The life and legacy of Rachel Carson

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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (8/9/12)


'Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?'

Rachel Carson wrote those words 50 years ago in Silent Spring, the book that would go on to influence a generation of environmental activists and act as the catalyst for stricter environmental regulations, including the banning of the pesticide DDT. Carson, who was a marine biologist by trade, passed away in 1964 at the age of 56 but interest in her book and work continues to this day. In fact, she's the subject of a new biography: On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder.

By the time Silent Spring was published in 1962, plenty of books had been published about the environment, and even a few about the dangers of pesticides could be found on bookstore shelves. Souder believes there are two reasons why Silent Spring rose above them all. First, Carson was already a very well-known author by the time she began to work on Silent Spring, and her writing was accessible to people outside scientific circles. "Her writing is always described as being lyrical and poetic but also as intensely factual," Souder told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald in a recent interview. "She had a great knack for explaining complicated ideas or scientific ideas in common, everyday language that was also extremely entertaining."


The second factor, however, Souder believes is much more critical: Carson drew concrete parallels between the problems with nuclear testing and with pesticide use at a time when concern about nuclear fallout was on everyone's mind. Not only did these two technologies have similar histories emerging from the Second World War, but they contaminated the environment and threatened human populations the same way: through the air. "She was talking, most effectively, to the baby boomers, to the generation that had come of age in the 1950s and 1960s who understood the dangers of nuclear warfare, who understood the dangers of nuclear fallout." Having lived through this, Souder argued, made Carson's audience more receptive to other environmental ideas. "That generation got it when they read Silent Spring and I think that is why that generation went on to be the vanguard of the environmental movement."

While Carson is hailed as a visionary today, Souder is quick to point out that her views weren't extreme. Rather, she advocated a holistic approach to the environment and believed that there were some instances -- such as combating human diseases spread by insects, like malaria -- where the use of pesticide and insecticide made sense. "She did not insist that pesticides could never be used, should never be used. She did not call for a ban on DDT or any other insecticide," Souder said. But pesticide was being used in shelf- and drawer-lining paper and spread through the air to the point it's feasible to say that almost every American was exposed to it on a regular basis. And that was a problem. "She did object to the heedless, reckless, careless overuse of pesticides, which she saw as a real problem."

After reading Silent Spring, the American public agreed and Carson is largely credited today with the ban on DDT. But getting to this ban was a long and difficult battle between environmentalists and chemical companies, and it firmly divided those who wanted more governmental regulations and those who believed the free market should be left to do what it needed to do to sort the problem out. And in the 50 years since then, the American environmental movement hasn't progressed as much as we like to think it has. Souder argues that the environmental movement today "is prominent but not necessarily terribly effective" and that it's still strongly divided along political lines (a divide Souder actually traces to the publication of Silent Spring) and we're facing an issue even bigger than pesticide use: climate change. Climate change is rapidly changing the world around us and the debate surrounding it is very political.

"If Carson were with us today I think she would see the arguments surrounding climate change as playing out in exactly the same way and in exactly the same terms as the argument that was around pesticides half a century ago," Souder said. "She'd find that, maybe not surprising, but she'd certainly be saddened by it."

The photos below are courtesy of Souder's publisher, Random House of Canada.

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