled indoor parent.
Carson herself was close to her mother, but I can just infer from the silence in the bio-
graphies—though I don’t know for sure—that she was not close to her father, or to her
much older sister and brother. Her father doesn’t seem to have been around a lot. As
adults, her siblings both left bad marriages. She had to drop out of graduate school at
Johns Hopkins University to help support her family, and when her father died shortly
after, she became the main breadwinner for her mother, as well as for her sister and
two nieces, who had all moved in with them. Her sister died soon after that, leaving
Carson and her mother with the two young nieces to raise, and her adult brother was
by all accounts a real piece of work. Then one of her nieces dies, which leaves her with
Roger. All these constant crises prevent her from pursuing a PhD and then hinder,
first, her progress in a career in science, and then, time and again, her ability to focus
28 RCC Perspectives
on her writing career. Throughout, she takes refuge in the natural world. I wonder,
though, if nature offered the same consolations for Roger; surely to some degree—but
maybe not as much.
What did Roger think? Where might that question lead? In the modern era, the wild
places and things in nature can hold great beauties and wonders—for which Carson
was a supremely eloquent voice. These places and things hold ecological truths that,
Carson conveyed passionately, we need to understand to inhabit the ecosystems we
do inhabit. They can also offer real refuge and solace from the pace and demands and
social complexities of modern life—including anxieties about modern life itself. Not for
everyone, however, and not necessarily for other societies or in other eras. Carson is one
of our great apostles for the oh-so-problematic idea of nature as a timeless refuge from
the relativism and vicissitudes of the human world—and again, she helped cement this
idea, so far almost un-dislodgably, at the very core and center of modern environmen-
talism. But this idea of nature as timeless—and herein lies one of the ways it’s so deeply
problematic—disguises that the idea, in fact, has a history. It has served both general
social needs throughout American history, and specific social needs for every generation,
and, I think, fulfilled very specific and very personal needs for Rachel Carson.
Why no criticism?
. . . And then, after the publication of Silent Spring, the specific circumstances of
her personal and professional life as a woman stir up a kind of perfect storm of the
intertwined meanings of women, nature, virtue, authenticity, and history, in which
Rachel Carson is the perfect apostle for the idea of nature as authentic and timel-
ess—an idea that has so often rendered the idea itself outside of history and also
resistant to critique, and which, in turn, can render its perfect apostle resistant to
historicization and immune to criticism.
Here’s the thing. We know that being a woman opens Carson and Silent Spring to at-
tack—but it also deeply informs the defense. Carson is single. She never marries. Her
closest relationship is with her mother. Her other major close relationship as an adult,
apparently non-sexual, is with a woman, her friend Dorothy Freeman. And yet, she
still raises children. Lovingly. She sacrifices dearly to do so. She dies of breast cancer.
29Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
She’s the paragon of a virtuous woman—through no intent or fault of her own. That
women are the caretakers of a society’s virtue and morals might be one of the few
ideas historically that can rival, in power and persistence, the idea of nature as the
authentic source of virtue. It’s as if Rachel Carson stands between the meanings of
women and the meanings of nature, and both radiate virtue towards and around her
in a kind of closed system. Again, through no choice of her own. (I’d actually love to
hear what she’d have to say about her sainthood, and I expect it’d be quite funny.) She
also successfully pursues a career against all odds in a male-dominated profession,
and she readily out-argues the men—which resonates in the feminist era. And in this
postfeminist era, she does all that and she raises three children.
Why no criticism? Rachel Carson’s life and vision both personify ideas about both
nature and women that radiate timeless virtue and authenticity. And this biography,
along with Carson’s exceptional ability and passion, helps make this self-reinforcing
idea of nature—for which she’s such a great apostle, and which she helps cement
firmly at the core of environmentalism—exceptionally hard to dislodge and to critique.
When I googled up a 2009 CBS special on the legacy of Silent Spring, and clicked to
play the video, guess what advertisement popped up: BP’s ode to what a fantastic job
they’ve done to clean up the 127 million gallons of oil they spilled in the Gulf.
The environmental movement clearly still has a great deal of work to do. Carson’s crusade,
against omnipresent and poisonous toxics, is not even close to finished. And this powerful
vision of nature, as the central environmentalist trope—as what we talk about when we
talk about environmentalism—has gotten us far. But it is long past time to move it away, to
dislodge it, from the center of environmentalism. We owe so much to Rachel Carson. But
I don’t think that her vision of nature can ultimately sustain a culture of environmentalism
that will effectively arm us to create the clean, healthy world, full of healthy wild things and
places, as well as healthy people, that she wanted to create for Roger.
