March 23, 2007

Moderator's Comments from Deanne Urmy

Thank you Linda Lear for nearly a month's worth of erudite and provocative comments on Rachel Carson's life and work and its implications for life on our planet today. And thanks to all of you who have been weighing in.
I've just finished work as in-house editor at Houghton Mifflin for Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson. In reading contributions for that book from Al Gore, Edward O. Wilson, Sandra Steingraber, John Elder, Terry Tempest Williams, Janisse Ray, and more, I was reminded of the sheer bravery of Rachel Carson at the time of publication of Silent Spring.
It has always seemed especially moving to me to imagine her, without any institutional "cover," and increasingly ill, finding the courage to defend what she had discovered to be scientifically true, in the face of powerful and public assaults from government and industry.
Today, writers and scientists often find themselves again under fire for reporting environmental truths. From the March 9, 2007 New York Times, for instance: "The director of the Fish and Wildlife Service defended the agency requirement that two employees going to international meetings on the Arctic not discuss climate change, saying diplomatic protocol limited employees to an agreed-on agenda."
Does Rachel Carson offer guidance (or even direct quotations!) to scientists and academics who find that top-down control is a reality in their environmental work and writing?

March 19, 2007

Comments by Moderator Linda Lear

Rachel Carson’s first twenty years of life were spent along the shores of an increasingly polluted Allegheny River. It was a river flowing from pristine fishing grounds above Springdale through railway dumps, electrical powerhouses, along slaughterhouses and chemical treatment plants for the glass, aluminum, coke and steel industries of Pittsburgh into the Ohio River at Pittsburgh’s three rivers point. Her growing up coincided with the climax of the second industrial revolution --at the very place where its awesome power to affect the future of human life and welfare was the most uncritically accepted. "We bring new things to light."

I come from the same earth, and I have always wondered what its influence was on me. As I came to write Rachel’s story I thought long and hard about what did this contamination of the environment mean to her early consciousness. Would she have been as quick to pick upon synthetic chemicals had she come from somewhere else?

Now that Witness for Nature is finished, that question in my own mind is still not definitively answered. How does one’s first consciousness of nature abide, and what difference did it make in Carson’s ability to observe and to see the "contamination of nature," and to try to "do something about it?"

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March 12, 2007

Comments by Moderator Linda Lear

"Rachel Who?"

I think it is time to ask a big question of our on-line readers. As Carson's biographer, I have been on the road now for nearly a decade, (Witness for Nature was published in 1997) and I have traveled extensively both in the U.S. and in the U.K. where it was also published.

In spite of the increasing interest in global warming and in the greening of our culture, and in spite of more and more people recognizing that something must be done, I am invariably confronted with the "Rachel Who?" question.

Granted, ours is no longer a print generation, and granted that Carson's life is as far away as the Franco-Prussian Wars to most people under 50, I am still stunned that her name is so unrecognized. I have my own multiple theories about this sad fact, but I'd be very interested in hearing what readers think; why it is, and what can be done about it, or maybe it's not important any more that a name be attached to a philosophy which is widely embraced as "good public policy."
To access a comment by Linda Lear on this topic click here and scroll down to end of page.

March 5, 2007

Comments by Moderator Linda Lear

Rachel Carson's last speech before the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group in San Francisco, titled "The Pollution of Our Environment" (Lost Woods, pp. 227-245) summarizes much of what she wanted most to talk about in her last months, and what she thought was most important for our future.
In this speech she expanded her criticism of a society that seldom evaluated the risks of new technology before it was entrenched into social systems. Carson's understanding of social dynamics was such that she understood absolutely that once a product was put out into the social system it could not be taken back.
This Sunday, The Washington Post, had a front page article ("FDA Rules Override Warnings About Drug") that struck me as something that would not surprise Rachel Carson in the least. The culprit in this case, was not DDT, but the implementation in the food-chain of a new class of antibiotics, known commonly as cefquinome, against a bovine pneumonia-like disease, carrying with it a risk of the emergence of resistant microbes in humans who eat the meat of cattle injected with the antibiotic. In spite of protests from health groups and the AMA, it appears that the FDA will approve the use of cefquinome this spring.
The advocates of putting this "new technology" out there are not the old chemical industry or food industry as Carson knew it, but the pharmaceutical industry and the cattle/beef lobby. These are more or less the same old personnae, with slightly different nuances, but the same agenda of profit now and "we'll worry about the result to humans and nature tomorrow, or sometime later... much later.
Why has the political and economic, and yes, the scientific culture seemingly changed so little since 1963? And what conclusions for the future of our environment do you draw from this seemingly endless cycle of repeating the same old mistakes? As Carson put it in 1963" man does not live apart from the world; he lives in the midst of a complex, dynamic interplay of physical, chemical, and biological forces, and between himself and this environment there are continuing, never-ending interactions."

Introduction by Linda Lear in Silent Spring. 40th Anniversary Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Introduction by Linda Lear in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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March 3, 2007

Comments by Moderator Linda Lear

Thank you all for wonderful comments thus far. I'll just add that although it's well known that Carson's view of the future of nature and of life was impacted dramatically by the atom bomb, she was really coming to grips with human impact during her research for The Sea Around Us (a much neglected book in my view!). Her prize winning essay, "The Birth of an Island" presages this recognition and should be contrasted with her first and in some respects finest piece of nature writing, Under the Sea- Wind (which will be re-published with its original foreword, as well as drawings by Howard Frech by Penguin US in April.). In Under the Sea-Wind there are no human beings. There is mention of a fisherman and humans do not impact the sea, its rhythms or life or the creatures she describes so lovingly.
Pollution, human destruction, and hubris are all very early themes in Carson's writing, and the fact that she ends with a focus on clouds, radioactive dumping in the ocean, and climate change is really not so surprising.

Reading: Linda Lear's Introduction in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
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