Monday, December 17, 2012

Silent Spring and the Sense of Wonder moderated by Julie Dunlap

 Discussion Topic:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Julie Dunlap is the author or coauthor of award-winning children’s books including John Muir and Stickeen and Parks for the People: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted.” Her current projects include co-editing, with Susan Cohen, an anthology of young writers’ nature essays, fiction, and poetry, as well as teaching about pesticides, wildlife ecology, and environmental management for the University of Maryland University College.

Stephen R. Kellert is Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is the author of many books including Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World and Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection.

Adapted with permission from Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together, edited by Julie Dunlap and Stephen R. Kellert, MIT Press, 2012.

One of the most haunting images in environmental literature is the opening fable in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In an unnamed village "in the heart of America," pesticides have stilled the lowing of cattle at daybreak, the afternoon droning of bees, the splashes of fish in the streams. Carson wrote, "On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh." Her tragic tale of poisoned hopes in a once-harmonious natural and human community is compounded by a bitter irony. "The people," Carson writes, "had done it themselves."
Carson’s allegory of an unseasonable hush prefaced a 1962 book that sparked public outrage over toxic chemical pollution and galvanized the modern environmental movement. But her blighted town suffers another silence rarely noted: the absence of children’s voices. A few youths in the story have been stricken and died after playing outside; the rest must be locked indoors, saved from the corrupted environment by being separated from it. Carson’s concern for children’s health imbues Silent Spring in discussions of birth defects, childhood cancers, and chromosomal damage from DDT and other persistent synthetic chemicals. In addressing the subject of children, the author opened herself to sexist attacks; one critic dismissed her scientific claims by saying, "I thought she was a spinster. What’s she so worried about genetics for?" But Carson refused to stand mute when faced with a moral imperative to speak out for the future.

In fact, she was envisioning a book about children’s relationships with nature in the late 1950s when research on hazardous pesticides overthrew her plans. The imagined work would have been an expansion of a 1956 essay, "Help Your Child to Wonder," published in Woman’s Home Companion. In the magazine piece, Carson recounts outings with her 2-year-old great-nephew, Roger, to the shores and woods near her cottage in Maine. One autumn night, she carries the blanket-wrapped toddler into a storm to feel rain on his face and hear thunderous waves pound the rocky shore. The pair laughs together in the dark, sharing "the same spine-tingling response to the vast, roaring ocean and the wild night around us." Already in 1956, Carson recognized that children, often living in cities and reared by busy parents with the increasing assistance of television, spent much of their time indoors. By toting Roger to the turbulent beach, his aunt shared with him a joy in wild nature she knew was denied to other boys and girls.

The "Wonder" essay is replete with such mild adventures, as Rachel leads Roger through the garden in search of insect songsters or joins him chasing ghost crabs across the sand. Parents are offered a few practical tips on initiating their own explorations, such as investing in a hand lens to reveal miniature worlds within forest moss or a drop of pond water. "With your child," Carson advises, "look at objects you take for granted as commonplace or uninteresting." But the purpose of such close observation is greater than "a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood." Rather, it is to awaken the child’s senses, expand her definition of self and community, and open his heart—in other words, to develop a receptivity to nature that Rachel Carson poetically deems the "sense of wonder." The capacity to wonder is so elemental to Carson that she professed an oft-quoted wish, "If I had the influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength."

Similar concerns expressed in Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, have sparked a growing movement to save our youngest generation from "nature deficit disorder." But decades earlier, Carson presaged the prospect of indoor childhoods in Silent Spring and enumerated solutions in the posthumously-published The Sense of Wonder. "A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful," Carson wrote, "full of wonder and excitement." Daily, intimate sensory experience is essential to keep that wonder bright for a lifetime, Carson asserted, and the early companionship of a responsive adult is the best way to make that happen. "By suggestion and example," she told parents, "I believe children can be helped to hear the many voices about them. Take the time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean—the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of surf or flowing streams."

Philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore sees Carson’s sense of wonder as a moral virtue that compels us to honor and celebrate the earth. As Moore avers, "The same impulse that says, this is wonderful, is the impulse that says, this must continue." As a walk in the woods can be an antidote for a child’s nature deficit disorder, sharing that walk between generations is a prescription against pesticide bioaccumulation, biodiversity decline, climate change, and other ills afflicting our planet. Leading a child to nature seems an elemental step we can all take each day. As Rachel Carson wrote, "Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with the lust for destruction."

