Rachel Carson – as relevant today as she was 50 years ago

There is a new biography of Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring”, which was published 50 years ago this year. The biography is by William Souder and is entitled “On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson”.

Full disclosure: I didn’t read “Silent Spring”. Of course I have been aware of it for as long as I can remember. The book came out in the year I turned 10, but I grew up in the Netherlands and so it took until I was a student in the ’70s to become aware of it. And by that time the book was already iconic, legendary and its thesis generally unquestioned.

I didn’t read the biography either, but I just finished reading a review of it in the New York Review of Books (Tim Flannery, “A heroine in Defense of Nature”, http://www.nybooks.com). By the way, if you can read only one periodical, then read the NY Review of books, which is about much more than just book reviews.

The most shocking bit of information that I learned from this article is this: in the early 1950’s, Eastman Kodak (in Rochester, NY) discovered streaks on its unexposed X-ray film. It turned out that the cardboard packaging of the film was radioactive. Why? It was produced in Iowa and Indiana by paper mills that used water from mid-western rivers, which were under the influence of radio-active fallout from the Nevada test site……

I am a baby boomer. We were born and lived our early years on a planet that experienced frequent and constant above ground nuclear testing. What that did to our health, nobody knows, because you can’t separate that influence from the influence of other poisons that we were routinely exposed to, such as pesticides, the main subject of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. Incidentally, it was her publisher who came up with that harrowing title.

Rachel Carson was already a well-known and popular nature writer when she published “Silent Spring”, so there was immediately a lot of attention for her new book. President Kennedy referred to it in a press conference that Fall in answering a question about curtailing the use of pesticides. But the chemical industry went on full attack, calling her subversive, a communist sympathizer, anti-business, a health nut, a pacifist and, predictably, a spinster.

Fast forward to 2012. In terms of pesticide use, the western world has accepted its detrimental effects. Environmental protection measures have improved matters significantly, although it could have been better. But society still struggles with (big) industry’s strong-arm tactics, and certain earth resources industries are not exempt from that behaviour either. Will they be proud of their present-day attitudes 50 years from now?

Rachel Carson felt that she had no choice but to write Silent Spring, quoting Abraham Lincoln: “to sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men”.

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About earth science society

I am an earth scientist. Understanding earth is essential for the well-being of our global society. Earth is fascinating, science is fascinating and a better understanding of both can help society forward. This blog attempts to make a contribution to raising awareness of these issues.
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