Drawing from the Well IV: The Prophetic Environmentalism of Rachel Carson

The Prophetic Environmentalism of Rachel Carson
Rev. Anthony Makar
Jan. 10, 2015

This past December, thousands of delegates—representatives of 195 nations, including our Presi-dent, Barack Obama—erupted in cheers and ovations. They had just accomplished a historic break-through on an issue central to nothing less than the survival of the human race—an issue that had foiled decades of international efforts. The issue of climate change. Ensuring a livable planet for fu-ture generations. Every country on the face of the earth, committed to lowering greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. Beginning the great transfor-mation towards sustainability.

The Paris Accords put us on this path.

And you know what? There was near-silence among Republican candidates in response.

But we’ve heard them on this issue before, together with other climate change deniers who are in ca-hoots with the fossil fuels lobby, the Koch brothers, industry advocates and libertarian think tanks.

When President Obama, in his 2015 State of the Union address, said that no issue poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee shot back with this pearl of wisdom: “A beheading is a far greater threat to an American than a sunburn.” Some-time later he would tweet that what America needs is “a commander-in-chief NOT a meteorologist-in-chief.”

Then there’s Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who described climate change as “the perfect pseudoscien-tific theory for a big-government politician who wants more power.”

And don’t let us forget the Donald. He thinks climate change was invented by the Chinese to hurt American manufacturing.

This is our present moment. The joy of the Paris Accords and President Obama’s leadership—together with Pope Francis and others. The woe of the willful spread of ignorance similar to what we saw with tobacco manufacturers who kept on insisting that smoking was fine even as they were well aware of what the science showed. Joy and woe woven finely in our present moment…

Which makes this moment precisely the time to recall history. History is uniquely suited to help us ap-preciate how far we’ve actually come and to give us strength to face what’s ahead. I can’t think of any story more inspiring than that of environmental scientist Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring, published in 1962. Let’s take a look and be encouraged in our affirmation of our Unitarian Universalist 7th Principle of the Interdependent Web of All Existence, Of Which We are a Part.

Let’s begin by just allowing some of the powerful language of Silent Spring to wash over us. Rachel Carson writes:

These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes — nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the “good” and the “bad,” to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil — all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can an-yone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides,” but “biocides.”

Rachel Carson writes:

For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan or the Salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecolo-gy, of interrelationships, of interdependence. We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm leaf-earthworm-robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life — or death — that scientists know as ecology.

Rachel Carson’s prophetic environmentalism addressed the wholesale and indiscriminate use of chemicals aimed at pest and disease control, like DDT—the detrimental effects reaching far beyond the intended targets, particularly on birds whose song is silenced and thus one can reasonably imag-ine a nightmare springtime in which no birds sing, there is just silence, silent spring….

The book exemplified the best in science writing: explanations that ordinary readers could under-stand, claims grounded in meticulous research that is (from a rational standpoint) unimpeachable, and, always, language that soars.

It was a disaster for the chemical industry. To mention one company, Monsanto: it earned $10 million from DDT sales in 1940, but by 1950 those sales had reached $100 million, and the sky was the limit. Rachel Carson threatened all of that. The industry wasn’t going to take it sitting down. It—and its cro-ny scientists—came after her from all sides. Some targeted the fact she was a woman and this somehow disqualified her from doing legitimate science. She’s a “bunny hugger,” a bleeding-heart sentimentalist prone to “hysteria.” She’s a “fanatical defender of the cult of the balance of nature.”

Other attacks portrayed her as anti-progress and anti-American. One chemical industry scientist, Robert White Stevens, wrote, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” The general counsel for another chemical company suggested that Carson was a front for “sinister influ-ences” intent on restricting pesticide use in order to reduce American food supplies to the levels of the Eastern bloc. A former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture was quoted as saying that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was “probably a Communist.”

At one point, the chemical industry commissioned a book called A Desolate Year, which imagined the horrors of life without chemicals (which is something Rachel Carson never called for). In other words, on top of smearing her gender, her patriotism, and her credibility, the chemical industry counter-attack also spread outright lies and misinformation….

Now, to be fair, this chemical industry bombast was not purely a matter of wanting to preserve profit margins. It wasn’t just sheer cynicism at work. To be fair, we can also say that it expressed the genu-ine shock of folks who lived in a 1950s’ kind of world who were hearing something completely new. Author Margaret Atwood puts it like this: “It was like being told that orange juice – then being pro-claimed as the sunshine key to ultra-health – was actually poisoning you.” She says, “The general public believed the pitch: the stuff [DDT] was safe for people, unless you drank it. One of the delights of our 40s childhood was to be allowed to wield the Flit gun – a spray pump with a barrel containing a DDT preparation that did indeed slay any insect you sprayed with it. We kids breathed in clouds of it as we stalked around assassinating houseflies and squirting each other for a joke.” Atwood goes on to say, “Such carefree attitudes towards the new chemicals were common throughout the next dec-ade. When I worked as a camp counsellor in the late 50s, the premises were routinely fogged for mosquitoes, as were campgrounds and whole towns in many parts of the world. After the fogging, rabbits would appear, running around in circles, jerking spasmodically, then falling over. Might it be the pesticides? Surely not.”

