The Poisoning of Nature, Revelations and Repercussions, Rachel Carson

Draft of unpublished chapter.

“For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” (Carson 1965:67).

Rachel Carson (1907-1964) is best known for awakening the world to the dangers of industrial chemicals in the environment, and accordingly to human health, through her rigorous scientific investigation and documentation of the consequences of the unregulated and indiscriminant widespread use of DDT and other synthetic chemicals. Judging by the explosive backlash against her book Silent Spring, her argument and evidence must have had serious substance. Moreover, it was a major catalyst in the development of the environmental movement. Prior to that book, she was known for three others on the sea, among the best literary works in natural history. These gave her a public audience and credibility which set the stage for the reception of her next book, Silent Spring. Less recognized is the radical nature of that book, it challenged the very roots of industrial society. Even less recognized is the spiritual ecology underlying and motivating her career and writings. That is the main focus here. But first a little more background is necessary for context.

Carson earned a B.A. in 1929 in biology from PennsylvaniaCollege for Women (later called ChathamCollege) and an M.A. in 1932 in marine biology from JohnsHopkinsUniversity. Family burdens and the Great Depression prevented her from continuing for the doctorate. She worked in various capacities for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (later renamed the Fish and Wildlife Service) from 1935-1952, where among other duties, she was General Editor of Conservation in Action, a series of pamphlets. Her books all reached the best seller list of the New York Times, and for some prior to publication serialization in The New Yorker. Eventually her books earned enough to allow her to retire early in 1952 to devote full-time to her research and writing, although family responsibilities weighed heavily on her time plus during the last few years of her life she struggled with cancer and medical treatments.

Prejudice and discrimination against women in higher education, science, and government was another disease plaguing Carson from her graduate studies throughout her career. Many of her writings only carried her first and middle initials before her last name to disguise her gender (Moyers 2007). Indeed, some of the critics of Silent Spring accused Carson of emotionalism, often linking this with being a woman. But she was above misogynistic and other attempts at character assassination as a tactic to undermine the credibility of the argument and evidence in her book (Cafaro 2008 ).

In the 1950s a trilogy of books focused on the natural history of the sea won public acclaim through millions of readers around the world and established Carson as a skilled science writer. Coincidentally these writings prepared the way for the explosive impact of her last book, Silent Spring. The first one, Under the Sea (1941) depicts the extraordinary mystery and beauty of the sea in a succession of fascinating adventures along the Atlantic coast. The Sea Around Us (1951) reveals the story of the seas including their origin, the evolution of life from them, and their remarkable world. It won the 1952 National Book Award. The Edge of the Sea (1955) describes the birds and animals that dwell along the shores of the sea, much of the observations gleaned from Carson’s home along the coast of Maine. The Sense of Wonder (1965) is a reprint of the essay “Helping your Children to Wonder.” It was first published in Woman’s Home Companion magazine. It encourages parents to facilitate their children’s nature study through firsthand exploration (cf. Louv 2008, Whitely and Hoff 1994).

The success of Carson’s book The Sea Around Us, including an Oscar-winning documentary by the same title based on it, allowed her to retire from her job as a government biologist and devote full-time to her own research and writing in 1951. Indeed, all of her books are still in print. Their success reflects more than her scientific rigor and poetic writing skill, or the serialization of some in the New Yorker, it also reflects her emotional and spiritual experience in and commitment to nature since childhood which emerges in her writing albeit in subtle ways.

Any reading of Carson’s books reveals the underlying spiritual ecology, Carson’s sense of wonder and religious reverence for nature, although this is mostly implicit (Sideris 2008:232). She viewed the sea as the generator of all life and also its eventual grave (McCay 2005:270). Her editor and subsequent biographer, Paul Brooks (1972:7-8) says that “She felt a spiritual as well as a physical closeness to the individual creatures about whom she wrote: a sense of identification that is an essential element in her literary style.”

