Rachel Carson: Natural Patriot

rachel_carson.jpg[Part 1 in an occasional series on heroes of Natural Patriotism

Rachel Carson was born a century ago on this day, 27 May 1907.  With her book, Silent Spring, and her courageous fight against indiscriminate broadcast of toxins into the environment, she gave birth to modern environmentalism.  Largely on the basis of this accomplishment, Time magazine has called her one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century

Her success in this seminal crusade predictably provoked a bitter backlash from the agricultural and chemical industries, with accusations that she was unprofessional, a “hysterical female” and a communist.  Alas, over the ensuing decades, these hacks have organized into a cottage industry of well-funded and surprisingly savage counter-propagandists whose activity has taken a sharp spike as the centennial of her birth approached. The movement counts some of the same sponsors as the laughable (and accordingly short-lived) “CO2: we call it life” misinfomation campaign on climate change.

Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland had planned to offer a resolution honoring this great American for her “legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility” in time for her 100th birthday today. But, perhaps predictably given the beating they took in the wake of Silent Spring, this turned out to be too much for the chemical industry and its lackeys in Congress to swallow. To his everlasting shame, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma threatened to block the resolution, accusing Carson of using “junk science” (which you will recognize from the climate change and evolution battles as the favorite diversionary insult of right-wingers faced with overwhelming scientific evidence against them) to turn public opinion against chemicals, including DDT.

You can read the whole sorry story in Dave Roberts’ account at Grist and in the series of posts by Tim Lambert at Deltoid.  Some of the comments on Dave’s post illustrate the astounding mean-spiritedness and breath-taking disregard for evidence of Carson’s detractors, who, despite their deep pockets, have not been able to come up with anything more convincing than flogging the long discredited accusation that banning DDT killed millions of malaria victims (it was actually not banned for this purpose, but discontinued because mosquitos evolved resistance to it–of course, acknowledging that would entail acknowledging evolution . . .). The existence of such people may, however, help illuminate the otherwise inexplicable continuance of the likes of Coburn and James (“Global warming is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”) Inhofe in the US Senate — and both from the proud state of Oklahoma.  Oklahomies, what is going on over there?!

the_edge_of_the_sea.jpgRachel Carson’s legacy in bringing awareness of our intimate connection to the environment is well known.  Perhaps less widely appreciated is her legacy as a marine biologist with a uniquely inspired, poetic gift for conveying the wonder and mystery of nature.  For me, this is personal. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Rachel Carson changed my life.  I can vividly remember, in college, picking up a copy of her little book, “The Edge of the Sea” and sitting spellbound for hours into the night reading it, admiring the elegant line drawings of beautiful sea creatures, and dreaming.  I can remember finishing that book with a feeling of absolute certainty that “This is what I will do with my life.” Rachel Carson made me a marine biologist (not to put too much of the blame on her . . .).

And so, let us raise a glass to a great American and a founding Natural Patriot.  Rachel, we salute you!

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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