Here’s to Rachael Carson: The First “Hysterical Housewife”

by jim on September 21, 2012

50 years ago this month, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published and immediately created a national controversy. It's difficult to put the book in its true historical context now because we take so much of its message for granted, as well as the right of a woman scientist to get it published. But there's no question that in 1962 it was a very subversive act for many different reasons.

There's an argument to be made that Carson didn't invent the modern American environmental movement. That it was the result of many different factors and people. All true. But there's also a compelling case that Carson's fight on behalf of her scholarship became the classic template for how citizens and industry and government would interact with each other in response to any environmental challenge coming from the grassroots for the next half-century.

Exhibit A: The New York Times Magazine piece this week on Carson.  Consider:

1) She was the first to popularize the notion that we have a fundamental right to air and water that won't kill us.

“We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation. How then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in chemicals that we disseminate widely in our environment?

“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.' She advocated for the birth of a grass-roots movement led by concerned citizens who would form nongovernmental groups that she called “citizen’s brigades.

As Carson saw it, the federal government, when in industry’s thrall, was part of the problem. That’s one reason that she didn’t call for sweeping federal regulation. Instead, she argued that citizens had the right to know how pesticides were being used on their private property."

2) She was the first to criticize our "modern" way of life as being self-destructive at a physiological level.

When she described the dangers of DDT and other pesticides, she described the threat as "poisons," not "chemicals."

“Silent Spring” was more than a study of the effects of synthetic pesticides; it was an indictment of the late 1950s. Humans, Carson argued, should not seek to dominate nature through chemistry, in the name of progress. In Carson’s view, technological innovation could easily and irrevocably disrupt the natural system."

As she finished the book, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This gave her writing a more personal edge it probably would not have had otherwise. A biographer is quoted in the Times piece as saying, “She was more hostile about what arrogant technology and blind science could do."

“No one,” says Carl Safina, an oceanographer and MacArthur fellow who has published several books on marine life, “had ever thought that humans could create something that could create harm all over the globe and come back and get in our bodies.

Theo Colborn, an environmental health analyst and co-author of a 1996 book, “Our Stolen Future,” about endocrine disrupters — the chemicals that can interfere with the body’s hormone system — points out that Carson was on the cutting edge of the science of her day. “If Rachel had lived,” she said, “we might have actually found out about endocrine disruption two generations ago.”

3) She was the first to specifically identify young mothers as a key environmental demographic.

At a time when women were still second-class citizens and didn't have much economic clout, Carson specifically wrote in a way to get her female audience motivated to take action. She brought a moral message to what they were seeing in the everyday consequences of DDT use. Here's her writing about a squirrel killed by pesticides:

“The head and neck were outstretched, and the mouth often contained dirt, suggesting that the dying animal had been biting at the ground. By acquiescing in an act that causes such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?

As the article points out, this was exactly the same kind of moral messaging that made Uncle Tom's Cabin the book that started and won the Civil War. Carson knew that women were the key to not only the DDT fight, but to every major environmental cause, and social justice movement. Next time you go to a grassroots environmental meeting or event, look around at the ratio of women to men and decide if she was wrong. Better yet, take a look at who the chemical industry is targeting with their advertising.

4) She was the first private citizen targeted for attack by the chemical industry.

This was the first time an entire industry specifically targeted a person for what they were writing and saying about the environmental and public health impacts of their product.

"Velsicol, a manufacturer of DDT, threatened to sue both Houghton Mifflin and The New Yorker. And it also tried to stop Audubon from excerpting the book in its magazine. The personal attacks against Carson were stunning. She was accused of being a communist sympathizer and dismissed as a spinster with an affinity for cats. In one threatening letter to Houghton Mifflin, Velsicol’s general counsel insinuated that there were “sinister influences” in Carson’s work: she was some kind of agricultural propagandist in the employ of the Soviet Union, he implied, and her intention was to reduce Western countries’ ability to produce food, to achieve “east-curtain parity.

The well-financed counterreaction to Carson’s book was a prototype for the brand of attack now regularly made by super-PACs in everything from debates about carbon emissions to new energy sources. “As soon as ‘Silent Spring’ is serialized, the chemical companies circle the wagons and build up a war chest,” Souder says. “This is how the environment became such a bitter partisan battle.”

In a move worthy of Citizens United, the chemical industry undertook an expensive negative P.R. campaign, which included circulating “The Desolate Year,” a parody of “A Fable for Tomorrow” that mocked its woeful tone. The parody, which was sent out to newspapers around the country along with a five-page fact sheet, argued that without pesticides, America would be overrun by insects and Americans would not be able to grow enough food to survive."

Does any of this sound familiar?

But her courage in the face of the industry's deluge gave others courage, and it still does so now. Think it's hard to do this work in 2012? Try taking on the Status Quo as a single woman with terminal cancer in 1962.

She didn't live long enough to see the multitude of legacies she left behind, but all of us are affected by them. Her call to arms produced the first real wave of popular environmentalism in the US that went by that name. Thanks Rachel.


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