As a child Rachel Carson enjoyed birding and botanizing in the some 65 acres of farmland including woods and streams surrounding her home on the margin of the small town of Springfield in Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh in the Allegheny River valley (Norwood 2008:253). Maria Carson, the daughter of a minister and herself a devout Presbyterian and outdoor nature enthusiast, instilled in her daughter Rachel a religious and environmental sensitivity. Sideris (2008:235) notes that: “While it would be absurd to suggest that Rachel Carson maintained some strict adherence to Calvinist doctrine and principles, certain quasi-Calvinist themes are evident in her account of nature and human nature. Among these is her basic conviction that a properly oriented study of nature promotes reverence, mystery, and humility— an expanded and clarified vision of the world around us. Knowledge, so long as it remains tethered to piety, never dispels wonder.” As a child Carson was exposed to the literature of the nature study movement which thrived from the late 19th century into the early 20th century [see Anna Comstock], and it reflected the tradition of natural theology, that the divine is revealed in the book of nature as well as in the Bible (Sideris 2008:235, cf. Carafo 2008). Rachael Carson came to realize that nature study involved emotion as well as reason, subjective as well as objective experience, even if most scientists rarely admitted anything beyond the empirical facts of a disenchanted and desacralized nature (Moore 2008:276, cf. Takcs ). (See Armitage 2009, Comstock… ). As Carafo (2008) observes: “Carson never doubted that increased knowledge was more precious than increased material wealth, or that a more widespread knowledge of nature would motivate people to protect it. And knowledge, for her, was not simply learned, but lived and experienced, engaging and developing the senses and emotions as well as the mind, our imaginations as much as our analytic abilities.”

Another component of Carson’s spiritual ecology was the influence of Albert Schweitzer’s concept and associated lifestyle, reverence for life. Indeed, Silent Spring is dedicated to Schweitzer. Carson also pursued Schweitzer’s ideal that ethics required action (Sideris 2008:241-244). In Carson’s case, her sense of wonder fed her sense of reverence and responsibility for life (Moore 2008). Schweitzer succinctly depicted the principle of reverence for life when he stated: “Every living thing, from an elephant to a blade of grass, deserves my reverence, for no other reason that that, like me, it lives and wants to go on living.” He demonstrated this principle through his life and work as a medical missionary in Lambarene, Gabon (Brabazon 2006:153).

Brooks observed that Carson ‘felt a spiritual as well as physical closeness to the individual creatures about whom she wrote’ and that ‘her attitude toward the natural world was that of a deeply religious person’. However, she didn’t have much concern for orthodox religious doctrine (Cafaro 2008). Cafaro (2008:1) observes: “Perhaps it is most accurate to say that Rachel Carson embraced nature in all its manifestations, from the small to the grand and from the scientific to the mystical. These experiences and interactions seem to have motivated her own powerful concern and effective action on behalf of nature. Ultimately, I think, her ethical foundation is experiential. Aesthetic, intellectual, sensual, imaginative, personal experience grounds ethical judgments and action. In the main, Carson’s writings are concerned to facilitate such experiences, rather than to argue for particular ethical positions. They certainly do not argue for particular religious beliefs.”

Carson’s environmental ethics are succinctly summarized based on Silent Spring by Philip Carafo (2008:1): “Evaluatively (and somewhat schematically) its plea for restraint rests on a triple foundation of human health considerations, the moral considerability of non-human beings, and the value to humans of preserving wild nature and a diverse and varied landscape.” However, Carson avoided the ethical issue of balancing human and nonhman interests by emphasizing the hazards that pesticides presented to both. At the same time, she believed that recognition of the instrinsic value of nonhumans yielded benefits to humans that were worth any restrictions. Carson’s ethics also encompassed disapproval of prioritizing economics over everything else, the human degradation and destruction of nature, and the increased simplification and artificiality of the landscape (Carafo 2008). As Carafo (2008: ) astutely points out: “Under the Sea-Wind is a fascinating attempt to marry an imaginative, phenomenological exploration of other consciousnesses with the latest researches in scientific natural history.” This underlies Carson’s personal attribute of profound empathy and compassion for other beings in nature, something clearly cultivated since childhood.

