May 24, 2007

Comments by Moderator Deanne Urmy

Thanks to John Elder and to Bob Pyle for their lively moderators' comments, and to everyone else for a really engaged conversation in recent weeks. I've spent some time, during the past month or so, with Rachel Carson much on my mind, looking through Houghton Mifflin's Rachel Carson archives. [Editor's Note: Deanne is Senior Executive Editor at Houghton Mifflin] The typed memoranda from publicists and hand-picked lists of newspaper writers for "luncheons" for "Miss Carson" in the publicity files for Silent Spring are a reminder that Rachel Carson fomented her entire revolution during a very--very--different era.

But some things don't change.

In the Houghton Mifflin publicity archives I found the infamous 9/28/62 Time magazine review of Silent Spring: "Scientists, physicians, and other technically informed people will also be shocked by Silent Spring. . . . They will recognize Miss Carson's skill in building her frightening case; but they consider that case unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic. Many of the scary generalizations--and there are lots of them--are patently unsound. 'It is not possible,' says Miss Carson, 'to add pesticides to water anywhere without threatening the purity of water everywhere.' It takes only a moment of reflection to show that this is nonsense. Again she says: 'Each insecticide is used for the simple reason that it is a deadly poison. It therefore poisons all life with which it comes in contact.' Any housewife who has sprayed flies with a bug bomb and managed to survive without poisoning should spot at least part of the error in that statement."

My question: Why is passion, and/or passionate prose, when it comes to making an environmental argument, so often grounds for attack?

Go to May Reading Schedule

Stay tuned! Sunday, May 27 LIVE Birthday Blogging from the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania


Gloria said...

Maybe because some individuals feel an attack aimed at themselves and their lifestyle. When words are impassioned they ignite similar feelings in the recipient, if said recipient disagrees a flame can soar before complete understanding takes place. And maybe poor reading skills or skimming to finish a hard text makes things worse.

You would think any reader should understand that she meant a poison that kills one organism must leave some degree of damage to all life forms, though not to immediate sickness or ultimate death.

Still we do not want to live with mosquitoes and flies.

While cool words that do not incite are necessary to educate, a voice of passion is sometimes needed to begin the dialogue.Rachel Carson was brave and strong enough to follow through.

Anonymous said...

Deanne, Rachel Carson certainly was very passionate about the environment, and she suffered much in the way of attacks for it. On the other hand, I think attacks are also directed at others, not necessarily only to those making an environmental argument but those who are passionate about principles they firmly believe in. If somebody takes a stand for something
s/he strongly believes in for the good of mankind, there is usually someone standing by with self-serving interests ready to put a stop to it. I think the keyword here is "self-serving" or "self-centered"; if someone comes along making a statement and is considered a menace to one's egocentric feelings, power status, empire or otherwise aggrandizement, how dare he! Attack! Or it may just be an attitude of wanting to maintain the status quo. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But goodness knows: the way things are going for our environment, we need people who are passionate about doing something about it and in moderating the consumption of our natural resources. And hopefully, as did Rachel Carson, those good people will prevail

Lida said...

Interesting how the expression of passion can be either inspiring or threatening. Passion is intimidating because there is power at its core, which could represent a challenge. The intimidated ones are quick to call passion “hysteria” thus discrediting the source and avoiding the implicit challenge. However it wouldn’t be fair to say there wasn’t passion on the other side because the anti-Carson people are often extremely passionate. Along with that goes “scapegoatism,” a pervasive penchant in this country to avoid things like dialogue, discussion, debate, and especially critical thinking. It’s a way to short-cut dealing with difficult dilemmas and avoid seeking solutions that actually address the problem. Scapegoating is a convenient way for people to take themselves off the hook so they never actually have to be involved with solving the problem. It is disheartening to see how vehemently Rachel Carson is still being used as a scapegoat in the DDT/malaria issue. But I think it’s quite clear that what’s really at the bottom of it is the opposition to and resentment of the environmental movement.

Tom Dunlap said...

I don't think passionate prose is grounds for attack in environmental discussions, at least no more than it is in any other. I read a good deal of the anti-Carson prose when I did my dissertation on DDT, lo these many years ago, and interviewed some of her opponents. Carson inspired their oppostion--vehement and often not well reasoned--because she challenged their deepest and least articulated beliefs: in human ability to "conquer nature" and the ability of technology to make an Earthly paradise. She challenged causes they believed in and in some cases had dedicated their professional lives to.

julie said...

I think that passionate prose is often grounds for attack in environmental discussions, especially discussions that are science based. Many people operate under the assumption that scientists must be morally & politically neutral and that advocacy compromises their credibility.

People also hold narrow beliefs about human possibilities--you cannot be both rational and passionate, you cannot believe in both religion and evolution, you cannot support both the environment and the economy. Carson detractors can therefore use her passion to dismiss her as not credible and not scientific, freeing them to ignore her moral and aesthetic arguments too.

A.R. said...

Julie makes an important point about things not having to be "either/or," which usually translates as "You're either with us or against us." Why is it so hard for people to envision something bigger?

Regarding the role of scientists, here's something that E.O. Wilson said on the subject in a recent interview.

From The Daily Green:
TDG: You are an influential scientist and a prolific author, who bridges that often-large gulf between scientific rigor and the somewhat messier practice of advocacy. What has that experience taught you about spurring change in society, when it comes to environmental issues?

EOW: Scientists should first establish themselves as scientists, with a solid record of peer-reviewed achievement, then speak out in their area of expertise-loudly, if necessary.

Locations of visitors to this page