It was a 1950s’ kind of world. People generally trusted institutions like the government and industry. The American way of life was, without question, good and right. Scientists in their white coats were creating new technologies and new innovations and it was always progress, it was always the oppo-site of ignorance and superstition, it was always good. So—who did Rachel Carson think she was, impugning the reputation of the chemical industry which was one of those institutions that people with their 1950s mindset just trusted? How dare she? And how dare she criticize the technological pro-gress that was “better living through chemistry?”

But above all, the 1950s mindset saw nature as a thing to be used as humanity saw fit. It did not mat-ter what writers like Henry David Thoreau said to the contrary; their vision was way woo woo for the 1950s. Nature was to be tamed, subdued, exploited—and even as this might create ugliness and chaos, well, that ugliness and chaos stays out there. The human realm is a higher order realm, set apart, and we can breathe in clouds of DDT as much as we want and we are going to be just fine. So—what’s with Rachel Carson and all the talk about ecology, interrelationships, interdependence?

“It was like being told that orange juice … was actually poisoning you.” The message of Rachel Car-son’s Silent Spring was as shocking and as powerful as anything the old Hebrew prophets might have preached.

But the message was received—despite the chemical industry’s blunt force counterattack. People heard her. The media picked it up. Public pressure forced Congress to review pesticide use. Con-gressional and White House studies confirmed Rachel Carson’s findings. Tragically, soon after Silent Spring came out, she died of cancer. But her legacy kept on. Her vision of the interdependent web of all existence became contagious; for increasing numbers of people the paradigm shifted and you couldn’t go back to that old mindset according to which nature is over there and you are here. We are knit together, we are indivisible, we are one.

The vision took institutional form, for the sake of getting things done. In 1967, the Environmental De-fense Fund formed, in reaction to the DDT problem. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency began operations, and we had our first ever Earth Day. In 1972, DDT was banned and a Clean Water Act was passed. In 1973, the Endangered Species Act was passed. When people talk about the modern environmental movement, this is it. And Rachel Carson started it.

Once, naturalist Sir David Attenborough was asked which book, other than the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, had changed the scientific world the most. His answer was Silent Spring.

Then there’s a cartoon from the 1960s, portraying a praying mantis with its front legs folded up, pray-ing, saying “God bless momma and poppa…and Rachel Carson!”

I would even argue that without her, we don’t have our Seventh Principle of the Interdependent Web of All Existence. I’ve always been curious why it took so long for UUs to take a corporate stand on the issue, which we did at a General Assembly in 1984. I think it’s because, in the early 1960s, when we adopted the Six Principles, we were not unaffected by the 1950s mindset and the environment had not yet become the priority that it is now. But Rachel Carson changed everything. Her spirit is in our 7th Principle words. Her spirit lives on.

And now our calling is to carry this spirit forward. She once wrote, “The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind — that, and anger at the senseless, brut-ish things that were being done.” This is our legacy too. The environmental movement needs to keep moving, through Paris but past Paris and beyond.

In our day and time, part of that has to do with seeing climate change denial and post-truth politics as a kind of DDT pesticide in its own right. The effects of denial and misinformation pollute our infor-mation environment as much as real DDT does to the physical environment. When Ted Cruz says that climate change is a “perfect pseudoscientific theory for a big-government politician who wants more power,” and a lie like that goes unchecked, it pollutes innocent minds, minds who take up the cause. “Like the constant dripping of water that in turn wears away the hardest stone,” says Rachel Carson, “this birth-to death contact with dangerous chemicals may in the end prove disastrous…. No person is immune to contact with this spreading contamination.”

I call for a return to truth. No more post-truth. Did you know that in 1994, when Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House, one of his first acts was to get rid of the highly professional, nonparti-san Office of Technology Assessment, which housed Congress’ scientists whose job it was to inform lawmakers and adjudicate differences based on scientific fact and data? Norm Ornstein talks about this in his recent article in The Atlantic, entitled “The Eight Causes of Trumpism.” He writes, “The elimination of OTA was the death knell for nonpartisan respect for science in the political arena, both changing the debate and discourse on issues like climate change, and also helping [bring] in the con-temporary era of “truthiness,” in which repeated assertion trumps facts.”

These days, environmentalism can’t forget that information is a part of the environment too, and when we pollute it and pollute it and pollute it, it’s a nightmare springtime where no birds sing, it’s silent as death…. We must fight to keep it clean. We must find ways to hold people accountable for what they say.

The environmental movement needs to keep moving.

It moves through our own personal commitments to live sustainably. It moves through collective commitments to live sustainably.

And it moves through continued hopefulness.

Silent Spring teaches us that it’s not too late. By the time that book came out, the dispersal of pesti-cide through ecosystems was far and wide. Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and other bird populations were driven to the brink of extinction. No one could be sure if any degree of action would make things better. But people acted anyway. Regulations were put into place. Resolve led to innovation. New breeding methods were pioneered. “In the mid-1960s,” says National Geographic, “fewer than 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles existed in the continental U.S.; today, thanks to the DDT ban and other conservation efforts, some 10,000 pairs of bald eagles inhabit the Lower 48—that’s a 20-fold popula-tion increase in just four decades!”

No matter how desperate things seem, it’s not too late.

Like the praying mantis says: “God bless momma and poppa…and Rachel Carson!”