Carafo (2008: ) notes that: “Non-anthropocentrism is thus a key to Rachel Carson’s ethical philosophy, which contains the three complementary and equally challenging injunctions: “Respect nature!” “Know nature!” and “Place yourself in proper perspective!” We mistake the nature of ethics, and Carson’s ethics in particular, if we separate the intellectual from the ethical challenge here, or fail to acknowledge an ethical force behind all three injunctions. For Carson, arrogance is both an intellectual and a moral failing, while ignorance is as culpable as wrong action.” (Non-anthropocentrism may be more accurately termed ecocentrism in the present author’s opinion). While Carson was clearly committed to science including popularizing it to inform the public and to encourage appreciation of nature for the sake of conservation, she was also well aware of its limitations. As Carafo (2008: ) writes: “In contrast to common scientific practice, Carson emphasized direct appreciation of individual organisms. Personal connections to particular places, such as her beloved Maine coast, were very important to her. She rejected a purely objective outlook; her own writings often sought to create an emotional response to nature, which she believed would help further conservation.”

The power of Carson’s writing for the public stemmed for her ability to transcend the antithesis between reason and emotion as well as objectivity and subjectivity without sacrificing scientific rigor and desacralizing nature. As Hazlett (2008:149) observes: “Trying to understand nature in all its complexities, Carson often combined science and spirit. To succeed, however she had to fight past the predominant idea of her times — that science and spirit were separate— as well as the gender stereotypes that helped to build walls between these realms.” At the time in society there was a prevalent tendency to identify mind, reason, and objectivity in science as masculine attributes. In her early writings Carson even used only her first and middle initial before her last name in order to try to avoid gender discrimination. She learned from her Mother that science, emotion, and spirit could coexist (Hazlett 2008:151). It was the awe and mystery of nature reflected in her poetic writing that drove Carson’s scientific career as well as her personal life (Hazlett 2008:154). She was a participant in nature as well as an observer of it (Hazlett 2008:162). This orientation also led Carson to question the government’s resource approach to conservation and associated science (Hazlett 2008:156). As Hazlett (2008:159) writes: “Carson believed that by bringing together science and emotion, a mixture of knowledge and reverence, nature writers could help both humans and nature survive the scary new world that scientists had produced.” This orientation is reflected in the recent DisneyNature documentary film Oceans (Disney 2010). (On the role of emotion in human ecology and environmentalism see Anderson 1996, 2010, and Milton 2002).

Carson was alarmed at the increasing extent and intensity of the impact of human activities on nature, especially industrialized societies. She was concerned with the destruction of wildlife habitat as well as pollution.

Based on nearly five years of meticulous research including interviews, Silent Spring provided the public with some of the first evidence on the dangers of the untested, unregulated, and indiscriminate widespread use of chemical pesticides in farms, towns, residences, and elsewhere without regard to their environmental and health consequences as they accumulated in organisms and concentrated as they reached higher levels in the food chain, the latter technically referred to as biomagnification (Foster 2009:72). The book cleared the way for historic environmental policies by the government in the United States and elsewhere to research, monitor, and regulate the use of chemicals. For instance, the Chair of the Environmental Protection Agency, William D. Ruckelshaus, banned DDT on December 31, 1972. In the United States, previously declining bird populations, such as that of the national symbol, the Bald Eagle, began recovering, and eventually were removed from the endangered species list. The book also contributed to the development of the U.S. Clean Water Act in 1972. President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 to Carson, the highest civilian award, one among many times when her contributions to science, society, and environmentalism have been recognized. However, as some agribusiness chemicals have been prohibited in the United States companies have simply exported them to other countries with less stringent regulations to continuing profiting from the death of nature. But the chemical return in the residues in food imports.

