A Design News staff discussion yesterday about green engineering got me thinking about Rachel Carson. The publication of her Silent Spring in 1962 created an enormous sensation by raising questions about how the widespread use of pesticides would impact human health as well as the well being of animals other than unwanted fire ants. She was ruthlessly attacked by major chemical companies, whose spraying practices were later reined in by government policy.
Silent Spring today is considered one of the four or five seminal American books that created major shifts in thinking and policy. Others include Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 and the Jungle in 1906. Among many honors, the Ninth Street Bridge in Pittsburgh was renamed the Rachel Carson Bridge on Earth Day 2006.
The specific ideas in the book are now somewhat dated, and I find the book a hard read without really studying the context. . And while we understand the risks of widespread use of chemicals such as DDT, what does Rachel Carson mean to us today? A few quick thoughts:
1) She raised fundamental questions about man’s right to interfere with the environment. She didn’t oppose use of pesticides. She said society had a responsibility to study the overall impact of its actions. We seem to have gotten the message with nuclear power, but not so much with global warming. Our concerns are sharper edged today: bisphenol A in polycarbonate bottles, antimony trioxide as a polyester catalyst and phthalate plasticizers in vinyl film. But this is still the same: for every concern, there is a well-financed lobby to attack any tough questions.
2) Opponents of regulation argued that Carson’s ideas stifled economic freedom. She truly made a valid case for regulation. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970 incorporating some of the recommendations she proposed in Congressional testimony in 1963. The issue of whether environmental (or financial) regulation is appropriate is still very alive today.
3) Very importantly she made a powerful statement about personal courage. She and a few friends stood up against one of the most powerful corporate groups in America. One chemical producer, Velsicol, threatened legal action against her and her publisher, Houghton Mifflin. Rachel Carson was personally insulted and her thinking was pilloried by scientists on corporate payrolls. She battled cancer while she researched and wrote Silent Spring. She died at age 56 in 1964, two years after the publication of the book.
She was a pioneer of environmentalism, and some would say she was a pioneer of feminism as well. I admire her most because of her guts.