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Rachel Carson Shapes Tomorrow

By Greta Anderson.

"Better Living through Chemistry." This was the motto of one of America's leading corporations in the 1950s. Chemicals could make better clothing. Chemicals could improve food—not to mention food packaging. Chemicals could increase farm yields and improve our environment. Chemicals had helped us win the Second World War and would help us win future wars. Magazine and television ads and billboards shouted the message to the public. "Better living through chemistry" was the American way.

Marine biologist Rachel Carson disagreed. But, she was used to going against the tide. Starting out in the 1920s, she was a rarity in the largely male science professions. Yet, she moved up in her chosen field, working as an aquatic biologist at Woods Hole on Cape Cod and then in Washington, DC with the U.S. government. Eventually she became editor-in-chief at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Carson was both a marine biologist, and a writer. As much as she was fascinated by the creatures of ocean and their intricate, interconnected web, she loved to share her fascination with the public. And the public loved her books, from Under the Sea Wind, published in 1941 through The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea in the 1950s. Rachel Carson took readers on a journey from the teeming abundance of the tide pool to the dark, mysterious ocean depths, a tour of microscopic marine life. Life was everywhere; life was diverse; life was a celebration.

This sense of celebrating all forms of life made Rachel's writing different. People in the United States were used to being told they were at the top of the "food chain," that other life on Earth existed to serve us. According to many religions, Nature was created for "Man," to meet "his" needs—food, shelter or even a beautiful scene to contemplate. Such a view is called "anthropocentric," or human-centered: The world was made for us and we are the most important creature in it. Instead, Rachel's vision was "biocentric," or life-centered. Her books helped people appreciate, joyfully, that we humans are just one part of nature's web of life.

Imagine how Rachel felt when the United States dropped destructive, atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. Imagine, too, how she felt when the U.S. government began dropping "bombs" on tiny enemies within our own borders: insects such as fire ants and mosquitoes. Before, humans had lived with the inconvenience of nature's insects; now, the corporations that promised "better living" were manufacturing deadly chemicals such as DDT to eradicate insects completely. Throughout the 1950s, airplanes sprayed these chlorinated compounds over America's bountiful farmlands, pretty suburbs and crowded towns. The government supported it. No one stopped to question it.

Of course, the chemicals only eradicated the pests for a short while. Usually the insects came back, even stronger than before. Worse, the chemicals killed much more than insects. A friend of Rachel's lived next to a bird sanctuary. She wrote to Rachel and told her how, after the government sprayed DDT to kill mosquitoes, she found dozens of dying birds at her birdbath, suffering painful deaths.

Though her own health was weak from stomach ulcers and the early stages of breast cancer, Rachel commenced the fight of her life. She gathered data to show how chemistry was not giving us better living, but harming life. Originally called "Man against Nature," the book she published as Silent Spring argued that spraying chemicals like DDT endangered life, including human life. To convince her readers, Rachel included information from hundreds of scientific studies, explained in language the public could understand. She took care to avoid errors or exaggerating. She knew she must be ready to back up every statement, 100 percent, or the chemical companies could discredit her whole work. Rachel Carson knew she had one chance to change the course of history.

Rachel had many friends in the scientific community who helped her fact-check and fine-tune the manuscript. Silent Spring leaped onto the bestseller list. Yes, government and industry spokespeople tried to discredit Rachel—for being "sentimental" or "hysterical," for being a "back-to-nature" type and probably a Communist. But the many, many people who saw her on a television show saw a frail, clear-eyed woman with a detailed, objective truth to tell. On the other hand, the government officials responsible for the spraying had very few facts to prove DDT was safe. The public sensed that Rachel was right.

The debate about pesticide use sparked by Silent Spring gave momentum to the 1960s' environmental movement. In 1970, the government formed the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1972, the government banned the use of DDT in the United States. The same year, Earth Day was proclaimed.

Rachel Carson died shortly after the publication of Silent Spring. One could say "it's a shame" she could not witness the growth of the environmental movement she did so much to create. But, for Rachel, life was not about the individual. It was about diverse communities of beings that continuously recycle and renew life. In this sense, Rachel's courage, her vision of life and her fierce argument against pesticides have become part of us. How will we live that vision in our lifetimes? What courage of ours will inform the next generation?

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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