The mother of the 20th-century environmentalist movement, Rachel Carson shed light upon the scientific as well as philosophical misconceptions embraced by Western society about humanity’s relationship with the ecosystem. During an era in which the practices of science went almost unquestioned, Carson made known to all the hazardous effects of pesticides in her then-controversial book Silent Spring (1962). Not only did Carson spur the prohibition of such indiscriminate “biocides” as DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethene), but even more awesome was the birth of the environmentalist movement that followed. Carson showed the world the true nature of our roles as participants within a delicate and intricate ecosystem.
Carson was foremost a writer and originally envisioned herself as an English major at Pennsylvania College for Women (PCW) (now Chatham College). She also held a strong love and interest for biology, which stemmed from her childhood in Springdale, Pennsylvania. There, she would accompany her mother on many of her bird-watches and nature studies along the Allegheny River. In school, with the support of a professor, she eventually switched her major to zoology. After completing her degree at PCW, she went on to receive her master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University (1932) and soon after discovered her adoration for the sea, studying at Woods Hole Biological Laboratory and Johns Hopkins.
She began her career as a radio scriptwriter for the Bureau of Fisheries in 1935 (which became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1939) and was given permanent appointment as junior aquatic biologist the following year. She held one of two professional positions occupied by a woman at the agency.
She published her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, in 1941, which entailed the story of a sea bird’s arduous migratory journey from Patagonia to the Arctic Circle. It received great critical acclaim, but little public attention due to the ensuing World War II.
Carson became the editor in chief by 1949 of all publications put out by the agency and participated in major conferences regarding the latest scientific and technological developments. Slowed by her increased responsibilities with the agency, Carson published The Sea Around Us in 1951,10 years following her first book. The book discussed the latest research in oceanography and earned Carson overwhelming critical acclaim as well as literary vogue. Her newly gained celebrity status made her following book, The Edge of the Sea (1955), an unsurprising best seller. Her literary popularity came from her ability to translate copious amounts of scientific information into lyrical prose that could appeal to the public eye.
Carson also had a secondary project she had been working on, dealing with the persistent ecological damage caused by the misuse of pesticides. She submitted an article about the observed dangers of pesticides to 15 journals and periodicals, including Reader’s Digest and National Geographic, and was rejected by all. Finally, The New Yorker recognized the importance of her work and serialized Silent Spring in 1962. Well before Silent Spring was published, Carson made her ecological campaign well-known and accordingly received abundant threats from not only pesticide corporations but colleagues as well. The threats proved futile against Carson’s everlasting ardor for ecology.
Silent Spring and Carson’s later testimonies before Congress challenged the government’s approval of certain nonspecific pesticide usage and conveyed the uniquely ecological idea that humanity was just as susceptible to the hazards of pollution as any other element of the ecosystem. Just having ended World War II and with the advent of the Cold War, Western society was fixated upon the potentials of science and technology. This awe of industrial science heralded an ecological view of humanity as a controlling figure over nature, growing more and more omnipotent with every discovery and breakthrough. Carson humbled these sophisms with startling data about the affects of manmade pollutants on the ecosystem as well as the human body. Her work led directly to the prohibition of DDT and several other nonspecific “biocides” (a word she coined).
Prior to Carson, the field of ecology held little scholarly recognition for its broader take on the processes of the environment. Carson’s writings not only gave the science scholarly legitimacy but also popularized it among the masses. So recognized were her writings that they inspired the beginnings of the modern environmentalist movement, which evaluates environmental issues from an ecological view. The significance of her work to humankind was monumental in presenting controversial concepts that today seem common sense to a generation born into an environmentally aware society. Rachel Carson was not the first to notice the encroaching dangers of our ecological malpractices, but she was the first to successfully and comprehensibly convey her concerns to a society too self-infatuated to notice on its own.
- Carson, R. (1989). The sea around us (Special ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Carson, R. (1998). The sense of wonder. (Reprint ed.). New York: HarperCollins.
- Carson, R. (2002). Silent spring (40th anniv. ed.). New York: First Mariner Books.
- Lear, L. (1997). Rachel Carson: Witness for nature. New York: Henry Holt.