When one-time Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum questioned whether
President Obama had the proper Christian values—just one of his famous pronounce-
ments, which would have been startling if they hadn’t been so frequent—it turned out
that he was talking about Obama’s energy policy. And later on Face the Nation, when
moderator Bob Schieffer asked him to elaborate, he explained, “I was talking about the
30 RCC Perspectives
radical environmentalists”—of which, apparently, Obama is one—who all believe that
“man is here to serve the Earth.” And Santorum might be an extremist—the sweater-
vest version of Glenn Beck, the polite Rush Limbaugh—but the Republicans are exploit-
ing this class divide, which has long plagued environmentalism, fiercely. More than any
cultural, social, or economic issue, environmentalism is the Number One right-wing bo-
geyman. It’s the codeword for “they don’t care about you.” They. Environmentalists. The
people who want you to be able to breathe clean air and drink clean water. And we make
it so easy for people like Santorum—every time we say we’re trying to save the planet.
I do know that environmentalism is changing. I know that a new and more inclusive
culture of environmentalism, that breaks down the class divide, is happening in a lot of
places. I see it in projects in Los Angeles, for example, in not a few newfangled cross-class
coalitions to preserve park space, to clean up the air, to revitalize and re-imagine and in-
tensively re-manage the phenomenally messed-up watershed that L.A. inhabits. And I’m
sure you see it, too, in the places where you live. Yet the established twentieth-century
rhetorics can seem ineradicably powerful, and so persistently counter-productive. And
shouldn’t we fight as fiercely as we can to change them—with all the skill, passion, and
rock-solid integrity that Rachel Carson brought to the cause?
Here’s my Dad. These are his grandchildren. They are very much, in all the best ways,
their grandfather’s grandchildren. My father loved history. He believed in its power,
so I have to think he would agree that the most powerful thing historians can do with
their heroes is to make them stranger, and then to make that strangeness familiar—
Why did their ideas make sense to them? And how do these ideas make sense and not
make sense for us now?—so that we can achieve the perspective that we absolutely
need to move into the future.
Left: Elmer Price (Cour- tesy of the author).
Right: Elmer Price’s
grandchildren (Courtesy of the
author).
31Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
Lawrence Culver
Reading Silent Spring as a Challenge for Contemporary Environmentalism
Jenny Price asks us why Rachel Carson—arguably the single most important figure in
the history of the environmental movement—has been remembered and studied so un-
critically. She argues that a more complete assessment of Carson and her work will help
us better understand her, and her work. I concur, and wish to pose a related question
about the environmental movement since Carson’s death: Why, fifty years after Silent
Spring, has there been no other book that has come even vaguely close to matching its
impact? No other environmentally minded scientist, academic, or public intellectual has
achieved a similarly successful intervention into US or global environmental issues since

Why? More to the point, is this a question of the movement, or of the moment?

It is not as though there are no comparable issues to the use of DDT. The most suc-
cessful similar effort to combat a chemical has been the effort to eliminate the use of
chlorofluorocarbons in coolants, aerosols, and other products, and that effort has been
largely successful. Yet efforts to combat the greatest environmental threat of our time,
greenhouse-gas-induced climate change, have been largely unsuccessful. The United
States, China, and the world as a whole have already surpassed all the worst-case
predictions for carbon dioxide emissions. It is probably too late to prevent climate
change, and instead now we must cope with an increasingly unpredictable world.
Nine of the ten hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. In the United States,
2012 is the hottest year on record. More and more Arctic sea ice is disappearing in
summer, and we may be on the brink of triggering natural feedbacks that will warm
the climate further. It seems increasingly clear that if Carson warned us of a silent
spring, we now all face a planetary hot summer.
