On Tuesday, PBS will premiere a new American Experience film chronicling the life and work of Rachel Carson — Springdale, Pennsylvania native, writer and godmother of the modern environmental movement. The film explores both new territory and well-worn topics, like Carson’s warnings about the adverse impacts of the pesticide DDT, which she explored in her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring. Recently, William Souder, a Carson biographer who appears in the documentary, joined us to talk about Carson’s life and work — and what her legacy tells us about how science shapes environmental policy today.
The Allegheny Front: Rachel Carson is most well-known now for Silent Spring. But before that, she was a best-selling author of books on nature — and specifically, the oceans.
William Souder: It’s hard to appreciate this now, but in the middle of the 20th century, most people knew very little about the oceans. This is before Jacques Cousteau and the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. So when Carson published The Sea Around Us in 1951, she essentially distilled all this new scientific information into a story that examined everything that went on in the ocean — currents and waves and the formation of islands and the interaction between the ocean and the climate. And it was done in a way that made all of this new knowledge accessible to the average person. This was Carson’s great talent: She could translate technical themes and complex issues into not just plain English, but poetic, lyrical English that everyone loved reading. The Sea Around Us was enormously popular; it was on the bestseller list for many, many weeks and translated and published all around the world. So when Silent Spring came out, a big part of its impact was just the sheer shock value — that this angry polemic had come from Rachel Carson.
LISTEN: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
AF: Yeah, she really went out on a limb with Silent Spring. She had been reading scientific accounts of the impacts of the pesticide DDT, and it worried and weighed on her. Is it possible to overstate the influence that book had on the public, and later, the government?
WS: I don’t think so. Silent Spring really is the watershed moment in American history where we began to talk about the environment in a totally different way; where, for the first time, we began to consider how the government can become involved in regulating industry and business, and ensuring the protection of the environment and natural resources in ways it never had before. Silent Spring also initiates the fight we have over the environment to this day. When people chose sides over Silent Spring — and it was a very controversial book — they did so in a way that pushed Rachel Carson and people who were worried about the environment and chemical contaminants to the far left side of the political spectrum. On the other side, you of course had the chemical manufacturers and industry and their very powerful allies in the government. And those are essentially the same teams we have today that argue over environmental matters. I think if Rachel Carson were alive today, she would look at the argument over climate change and she would — one — be frustrated by the futility of conveying scientific facts easily to people and have them believe it; but she would also recognize the sides on either end of the argument as being exactly the same two sides that formed around the response to Silent Spring.
Watch a clip from the new Rachel Carson film
AF: There’s a lot of talk right now about the role of science and if scientists are trusted by the public. So how was science viewed during Carson’s lifetime, and is it different today?
WS: One of the points that I think the documentary makes really nicely is that the 1950s and early 1960s were a time of great technological advancement and a profound belief that technology could answer the problems and ills and challenges of humankind. I think people, in general, believed in science in a way that they don’t necessarily do today, even though we live surrounded by technology every day. We all carry around advanced technology in our pockets now. And yet we sometimes continue to doubt what science is telling us about different issues if we find them to be inconvenient or politically difficult to swallow.
AF: And what about Carson’s own views?
WS: You know, Rachel Carson was kind of of two minds about science. She was trained as a biologist and zoologist, so she had great respect for natural history and biology. But she was also very wary of human hubris and our tendency to forge ahead without thinking. So she was greatly distressed by technological breakthroughs that just sort of proceeded without any careful consideration about whether it was wise to go forward in that direction. She was certainly concerned about all the technologies that could be used for warfare. But I can assure you that she did believe in the scientific method. She believed that a fact was a fact and that science was the ultimate truth. And I think she would be disturbed today to find those concepts under attack. Of course, we live in a time when, if science is right, we confront the greatest environmental challenge we ever have in climate change. And so, as the person who made us aware that we have a planet to take care of in a much more aggressive way than we had before, Carson will be viewed, I think, as the godmother of the environmental movement; and as the person who told us to slow down and be careful and think about what we’re doing because it could have consequences. And as we continue to see the mounting consequences of climate change, I’m sure she’ll be seen in this way even more widely.
The new American Experience documentary on Carson premieres nationwide on January 24 on PBS. To read more about Rachel Carson, check out William Souder’s biography — On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.