Rachel Carson 1907-1964: Pioneer Environmentalist


This Internet photo of Rachel Carson is a perfect picture of where she liked to be best—enjoying Mother Nature.

Rachel Carson, pioneer environmentalist, is my profile choice for April. This is the first time I have featured someone deceased, but since her legacy lives on, I feel her life and work live on, as well. This quiet, unassuming woman is not so well known among the younger generation, although I believe that Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, was one of the triggers for Earth Day Celebrations, first started in 1970.

Long before Al Gore penned An Inconvenient Truth and expounded on global warming, Rachel gave us global “warnings” about the dangers of herbicides and pesticides. These chemicals, like the now-banned DDT, were originally created for chemical warfare in WWII. Once the war was over, the government began using these deadly sprays to kill unwanted insects and weeds. Unfortunately, the good were killed along with the bad. Ms. Carson provides us with report after report of the death of birds, earthworms, and fish, and the pollution of waterways, rivers, and streams as a result of spraying for one particular bug or weed.

Rachel’s keen interest in the environment started when she was a child living on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, PA. Her mother’s love of the outdoors was not lost on Rachel, who majored first in English at college and then added biology to her curriculum. She was able to combine her love of nature with her passion for writing. As a writer/editor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for 16 years, she wrote information packets about the environment. She also wrote best-selling books about the world around us: Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, and the Edge of the Sea. But it was the release of Silent Spring in 1962 that caused a furor among corporations who created the pesticides and herbicides and among the government agencies that were often linked to these corporations.

Here are just a few excerpts from this ground-breaking, beautifully written, well-documented best seller, released amidst great controversy:

The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials….. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life. (p. 6)

There is still very limited awareness of the nature of the threat. This is an era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame in which it fits….. It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged. (p. 13)

The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man…..It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth. (p. 297)

Her scathing reports throughout the book caught the attention of then President John F. Kennedy, and as a result of her work, the old environmental laws were improved and new ones were created. We now have the Clean Air Act; the Clean Water Act; the Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act; the Safe Drinking Water Act; and the Toxic Substances Act, to name only a few.

Rachel Carson started a revolution that affects evolution. All her books, and especially Silent Spring, were written with passion and the love of Nature, with concern for the planet, and with reverence for all life’s creatures, no matter how small.

Rachel Carson’s 100th birthday was in May of 2007. I am sorry I did not feature her life in last year’s Earth Day messages, but her books are still available and Silent Spring was reissued in 2002 to celebrate 40 years in publication. I urge you to take a look at her books; I hope to read some of her earlier works because her writing and description of the environment has been likened to poetry. Too often scientific books are dry, but Carson’s Silent Spring was bold and beautiful and made me angry that my generation born right before WWII may have been the last generation to come into this world without pesticides and herbicides in our bodies at birth. Rachel Carson’s biography and books have motivated my efforts to have a clean, green, healthy planet.

Note: Most of my information, other than miscellaneous facts from the Internet, comes from Silent Spring and Up Close: Rachel Carson by Ellen Levine, given to me by my librarian friend Sylvia. It is a book written for school-aged children, but very engaging and not at all boring.

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