Friday, November 16, 2012

Comments on Silent Spring as reported by WILD READ team member and NCTC Friend Joy Pardue

Discussion Topic:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

The Friends of the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) WILDREAD Book Club met Thursday, September 20, 2012, at the NCTC library in Shepherdstown, WV to discuss Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, just one week short of the 50th anniversary of its initial publication on September 27, 1962. Six members (one of them new to the group) met and shared earlier experiences of this book and then compared and contrasted these to our responses while re-reading it. About the first edition we learned that it cost $5.00 and Ms. Carson dedicated her book "To Albert Schweitzer who said  'Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth'. "  

Some of us had not realized that Ms. Carson was already a well-established author when she wrote Silent Spring. Fortunately, her financial success from The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea allowed her devote herself to full time writing. Douglas Brinkley, in a May-June 2012 Audubon Magazine ("Carson and Camelot") article, stated "Carson had three aims in writing Silent Spring: creating an enduring work of literature on par with The Sea Around US; alerting the public to the health dangers of pesticides; and forcing the U.S. government to regulate the chemical industry. Fortunately, she achieved these aims and more.

Controversy surrounded Ms. Carson and her book from the time "The New Yorker" published an excerpt on June 16, 1962. Indeed, she and her book are still targets of serious attacks. Laura E. Huggins, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University..., published a short paper entitled "'Silent Spring' turns 50, and birds are still singing" on April 19, 2012. Among her numerous criticisms, Ms Huggins notes "there were major oversights in her work - errors that have played a role in shaping environmental policies that have cost millions of lives and dollars." She was referring, in part, to the on-going problem of malaria and restricted use of DDT. Douglas Brinkley notes "Experts estimate that somewhere around 3/4 of a million people die of malaria each year." In 2004, Michael Crichton declared "Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler." Our book club members agreed that the gist of Ms. Carson's message was not that these chemicals be eliminated but that they must be used judiciously.

Some of us did not fully appreciate the fortuitous coincident of the publication of RC's book and John F. Kennedy's nomination for and successful campaign to become our 35th President. Though he did not endorse all her research, JFK and his administration took this book seriously and Carson eventually joined the "Women's Committee for New Frontiers." During the upheaval following its publication, Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas declared Silent Spring "the most revolutionary book since Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Our discussion generated many questions. In particular, we wondered what environmental issue would Ms. Carson embrace were she able to peek into our 21st century world. "Global warming" came to mind immediately but some of us felt she just might want to pick up her research where she left off. What meticulous scientist wouldn't relish the opportunity to do a follow up study 50 years later. Surely, she would want to know more about where, how and to what extent pesticides are now being used...what new chemicals or alternative methods are in use...what has happened to the bird populations that were are the oceans faring, etc....

Since our meeting, I've read an essay by Roger Tory Peterson who noted the 'DDT problem' was known in the scientific world by 1954. That raises more questions about how much of this data had been published and who was reading it? What was being done about 'the problem'? One wonders whether we might have lost the Bald Eagle had Rachel Carson not done the laborious research that revealed that their situation was dire. We'll never know whether she 'saved' them but, without question, she would be thrilled to know these beautiful creatures are doing well. It is likely this brilliant lady would be dumbfounded if she were able to tune into NCTC's Eagle Cam and follow the drama of the life cycle of these majestic raptors.

While not everyone agreed with Justice Douglas' statement comparing Silent Spring to Uncle Tom's Cabin we generally agreed with his later statement: "This book is the most important chronicle of this century for the human race."

Monday, November 5, 2012

Silent Spring and the Cold War by Moderator William Souder

 Discussion topic:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

William Souder, author of On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson  (2012)

In the pre-dawn hours of the morning of March 1, 1954, a Japanese tuna-fishing boat named The Lucky Dragon drifted placidly on the Pacific swell just east of the Marshall Islands. Its longline was out and most of the crew was asleep in their bunks below deck when all at once the sky to the west lit up as if the atmosphere itself had suddenly caught fire. As the men rushed on deck the frightening light turned deep red and continued to rise high above the horizon. Minutes passed. Then the ship lurched as a deep, concussive shock wave passed over it. Nobody knew what was happening. A few hours later, as the crew hauled in the longline under leaden skies, a gray, gritty, ash-like substance began falling from the sky, coating everything and everyone aboard The Lucky Dragon.

On their way home, the crew became sick. They were nauseated and their skin burned and then erupted in sores. By the time they returned to port the men appeared almost black, as if badly burned, and their eyes oozed and their hair had started falling out. The men would eventually spend an entire year in a Tokyo hospital that specialized in treating radiation sickness. What The Lucky Dragon had unintentionally gotten too close to was an operation called “Castle Bravo,” a hydrogen bomb test carried out by the United States on a tiny sand archipelago called Bikini Atoll. Several things went wrong that day—the wind shifted and the explosion was far more powerful than expected. The result was that some of the many thousands of tons of irradiated sand and coral blown into the atmosphere in Castle Bravo had fallen on The Lucky Dragon. After an international outcry—not to mention public dismay at the vast power of the new hydrogen bomb—the U.S. paid damages to the crew members and their families, and to the Japanese fishing industry.

