November 30, 2007

Comments by Moderator Tom Schaefer

Rachel Carson's Legacy

In the summer of 1960 conservationists from many states converged on a peaceful Maine island to witness its presentation to the National Audubon Society by its owner, Millicent Todd Bingham. The focus that day was on the preservation of the natural landscape and the intricate web of life whose interwoven strands lead from microbes to man. But in the background of all the conversations...was indignation at the despoiling of the roads they had traveled.

Rachel Carson in Silent Spring

Let's see. In the summer of 1960 I was a ten year-old boy far from the Maine coast, probably playing a little baseball, but mostly flying my bike down tree-lined streets in a suburban Ohio neighborhood. My natural sense of wonder had not moved me to try to identify many species of birds, besides robins and cardinals; the only trees I knew for sure were apples and cottonwoods, the latter gifting our backyard with their snowy summer mess.

I don't remember much about chemical applications in those days. My parents talked about spraying the apple tree. Every year when the yield became bug ridden, their able-bodied children, of which I now officially qualified, would be loaded into the station wagon and carted off to a rural fruit farm where we helped pick a few bushels of golden delicious for use in Mom's famous apple sauce. The annual hope was our backyard tree would turn around next year with the help of some modern marvel sprayed under pressure. I'm not sure that my dad ever got around to it. I honestly think he preferred taking us kids out for an apple picking day in the country.

But it was August 1960 when Rachel Carson, still collecting stories that would complete Silent Spring, took a day to visit Millicent Todd Bingham's Hog Island just up the shore from her own summer place in Muscongus Bay. The application of chemicals was, it would seem, a topic of some of that day's conversations at the island's Todd Wildlife Sanctuary dedication.

Which brings us to the theme of this last post: Just what is Rachel Carson's legacy?

Some detractors claim hers a "cancerous" legacy which has taught a world population to blame farmers for using chemicals that promote human disease instead of looking into their own genetics. Further, her efforts to ban DDT have condemned millions of malaria victims to unnecessary suffering and death.

In another light, Rachel Carson is celebrated as a twentieth century visionary who successfully articulated the warning over widespread use of chemicals not only on fields and roadsides, but in urban and suburban populated areas. Also, of course, is her extensive body of work in marine biology and her influence in inspiring a generation of environmental activists.

Where do you stand on the Carson's legacy? Has she done more good than harm? What have the lessons of her writing left us? How will her story play out a century from now?

For me, The Sense of Wonder will always be a treasure. Commissioning me to take my own kids, my students, and my grandkids out to experience nature is a pearl beyond price. And for me, Silent Spring will forever be a bridge between the evolution of the conservation movement and my beloved Hog Island, current home of Maine Audubon's Hog Island Audubon Center, which, by the way, has kept the faith of teaching campers about "the intricate web of life whose interwoven strands lead from microbes to man" for almost seventy-five years now. Ms. Carson probably wouldn't mind if I encouraged you to visit their Web site.

Tom Schaefer

November Reading Schedule

The Sea Around Us Field Notes Blog continues through December


Ed Darrell said...

Just briefly, I think Rachel Carson's legacy comes in three ideas.

First, we have the greater environmental movement, with people who spend a good deal of time studying and living out of doors, enjoying nature, and taking action to protect and preserve nature as a valuable thing for people to have for the sanity of humans, and as important by itself for the survival and flourishing of life on the planet. The movement provides information and political action in a classically liberal education sort of way, to conserve the planet.

Second, in Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us and other writings, Carson leaves a blueprint for how to reduce hard and often dull, but important science, to everyday language that laypeople can understand. She showed how to make science available to a wider audience, for the benefit and wonder of that audience.

Third, she leaves a political legacy that urges people to study and act to change things in their lives, for the better. I staffed Congress for a while, and I saw many times when citizens were told not to worry about a problem they saw. Instead, the citizens studied, got into the technical documents, and ultimately made the case that something needed to be done. Two examples: The Downwinders, victims of radioactive fallout from the Nevada nuclear tests, charted cancers of children in small Utah towns, and presented to the medical establishment and politicians a case that could not be ignored that something was killing the children. Second, parents and victims of "orphan diseases" organized and made the case to Congress that they needed special provisions in law to encourage pharmaceutical researchers and manufacturers to created pharmaceuticals to treat odd little diseases that affect too few people to be really profitable, like Tourette's syndrome. The law was passed, and a few of these diseases have new treatments as a result.

I think history shows that each of those legacies runs directly through Rachel Carson's work, emerging purer and stronger, much as a muddy river emerges cleaner and chemically changed from flowing through an estuary.

peanut said...

* I was told about this post today and about its similarity to my own post on a different blog (Field Notes from the Sea Around Us). I was encouraged to leave my post as a comment to this one so that is what I have done. That is why this comment might sound a little weird; at the time I was not writing in response to Mr Schaefer. Anyways, my post/comment is below and I hope it is received well.