In light of such grim facts, one has to ask why the environmental movement has not
produced another figure such as Carson, and why it has thus far failed to successful-
ly effect the political and economic changes necessary to make serious progress to
combat climate change. Price offers several critiques of the environmental movement,
at least in the United States, since Carson. According to Price, US environmentalism
has centered on personal virtue, and much of that virtue was defined by consumption,
from hybrid cars to organic food. This alienated poorer Americans, who could not
32 RCC Perspectives
afford virtuous consumption. It also ignored production and labor, and environmental
regulations, blamed for putting Americans out of work, most definitely played a large
role in creating working-class hostility to environmentalism. Until recently, major en-
vironmental organizations paid scant attention to issues of environmental justice and
environmental racism in urban areas and poor or nonwhite communities. On a global
scale, this remains the case. Americans were horrified by the BP Deepwater Horizon
oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, but very few Americans know about the on-
going dreadful ecological consequences of oil extraction in places such as Nigeria. At
a more basic level, while the environmental movement has done a great deal to warn
us of the dangers we face, it has not necessarily made a convincing argument that
combating climate change is not merely a matter of avoiding disaster, but could in fact
result in a better, more equitable, and potentially more prosperous world.
So, is it the movement itself that is the problem? Or is it instead the moment? Did Car-
son succeed in part because 1962 was a different world than 2012? Carson certainly
operated in a much smaller and more civil media environment. With a frenetic 24-hour
CBS reporter Eric Severeid interviews
Carson for CBS Reports in 1963
(Source: CBS Photo Archive).
33Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
news cycle, it seems unlikely that Silent Spring would receive the same sustained at-
tention today. We can hope that Carson’s gender would not be an issue in 2012, as it
was in 1962. At the same time, however, our current media would have no compunc-
tion about delving into her personal life, or her role as a surrogate parent, and those,
perhaps, might have been used against her. US politics were charged and polarized
in the 1960s, as they are today. One ominous change, however, is the aggressive po-
liticalization of science, especially climate science, in the United States. While Carson
faced great hostility from the US chemical industry, their resources pale in compa-
rison to the resources Exxon, BP, or Shell have at their disposal. Carson also had a
more straightforward story to tell. A human-created poison aimed at mosquitoes had
been unleashed into the world, with dire consequences. DDT was one pesticide, which
could be banned, or at least used more judiciously. Climate change, in contrast, requires
a reengineering of transportation, energy, agriculture, and other vast portions of the
global economy. It is a far larger problem, and the science behind it is much more
complex and uncertain. The fact that a single poison could kill and spread through an
ecosystem was easier to accept, and harder to refute.
That prudence should prevail over recklessness seems such a plain truth
that it goes without saying. Nevertheless, that plain truth, elegantly written
in Silent Spring, galvanized the world.
Andy Jacoby, New Orleans, USA
Yet, to make these observations is emphatically not meant to lessen Carson’s legacy.
She wrought a vast transformation of the environmental movement, particularly in
the United States. That movement had been dominated by men, from John Muir, to
Theodore Roosevelt, to David Brower. It had also been focused on the preservation of
romantic landscapes that were imbued with patriotic American sentiment, from the
Grand Canyon to Yosemite. Carson forced Americans—and people around the world—
to see the nature in their own cities and backyards, and to begin to understand that
they, and the choices they made, were part of a larger ecological system. Nature is not
“out there”—it is right here, and even inside us. The role she played in heightening
global ecological awareness is incalculable.
34 RCC Perspectives
The fact remains that Carson was a wonderfully gifted author who could write with
remarkable clarity about complex issues. That gift, which she used to such effect, is
her greatest legacy. Environmentally minded writers of our own era must follow her
lead to achieve environmental change in the twenty-first century. The world we live
in, and the problems we face, are far more complex than those of fifty years ago. We
must recognize this not as a lament, but as a challenge. If twenty-first-century environ-
mentalists can find ways to express their scientific knowledge and ecological values
with the same lyrical clarity, and if they can make a compelling case to a global public
despite the slowly grinding gears of politics, the public relations campaigns of energy
companies, and the chatter of our media, we might yet discover an abundance of new
Silent Springs, and a world led by a new generation of Rachel Carsons.
35Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
Lisa Sideris
A Fable for Bloomington
Spring 2012. Bloomington, Indiana.
Something strange is happening in my hometown this spring. Maybe in yours too. I
live in Bloomington, Indiana, a town named for spectacular vernal displays. Spring an-
nounces its arrival in vernaculars of yellow—daffodils and forsythia. After a brief lull,
magnolias bring forth bowl-sized pink and white flowers. A purple fringe of redbuds
soon graces our hillsides; then come the crabapples and dogwoods. Other characters
appear in this annual procession and there are slight variations, subject always to the
whims of spring. This year, as temperatures topped out in the high 80s in mid-March,
spring resembled one of those time-lapse nature films we watched in grade school,
where the plant unfurls, flowers, and dies in seconds. Students who went away for
spring break missed much of this highly compressed spring. Upon returning, they
bake themselves on front lawns, glad for the opportunity to deepen their spring break
tans. Virtually everyone, in fact, seems glad.
