Friday, February 25, 2011
Rachel Carson was born to a farming family in western Pennsylvania in 1907, and died in 1964. There was never an election in her adult life in which she was ineligible to vote, and she was old enough to have been glad when the United States ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. She was the smartest kid in her class, and enjoyed nature and literature. Her college graduated her with honors, but she delayed graduate school because of family financial difficulties. Carson did receive a master's degree in zoology from John Hopkins, but further financial difficulties, including her father's death kept her from continuing.
Carson went to work for the Bureau of Fisheries, and wrote and edited Fisheries publications and radio broadcasts. She went on to write for newspapers and The Atlantic Monthly, and published a trilogy of books about the ocean, Under Sea and Wind, The Sea around Us, and The Edge of the Sea.
We remember Rachel Carson for her 1962 book, Silent Spring, which is one source for the environmental movement. Silent Spring documented pesticide -- particularly DDT -- damage to the environment. Bald eagles, which are fairly common now, were once threatened with extinction because pesticides, concentrating at the higher end of the food chain, made eagle eggs fragile. Carson took a lot of heat, particularly from the chemical industry,
The chief criticism of Carson and Silent Spring was that banning DDT would condemn people in the tropics to death from malaria, although Carson had argued for study and judicious use, rather than abandonment. The criticism continues half a century later, although a lot of that time has been spent trying to understand relationships and context, the workings of systems. Carson should be remembered as a pioneer in systematic thinking about problems, in a time of pure purposiveness.