The Legacy of R. Carson

First of all, this post is primarily in response to an article in Washington Monthly which was brought to my attention by my professor in Environmental Sociology class (to read the article click on the title of this post; tell me in your comment if this does not work and I will put up a comment with the link included). Generally, this article tells about how attempts to recognize the life and accomplishments of Rachel Carson were met with attacks from both media and the government. I have read the article for the second time today and, again, sit stunned at the reaction of what the article calls the "detractors."

I simply cannot fathom how someone could be so cruel toward a woman who was so nice. What I mean is that she comes across as a nice person, regardless of her professional life. The only solution that I have come to is that this situation must have something to do with money. It is hard for me to imagine that all these "detractors" have some personal grudge against Rachel. It seems more likely a preemptive strike made in response to a perceived threat against their sources of revenue. I cannot think of any other reason, although I wish I could because I hate to think that anyone would sink to such a level for the sake of money.

A concept that has been going around is that if we work to preserve nature we will lose revenue. Even if this concept held water, and reality does not support it, it is still a ridiculous reason for attacking Rachel Carson. Many feel that if Carson had not written her books then the American environmental movement would never have formed and we would not have to deal with all the regulations that have come about because of it. This is like saying that Jesus Christ is to blame for all the terrible things humanity has done in the name of Christianity, or maybe that Martin Luther King is responsible for all the inconvenience whites have had to put up with as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. We miss the point entirely when we do this, and no one's situations, neither the "detractors" or the supporters of Rachel Carson, can be improved in this way.

Rachel Carson had some great ideas, she wrote beautifully, and brought to the attention of millions the impact humans were having on the environment, but her time is past now. I think that both sides of this argument must move on if we are ever to find some answers and peace. I do not mean that we cannot show appreciation for Rachel Carson, I do that myself, but I do not think she should be raised above humanity as some sort of visionary or prophet. On the other hand, she most certainly did not have a malicious streak either; she did not sit at home just thinking up new ways and new lies she could tell to further wreak destruction against and inconvenience American businesses and lifestyles. Rachel Carson was simply a woman, a human like the rest of us. The only difference between her and us was that she, first, was concerned about the environment and, second, had the courage to talk about her ideas and feelings in a public setting.

As far as I can tell, the most she ever asked of us was that we might take a moment and think about how our lifestyles might be effecting the environment. If we can do this seriously and earnestly, and still feel no remorse for our actions, then Rachel would have had nothing further to say to us. After all, it is only because of the guilt we feel over our actions that Carson's ideas can have any impact on us. Ironically, it is those of us who feel the most guilt and responsibility for our actions that end up empathizing the most with Carson's words.

Unlike some countries, it is not a crime to think for yourself in the United States, and yet sometimes it seems like the people in this country perform this action the least out of all the people in the world. Some people in this nation are specifically paid to confuse the rest of the American public. It occurs to me that this may have been the actual purpose behind Carson's actions - to get the American public to start thinking. If the environment were destroyed, Rachel would have been sad, probably devastated, but I do not think she would have called it the end of the world. When people stop thinking, though, we lose our autonomy; I believe we would be losing the most important part of ourselves. So, sorry for the long post, but I guess my point is to tell you all to get out there and start thinking, for yourselves that is, and never stop questioning the truth of what you hear and see from media, from the people around you, and even from yourselves.

Anonymous said...

I saw this article about the top 10 greenest cities: I never thought I would see LA in front of Seattle and San Fran. I went to the site that published the list ( and took their carbon calculator. I got a 257 which is pretty good compared to what I think other people probably get. After I complete some pledges I think it will be much lower. Check it out it only took me like 3 minutes to get my score. The website is

Marion Delgado said...

Rachel Carson, and especially the sea around us, changed my life. My Republican mom gave it to us kids to read and I ended up reading everything i could by rachel carson, including silent spring.

Actually while i had read some of farley mowat's stories, it was looking for something like silent spring that got me to read and no bird sang (which wasnt at all the same) but that got me in to farley mowat as well.

right now a tiny cult - mostly larouchite - is getting a big megaphone, because spreading hatred against environmentalists is on the agenda of people who are sociopaths and of inhuman corporate persons. It'd be a big mistake for us to obsess on those attacks, to dwell on them. They need to be refuted, of course, especially the Larouchite and anti-environmentalist who was the main source, but it's much more important we move PAST it. Just remember it's a tiny, but noisy and fanatic cult at the heart of it all.

I believe when Rachel Carson died, she could already see her influence spreading. I like to think she anticipated the 1970s, which was a time of great gains for the environment in the industrial nations.

The whole world is luckier that it had Rachel Carson in it. We should ALL strive to make it so that others will say that about us, too.

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