The New Yorker has a wonderful story about Rachel Carson which points out that we ignore most of her writing. She’s most famous for Silent Spring, which of course I’ve read, but much of her prior work was about the sea and the shore, which I have not. I guess I’m going to have correct that deficiency.
It also fills in many biographical details about her life, which was full of family responsibilities and struggles. My respect for her keeps going up and up.
I have to highlight one detail, though. After Silent Spring, this quiet, private woman who was dying of cancer (and refused to mention it in public), was savagely targeted for harassment by the American chemical industry. Remember this if anyone tries to tell you that science is not political.
“What she wrote started a national quarrel,” “CBS Reports” announced in a one-hour special, “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson,” in which footage of Carson was intercut with footage of government and industry spokesmen, to create a de-facto debate. (Carson refused to make any other television appearance.) In the program, Carson sits on the porch of her white-railed house in Maine, wearing a skirt and cardigan; the chief spokesman for the insecticide industry, Robert White-Stevens, of American Cyanamid, wears thick black-framed glasses and a white coat, standing in a chemistry lab, surrounded by beakers and Bunsen burners.
Whoa. Caricature much? White coats & beakers, the trappings of scientism. I am amused, and appalled.
White-Stevens questions Carson’s expertise: “The major claims of Miss Rachel Carson’s book, ‘Silent Spring,’ are gross distortions of the actual fact, completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence and general practical experience in the field.”
Carson feigns perplexity: “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?”
White-Stevens fumes: “Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist believes that man is steadily controlling nature.”
Stop right there. White-Stevens is simply wrong — that is a horrifying attitude to take, that rather than existing as a part of nature, humans are responsible for controlling nature. I can’t imagine any modern biologist taking White-Stevens position, in part thanks to Rachel Carson.
You can now watch the whole 1963 program, thanks to the intertubes. It’s not a pleasant experience: there’s a train of expressionless, somber white men all positively asserting that all of the chemicals they’re spraying across the landscape are harmless, that they have been thoroughly tested and do no harm to people at all, which is not particularly reassuring coming from people who think all of nature is to be brought under their control.
Watch for the scene where White-Stevens is lecturing at a lectern, and the camera pans to the audience…which consists entirely of men in crewcuts, white shirts, and/or ties. There are also scenes where the defenders have to reluctantly admit that widespread pesticide use sometimes damages the environment — they talk of streams full of dead fish, and one says that he’s seen the elimination of 80% of the wildlife in some areas. Watch the whole thing and it gets more and more clear that the overuse of pesticides has led to serious effects on animals at concentrations far lower than the industry endorses. White-Stevens does not come out of this looking good.
Rachel Carson, on the other hand, is magnificent. She doesn’t get enough air time.
Note that this was all before the EPA was established, which the current administration is trying to destroy.