Before the book Silent Spring was published and reached the best seller list and the Book-of-the-Month Club, it was on the New York Times best seller list for 86 weeks, and excerpts previously appeared in a series of articles in The New Yorker starting in June 16, 1962, paving the way for the wider reception of the book. It has been translated into 32 languages throughout the world. Carson was interviewed on the CBS television program 60 Minutes in April 3, 1963, and that contributed to the implementation of congressional hearings.

The backlash was immediate and grew over time, given the vested interests she challenged in chemical manufacturers, U.S. Department of Agriculture, professional scientists including entomologists, state agricultural universities, commercial food and agricultural interests, and other agencies. At the time the chemical industry was worth about $300,000,000. Vicious ad hominem attacks vilified Carson. Through attempts at character assassination they variously accused her of being an alarmist, hysterical woman, irrational spinster birdwatcher, peace-nut, priestess of nature, devotee of a mystical cult, and communist (see Brooks 1989, Graham 1970, Moyers 2007). But Carson rose above personal attacks and stood her ground on the basis of science and her concern for humanity and nature. Actually she was not totally against the use of chemicals, just the haphazard way in which they were being used including without adequate testing to ascertain their impact on the environment and human health. She never called for a ban on DDT, contrary to the accusations of some of her critics. However, she advocated more informed, judicious, and regulated use of pesticides, and also biological controls as an alternative.

In general the popular press and elected government officials viewed Silent Spring as raising a serious issue for public health and the environment which required more inquiry, testing, and regulation. In time Carson’s accomplishments were recognized with the award of an honorary doctorate degree from several universities.

Obviously, there was substance to her argument and evidence, otherwise, why so much fuss? Coincidentally, the controversy created increasing publicity for the book’s publisher. It has never gone out of print since is publication in 1962. Furthermore, by now the book has been translated into most major languages of the world. Through Silent Spring Carson contributed to the development of environmental governance such as in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States, grassroots environmental activism, environmental ethics, deep ecology, ecofeminism, and feminists scientists and scholars (Brooks 1972:284, Hynes 1989:9).

Lytle’s (2007) biography of Carson is titled The Gentle Subversive. Carson didn’t merely publish a scathing exposure of the dangers of chemical biocides in the environment thereby challenging the lucrative and powerful chemical industry, and ultimately she challenged the foundation of industrial society and capitalism with their disastrous anthropocentric and utilitarian environmental “ethic (Foster 2009, Lytle 2007). For example, Carson (1962:297) writes: “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.” This was one of the first indictments of industrialism and capitalism as unsustainable and unhealthy for the life of the biosphere including that of the human species, a common recurrent theme in the history of spiritual ecology in particular and radical ecology in general. Apologists for industrial society and the chemical industry continue to attack Carson decades after the publication of her book Silent Spring (e.g., Edwards 1992, cf. Hynes 1989, Murphy 2005, Norton 2005, Fitzgerald 2006). More recently, an entire website has been devoted to Carson as a baby killer (American Enterprise Institute 2010).

Carson also stimulated debate within the scientific community on the character and purpose of science itself. As Cafaro (2008: ) notes: “Carson reflected long and hard on the proper role of science in human society. Just as it called into question the haphazard, unregulated use of pesticides and herbicides, Silent Spring touched off a heated debate, among scientists, on the proper ends of science: whether to control, dominate and change nature for human purposes, or to preserve, protect and further our understanding of it, as is. Obviously, this debate continues and has lost none of its urgency, as witnessed by the recent growth of both conservation biology and a massive biotechnology industry.”

The debates over Silent Spring also epitomize the controversy surrounding many environmental issues which are simplistically reduced to nature versus economy, the latter referring to jobs and business profits. People often fail to recognize that ultimately any economy can only be as healthy as its environment. As Burnside (2006:11) observes: “For Carson, what the twentieth century demanded was a new way of thinking about the world. She demanded not just an end to indiscriminate pesticide use, but a new science, a new philosophy.” Carson not only exposed the dangers of DDT and other biocides, but industrial society itself with its environmental “ethic” driven by a reckless anthropocentric utilitarianism regarding nature as merely a warehouse of resources for human exploitation.