Eventually all but one of the crew recovered. The one who didn’t, a radio operator named Kuboyama, seemed to be on the mend before his liver suddenly failed and he died. Eight years later, Kuboyama would reappear—in the pages of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Carson likened Kuboyama’s demise to that of a comparably healthy and vigorous Swedish farmer, who while doing his work had accidentally exposed himself to a pesticide cloud composed of DDT and benzene hexachloride. The farmer became sick that same night, and died three months later.
For Carson, radioactive fallout—then prevalent everywhere in the world due to frenzied weapons testing by the U.S. and the Soviet Union—offered an exact parallel to the problem of widespread contamination of what she called “the total environment” by pesticides. Here’s how she put it in Silent Spring:
In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life.

The year 1962 was the peak year for above-ground testing of nuclear weapons. In the month of June alone, as readers of the New Yorker were learning of the dark promise of pesticides in three long installments from the forthcoming Silent Spring, the U.S. detonated ten nuclear devices in the South Pacific. Soviet testing in Siberia, meanwhile, produced a steady rain of radioactive fallout in parts of the northern hemisphere downwind—notably central North America, where cows gave milk tainted with radioactivity after being pastured on fields exposed to fallout. For Carson, the threats from radiation and chemical contaminants were existential questions. To continue so heedlessly with nuclear testing and the use of pesticides would eventually, Carson said, make this world “unfit for all life.”

But the connection between radiation and pesticides was also an important to Carson in another way. In 1962 the idea that chemicals could be dangerous environmental contaminants—persisting for long periods and entering into food chains and causing collateral damage to all manner of non-targeted species—was a novel concept. Few people gave thought to such considerations. But in the midst of the Cold War, people did understand the threat from radioactive fallout, which, like pesticides, was everywhere all at once, invisible and toxic. In drawing the parallel between the two technologies, which had both been perfected in wartime and had become part of a beleaguered peacetime, Carson made plain for the first time the dangers of chemical contaminants. It’s no accident that Baby Boomers, the generation steeped in Cold War fears, would become the vanguard of the environmental movement that emerged in the wake of Silent Spring. They got it.

See William Souder's new book  On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (2012)


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Gender, Myth, and the Obligation to Endure by Moderator Linda Lear

Linda Lear
Discussion Topic: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Moderator:  Linda Lear, historian and author of the acclaimed biography of Rachel Carson, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature

Read more about Linda Lear

Recently I have found myself addressing the subtle question of gender when speaking about Rachel Carson’s legacy. How much was gender a factor in the attacks upon her science in Silent Spring and her efforts to warn us about the pollution of our total environment? And how much is Carson’s gender still a factor fifty years later in the myth that has been created by her critics? It is a question on which I frequently find myself much energized about!
For a very long time, (longer than we all wished) those of us who worked on the Carson oeuvre were greeted by audiences with the question "Rachel Who?" Thanks to the hard work of many scholars, and scientists like Theo

Colborn and Sandra Steingraber in particular, the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring has been an occasion when Rachel Carson is highly identifiable, but ironically her legacy is now more bitterly debated than ever.  Her careful work remains controversial and she herself has been made the center of debate and myth.  She would be very surprised by these distortions and by the claims about her and that have encouraged them.  Part of that controversy revolves around the historical question of what response Carson hoped for and what specific remedies she advocated to mitigate the misuse of pesticides and  the pollution of our total environment?

Photo by Bob Hines, 1963.
Courtesy Lear/Carson Collection.
Linda Lear Center for Special
Collections and Archives.
 Connecticut College.

