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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Rachel Carson: Past, Present, and Future

One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself:
What if I had never seen this before?
What if I knew I would never see it again?
~Rachel Carson

This week I finished reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the book that launched the modern environmental movement.

This classic has been on my TBR shelf forever and a day.  I don't know what it is about the classics; sometimes it's hard to sit down and get started on them when there is such a bottomless well of modern works to read.

What motivated me to at last read Silent Spring was the desire to explore Carson's life and work with an eye toward incorporating her as one of the case studies for our Avila University course Women and Science.  I won't be teaching Women and Science for at least another year and a half, but between the semesters in which we run the course, I am always looking for new material and new stories to add.

My own background in ecology has long made Rachel Carson an attractive option for this course.  Now I wish I had read her work sooner. 

I was prepared for Silent Spring to be an engaging account of the dangers of using pesticides with reckless abandon.  What I did not anticipate was the sheer volume of data Carson amassed. I had heard she was accused by the chemical companies of not backing up her arguments with data.  I mean, really.  Did they even bother to read the book?

Nor did I know just how gifted a writer Carson was; a master, really, of making complex scientific information readily accessible to the reader. Her prose is very reminiscent of E.O. Wilson; though perhaps it would be better to say that E.O. Wilson's prose is very reminiscent of hers.

Most of all, I expected Silent Spring to be a classic in the classic sense of the word: Outdated, for the most part, in the context of its field, a relic interesting for its historical significance but of little relevance for the modern world.  I couldn't have been more wrong on this account, and I found that realization rather depressing. 

Carson's landmark book led to the banning of DDT, dieldrin, and other problematic pesticides; as well as to a more balanced approach to how, when, and under what circumstances pesticides should be applied. 

Contrary to popular belief, Carson did not advocate abandoning pesticides altogether.  What her book urged us to do, and still urges us to do, is to tread lightly when introducing novel chemicals to the environment.  Chemical compounds new to nature should be used wisely, in targeted situations, and with a full understanding of their potential impacts. 

Rachel Carson passed away in 1964, but
her legacy and her message live on.
It seems a reasonable thing to ask, really, and yet still we struggle to rein in the profit-motivated agricultural and chemical industries. 

We may not spray indiscriminately anymore (though in some places we do), but now we have new inventions like genetically engineered plants that produce systemic pesticides, the full consequences of which are largely unknown.  We have extraction systems like fracking that inject a host of unrevealed chemicals deep into the earth, again with no attention to a full assessment of the impacts.  We have banana and pineapple plantations that jealously guard their pesticide recipes as "trade secrets", leaving laborers and consumers alike in the dark as to what degree of chemical exposure we are all dealing with.  

The list goes on and on, but I'm not really interested in recreating Carson's eloquent argument in a single blog post.  My reflection today centers on this compelling thought:

Some fifty years after her death, Rachel Carson has made it clear to me that the struggle to achieve a healthier planet is far from over. More importantly, she assures me it is a battle still worth fighting, because although sometimes it seems we are losing, it is also true that we have made many gains, precisely because people like Rachel Carson had the courage and tenacity to speak up. 

Such is the timeless power of the written word, the words of a woman and a scientist, the enduring words of Rachel Carson.