To this day there has been recurrent controversy surrounding Silent Spring, including concerted attempts by the vested interests of the chemical industry and others to vilify Carson and suppress her scientific evidence and that of others regarding the dangers of synthetic chemicals introduced into the environment. Nevertheless, she remains a revered icon for most nature writers, ecologists, environmentalists, and conservationists (Matthiessen 2007, Moyers 2007). Moreover, the distance between her proponents and opponents seems insurmountable, one measure of just how far humanity must progress before regaining ecosanity and developing a genuine spiritual ecology. The distance can be measured as well in trillions of dollars and hundreds of millions of tons of tens of thousands of chemicals produced annually worldwide. The distance is also reflected in the body burden of several hundred alien chemical embedded in the tissues of humans, many of these chemicals known carcinogens. Indeed, Carson herself was a victim of cancer. She was first diagnosed with the disease in 1950, struggled with it while writing Silent Spring, and succumbed in 1964.

The chemical toxification of the only planet in the universe known to have life continues with historic tragedies like Love Canal in New York, Exxon Valdez in Alaska, Cancer Alley Louisiana, Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, Agent Orange in Vietnam, Bophal in India, coca spraying in Colombia, and on and on. There appears to be an unlimited supply of chemicals to dump into the soils, water, air, and organisms of the planet, even though the capacity to absorb them is limited (Sponsel 2001:404-406). Only 10-20 per cent of the some 70,000 manufactured chemicals have been tested. It is now known that alien chemicals in the body can cause mutuations and disrupt the endocrine system as well as generate cancers (Foster 2009:69, Silent Spring Institute 2010, Steingraber 1997). Yes, indeed, some chemicals can enhance and even save lives if used judiciously, but others can degrade and even kill lives as the above examples demonstrate. This relates to the whole environmental justice movement including the issue of environmental racism such as locating toxic industries and dumps in the vicinity of poor neighborhoods.

Five decades since Silent Spring was published the lesson has still not been heeded sufficiently. Poisoning nature poisons ourselves since we are inevitably interconnected and interdependent. Our species needs no less than a profound rethinking, refeeling, and revisioning of our place in nature. As Carafo (2008: ) says, “Carson doubted that human beings would find peace among themselves without first making peace with nature.” (See parts of a special dramatization “A Sense of Wonder” about Rachael Caron’s life and work by the extraordinary actress and playwright Lee Kaiulani at Moyers 2007).

In any case, if Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species in 1859 shook the world with ideas about evolution, about a century later Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962 shook the world regarding the human impact on nature through chemicals, one of the most important catalysts for the development of ecology and environmentalism.

The visionary farming by Mansanobu Fukuoka, among others, offers a viable alternative. His extraordinarily successful natural or do-nothing approach to farming avoided cultivation, fertilizer or compost, chemicals, and pesticides as described in his book The One-Straw Revolution (Fukuoka 1978). His insight into the true nature of things, the wholeness of all existence, and that nature is in perfect balance if left alone, came as a revelation when he spent a sleepless night under a tree at the age of 25 in 1938. He applied his insight in experimental farming on his father’s land on the island of Shikoku in Japan. The most significant result of his experiments in natural farming was the high quality of life it produced with healthy organic food with minimum labor leaving ample time free for the arts, socializing, and other pursuits (Einarsen 2006:75). Another example of natural farming comes from Wendell Berry. Such sustainable farming methods are reminiscent of some of those practiced by traditional societies, such as those of Bali documented by Lansing ( ).

To conclude, Carson exemplifies a number of tenets common to much of the arena of spiritual ecology: a deep concern for deleterious human impacts on the environment; realization of the significance of emotion as well as reason and experience as well as observation in knowing, understanding, and appreciating nature; a vision of everything as interconnected and interdependent in nature; a recognition and appreciation of the inherent value, kinship, and sacredness of all beings; and a sense of wonder at the awesome, powerful, and mysterious qualities of nature.

References Cited