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1907 – 1964
With the heart of a poet, an exacting mind, and determination and prodigious energy, Rachel Carson was a revolutionary in an unlikely arena. Through lyrical writing and fearless scientific inquiry, Carson ushered in an era of environmental conservation where none had existed. She spoke unvarnished truths to a public that was ready to hear her warnings. “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world,” she wrote.
Few would have picked Carson for this heroic role. On the surface, she was a shy marine biologist in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. But at her core, she was driven by single-minded curiosity about nature. She made her mark first with The Sea Around Us,a book that explored the life cycles of many sea creatures. Written in inspired prose that captured the rhythms of the ocean, the book, published in 1952, was a runaway best seller. Its success encouraged Carson to continue writing about the wonder and beauty of the living world.
Carson changed direction as she learned more about the indiscriminate use of synthetic chemicals such as DDT and their long-term health and environmental dangers. She wrote Silent Spring, as a call to action. Published in 1962, the book challenged accepted practices and urged restraint. She wrote, with unsparing urgency, of the dangers of chemical spraying: “The sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes – non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the good and the bad, to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams – to coat the leaves with a deadly film and to linger on in soil – all this, though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects.”
The pesticide industry attacked the book and Carson’s professional integrity and competence, but the vitriol succeeded only in increasing public awareness and mobilizing Congress eventually to ban DDT. Secure in her facts and in the support of her fellow scientists, Carson testified before Congress in 1963 to urge radical change. Perhaps the knowledge of her own mortality (she died a year later from breast cancer) gave her the strength to remain calm in the face of blistering industry attacks.
Nearly 50 years after the publication of Silent Spring, Carson’s living legacy is a generation of environmental activists who refuse to remain silent, a federal government that protects nature through the Environmental Protection Agency, and a conservation movement embraced by mainstream America. As importantly, she gave us confidence in our questioning. Quoting French biologist Jean Rostand, she once said: “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.”
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