A new documentary on Rachel Carson is showing on PBS stations this January. Presented by the American Experience, the program honors Rachel Carson’s courage as a “woman whose writings revolutionized how we understand our relationship with the natural world.“ In Cooperative Wisdom, Carson appears as an exemplar of Creative Courage, and I am glad a new generation will have an opportunity to learn more about her public and private life.
Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962 when I was a 22 year old graduate student. My knowledge of chemistry was minimal, but the reviews of Silent Spring quickly sounded alarms bells in my mind. If this author’s views were as outrageous as her critics claimed, why had the book been published, much less reviewed?
Over the years, Carson’s predicament became clear. She lived in a very particular social environment, constrained by beliefs about what women could and couldn’t do in science. Still, that environment gave her a vantage point from which she could see vulnerabilities that others did not see—and she was determined to be heard.
Carson was courageous in insisting that people pay attention to unintended consequences created by widespread use of chemicals. And her insights had a profound impact on my own work. When she was called to testify before Congress, she was being treated for breast cancer and caricatured by a hostile press. Despite those obstacles, Carson was focused and passionate, insisting that others pay attention to very real harms that were clear from her perspective.
Finding Her Voice as a Woman in the Sciences
Carson’s courage began early in her life. Today, over 57% of college undergraduates are women, but when Carson entered Pennsylvania College for Women in 1925, less than 10% of college students were female. Women who did get a higher education were funneled into “women’s jobs” like teaching and nursing. Carson, motivated by her respect for nature, proved to be an exceptional student in the biological sciences. Her work as an undergraduate was so dedicated and outstanding that she was invited to study at the prestigious Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. In 1932, she received her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University.
Despite these impressive credentials, Carson was not offered a research appointment at a top-ranked university. Like other under-appreciated minorities, she found a successful career in government service. Carson began writing radio scripts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and feature stories on natural history for the Baltimore Sun. During her fifteen-year career as a science writer and editor, she rose to become Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In her professional life, Carson edited scientific articles and wrote pamphlets on conservation and natural resources. In her free time, she converted what she had learned from government research into popular articles, written in lyric prose. In 1937, the Atlantic Monthly published an article entitled “Undersea” which Carson expanded into the book Under the Sea-Wind (1941). In 1952 she published her prize-winning study of the ocean, The Sea Around Us, which was followed by The Edge of the Sea in 1955. These books secured Carson’s reputation, both as a naturalist and as a science writer who could kindle the imagination of the public.
Even though she was denied the opportunity to participate in cutting edge research, Carson used her position as an editor to amass a more comprehensive knowledge of biochemical research than any of her more specialized peers. While they tended to be isolated in specific areas of research that limited their perspective, she was in a position to see larger trends. And what she saw was a disturbing. The rapid introduction of chemicals, particularly pesticides and antibiotics, after World II was creating hazardous side effects for people and other species.
Carson’s Unique Perspective
Carson was uniquely equipped to spot these unintended consequences. From her mother, she had absorbed the view that human beings are but one part of nature. The ability to alter an environment carries with it the danger that there will be unintended consequences that will boomerang, creating harms both for other species and for people. As a scientist, Carson recognized that the disciplined studies of feedback effects, ecosystem interactions and resource management were all very young. At first, she was cautious about her conclusions.
Eventually, Carson realized that her editorial vantage point allowed her to see how advances in the applied sciences were creating unprecedented dangers. She could see that number of new chemicals introduced each year created risks that were not being addressed. She also knew that neither scientific specialists nor laypeople were positioned to share her vision.
And so she wrote Silent Spring, a book which made the risks vivid for citizens, scientists and policy makers. As the producers of the new documentary put it, “In the ’60s, chemicals were everywhere — in food, in crops, in everything. Carson was the first person to point out there’s a price to be paid for that world. She guided us towards an understanding of the interrelatedness of nature, and challenged us to think about our impact on the world around us.” In addition to challenging the practices of agricultural scientists and the government policies that supported them, Carson called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world.
Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, shortly after testifying to Congress and before they acted on her warnings. Her insights, however, continue to be relevant, and we honor them in Cooperative Wisdom. The results of cooperation are generally beneficial. But, we must be alert for the cumulative and interactive effects of our actions. If we ignore those effects,we create circumstances under which negative externalities can proliferate and potentially undo the benefits we hope to secure.
Rachel Carson vividly dramatized the values which are crucial to sustainable social and natural systems. She continues to be a role model for me, and I hope this new documentary will bring her inspiring example to a new generation.
Biographical data from Carson biographer Linda Lear, author of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, published in 1998 and reissued by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2009.