My hometown newspaper runs a story urging gardeners to hold off, not to be seduced
by what it calls a “false spring.” Its author did not intend to weigh in on debates about
the social construction of nature, but merely to warn that cold weather will return. It
doesn’t return; it gets hotter. The Indianapolis 500—a perfect symbol of the excesses
of fossil fuel culture—commences its annual run in record heat on 27 May, Rachel
Carson’s birthday. Race-fans are advised to keep cold drinks on hand; they are happy
to oblige. My newspaper features a front-page article that finally makes official some-
thing gardeners have suspected: Bloomington has migrated from hardiness zone five
to six in a couple of decades. The story emphasized that no clear connection can be
established between our local warming trend and climate change.
The false spring, it seems, is now our new spring—officially the real spring—though
it seems unreal to me.
Silent Spring begins with a fable about a small town in which spring’s arrival reveals
that something has gone terribly awry—a story not unlike the one I’ve just told. Only
36 RCC Perspectives
in Carson’s fable, the townspeople are bewildered and concerned, whereas folks in
my town seem mostly jolly—and tan. Readers have always been put off by Carson’s
fable. Some believe that a book with scientific content has no business beginning with
a story that isn’t true; others take the fable to signal that the entire book is hyperbolic,
as though by beginning with an imagined tale, Carson was announcing: “What follows
is based on an untrue story.”
Some took Carson to be predicting the end of the world. This line of interpretation
has been revived by right-wing bloggers who liken Carson to mass murderers, ranging
from Hitler, to Pol Pot, to bin Laden (pick your favorite). They charge that Carson’s
apocalyptic fear-mongering about DDT has resulted in millions of deaths from malarial
mosquitoes in the developing world. It’s a good illustration of how environmentalism
has become code for not caring about vulnerable humans. But it’s an unfair rejoinder
to Silent Spring. A more novel feature of these attacks is that many align Carson’s war-
nings about chemical pesticides with current fears about climate change. Carson’s dire
predictions never came true, critics contend, and nor will Al Gore’s or Bill McKibben’s.
Carson’s fable unwittingly opened the door to charges that she was making stuff up—
like those climate scientists who fudge the data, just so they can scare us and take away
our SUVs. When the alarm sounds this time around, we should all hit the snooze button.
And so, in some strange way, the legacy of Silent Spring would seem to be Climategate.
These bloggers may have given me a distorted picture of how dismissive US culture
beyond the academy really is of Rachel Carson, and environmentalism. I might be
wrong to think of Carson as a good person perennially under fire, rather than someone
whose sainthood is blithely affirmed again and again by people who ought to know better
(i.e., academics). But at a time when 69 percent of Americans—surely not all of them Fox
News ideologues—say it’s “likely” that scientists falsify climate data, I admit, I’m reluctant
to provide grist for that mill by casting doubt on Carson’s credibility or values. This is a
culture war. The attacks aren’t all on the fringe, and they sure as hell aren’t fair. On the
centennial of Carson’s birth, the New York Times ran an op-ed calling Silent Spring exag-
gerated, apocalyptic junk science. (The junk science charge has been around for decades,
and it is less persuasive as time passes. Is there any scientist whose work is not considered
incomplete half a century later?) Silent Spring, in any case, is fundamentally a social cri-
tique, and as an ethicist, I can’t find much wrong with Carson’s worldview. Granted, I can’t
37Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
speak to her “indoor parenting skills,” which may have been slightly suboptimal. I leave
that to the right-wing bloggers with their unassailable family values.
Carson did indeed defend a conception of nature as the “real world,” the “authentic
counterpoint to modern life,” as Jenny Price contends. (My six-year-old son, who re-
cently overheard me talking about whether or not nature is the real world, remarked
to me: “If nature isn’t real, then neither are we.” I’m not sure if this makes him a mate-
rialist or a romantic. Carson was both.) Scholars today can congratulate themselves on
being more sophisticated than Carson—and my kindergartener. But when summer be-
gins in March in Indiana, is there something unreal about that? I think there is. When
human activity re-creates the seasons, is this a moral transgression? I’m inclined to
say yes. It’s important to retain some normative leverage here.
Somehow, Carson’s defense of nature as authentic reality gave rise to a critique of
environmental threats of any sort as largely unreal—a matter of fiction or faith. Her
decision to open Silent Spring with a fable seems partly to blame. Carson blended fact
with fable in ways that confuse and alarm readers who apparently have difficulty sift-
ing through the book’s unusual mix of genres. So, were I to fault Carson, I might say
that she was too good a writer, with too much faith in her readers’ intelligence. It falls
to us to prove that Carson’s faith in us was justified. It seems we have a long way to go.
Rachel Carson testifying before the Senate Govern- ment Operations subcommittee studying pesticide spraying, 4 June 1963 (Source: ddp images).
I don’t mind admitting that I shed a tear at that swallow, or perhaps for us,
for that little piece of inspiration for poetry in English, or any other lan-
guage for that matter. The returning spring migrants always evoke for me
Ted Hughes’s famous and oft-quoted line (from his poem Swifts): “They’ve
made it again, which means the globe’s still working.” He captures, in ten
words, the thrill of these birds, the message of hope that they carry, that
they symbolize. Only it’s more than symbolic, it is what they are, not just
what they mean. Planet health.
Conor Mark Jameson, Great Britain
I am lucky that I can still see eagles, the migratory raptors flying over my
head at Hawkhill, in the Pacific Flyway at Golden Gate Park. . . . We must
safeguard our natural environment, with its diversity of life, for present
and future generations. The world we live in is real, but not violent. And,
there is always reason for hope.
Kevin Huo, Junior Prize Entrant, California, USA
38 RCC Perspectives
39Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
Nancy Langston
Rachel Carson and An Ecological View of Health
In her critique of Carson, Jenny Price writes that “Rachel Carson is the perfect apostle
for the idea of nature as authentic and timeless”1—an idea of nature separated from
humans. I certainly agree with Price that the belief that humans are separate from
nature has profound problems, particularly for environmental justice. But my own
response to Carson is quite different than Price’s, perhaps because I’m most familiar
with Silent Spring rather than with Carson’s early works on the sea.
When I first read Silent Spring in high school, I found it frustrating—precisely because it
did not evoke the idea of nature isolated from human influence that Price critiques. At the
time, I was a backpacker and climber devoted to wilderness experiences in Alaska, and
the ecstasies of John Muir and the astringent commentaries of Henry Thoreau were much
more to my taste. Silent Spring dwelled on pollution, and as a teenager, I did not want to
read about all those depressing links between people and nature. I wanted to exalt in the
ineffable power of wild nature, not learn the complexities of pollutant chemistry.
In 2000, when I finally reread Silent Spring in order to teach several chapters from it,
I realized how much I had missed by avoiding Carson’s writings. That week, I invited a
graduate student named Maria to visit with my undergraduate class when we discussed
Silent Spring. Maria had grown up along the Fox River in Wisconsin, where paper mills
lined the shore. During her childhood, the stench from the mill waste in the river had
been so bad that the city of Green Bay had dumped perfume in the water. But per-
fume could not mask the toxic contamination. In the 1960s, the paper companies had
manufactured carbonless copy paper coated with industrial chemicals known as poly-
chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Few scientists had suspected the potent hormonal effects
that PCBs could have on developing fetuses and children, and the chemicals had gone
essentially unregulated. Many of the PCBs used by the paper companies had made their
way into the Fox River, where they had accumulated in the fatty tissues of fish.2
1 Jenny Price, Plenary, “Stop Saving the Planet!—and Other Tips via Rachel Carson for Twenty-First-Century Environmentalists,“ RCC Perspectives, Rachel Carseon‘s Silent Spring: Ecounters and Legacies, 7 (2012): 15.
2 Revised to include citation to Jenny’s essay in this issue. This paragraph and the three that follow are from my earlier work, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), used with permission. I am grateful to Yale University Press for permission to reuse several paragraphs from my book.
40 RCC Perspectives
The post Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appeared first on Lion Essays.
 
“Looking for a Similar Assignment? Get Expert Help at an Amazing Discount!”

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first posted on April 20, 2019 at 11:20 pm.©2019 “Lion Essays”. Use of this feed is for personal non-commercial use only. If you are not reading this article in your feed reader, then the site is guilty of copyright infringement. Please contact me at support@Lion Essays.com