We can get some answers to these questions by examining Carson’s public speeches after Silent Spring was published and had already become the center of debate. Several of Carson’s best speeches are reprinted in my collection: Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (Beacon, 1998).  Two of most hard-hitting and most revealing were given to high-profile women’s groups: the first to the Women’s National Press Club in December 1962 and another a month later to the Garden Club of America in January 1963.  They are especially important because they were given well before her June 4, 1963 testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the “Uses of Pesticides” commonly known as the Ribicoff Committee, and they reveal her earliest thoughts on the future of “the fabric of life.”  They also give us a clue as to what outcomes Carson hoped her work would have, and I think it is significant they were given to women’s groups who Carson considered potentially willing to take her evidence seriously and who might also be moved to take citizen action. Carson was right about her audiences.  Many women were deeply offended when critics condemned Carson’s book without reading it, and when some chauvinistically wanted to “silence, Miss Carson!” charging that she was merely “a hysterical woman.”
Carson suggested to these women’s groups ways to reinstate a sort of old school libertarianism where citizens could publically question what their government allowed to be put into the environment.  In each speech, she included new evidence of pesticide misuse.  But in neither speech did Carson call for any sweeping federal regulation of pesticides - no “ban” on DDT - nor did she do so in her Senate testimony.  Rather Carson made it abundantly clear that she believed that the federal government was part of the problem and that it, the science establishment, even university research, was in the pocket of the agrichemical industry. Rachel subtly suggested the then radical idea that government officials might even lie if it was expedient to do so.
In her speech to the Women’s National Press Club, Carson vented some of her frustration with how industry had marginalized her largely on the basis of gender as “a bird lover, a cat lover, a fish lover, and a priestess of nature.”  She bravely attacked the agrichemical industry for compromising basic scientific truths to “serve the gods of profit and production.”   In the speech to the Garden Club of America, Carson was even more sharply critical of those who would render her conclusions “silly” or “exaggerated” by asking her audience to examine the misinformation that came from critics in the pesticide trade groups and from those who hid their true links to industry, and to ask themselves “Who speaks? – And Why?”
Carson’s critics used gender to trivialize Carson’s research and her synthesis of ecological harm.  The male establishment knew that a woman without a Ph.D., whose fame came from her lyrical nature writing, was vulnerable to attacks from the keepers of Cold War science and industry.  They knew that labeling her an over-wrought silly woman who had overstepped her bounds and exaggerated her evidence would convince.   It did convince some --and it sometimes still does.  But these critics did not count on the deeper impact of Carson’s work – that beyond the issue of the misuse of chemical pesticides Carson was addressing the fundamental right of human and non-human life to continue.
Silent Spring has had a far reaching impact on the global environmental consciousness, on the human and non-human environment, and for human rights everywhere.  The 50th anniversary of Silent Spring is also an occasion for celebrating Rachel Carson’s singular “witness for nature” as well as her personal courage in “speaking truth to power.”  Her book and her personal legacy are and remain a singular manifesto for democracy everywhere. 
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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reflections on Silent Spring by Moderator William Souder

William Souder
 Discussion topic:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

William Souder, author of On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson  (2012)

Here’s a question I often get: Can there ever be another book like Silent Spring?

What the questioner wants to know, of course, is whether any book will ever produce an upheaval comparable to the change in public attitudes and government policies that followed the publication of Rachel Carson’s biting polemic on the indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides. This usually comes up at readings or other appearances when I have just finished talking about the importance of Silent Spring, and when it does I sense a mood of hope in the audience.

My answer always disappoints.

Times have changed, and so have we. The odds are against another book ever having the impact and lasting influence of Silent Spring.

For starters, we don’t have a Rachel Carson among us. Before she turned her attention to pesticides Carson was one of America’s most celebrated and beloved writers—the author of three lovely, lyrical books about the sea that had captivated readers for a decade. The Sea Around Us, published in 1951, stood atop the bestseller list for thirty-nine weeks, won the National Book Award, and made Carson’s reputation as a writer to be reckoned with. When she published Silent Spring eleven years later—first in installments in the New Yorker in June of 1962 and then in September as a book already engulfed in controversy—it, too, became a bestseller.

But what a shock it was. Leaving behind the celebratory mood of her earlier works—so joyful and besotted with life—Carson’s mood in Silent Spring was dark and foreboding. Though in places every bit as elegantly written as her sea books, Silent Spring was a bleak and often dismal read. And I think this contributed immeasurably to its impact. If a writer so enraptured with the natural world could suddenly take such a hard stance against what we were doing to it the message surely had to be an important one.

I don’t think any writer or body of work today quite fits that model.
Then there is the profound shift in the media landscape that has occurred over the past half century. Rachel Carson lived and worked in the age of print, when every city had several newspapers, and the great national magazines—Life, Look, Colliers, Coronet, Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post—exerted a powerful influence over public discourse. The world of print reflected back on itself, and Silent Spring reverberated among writers and journalists who shaped the national agenda.

Today, most of those publications are gone; many that remain are on life support. The media landscape is fragmented—an atomized and diffuse galaxy of mostly broadcast or digital platforms that include cable news outlets, blogs, Twitter, and talk radio. It is a noisy, fractious scene in which it’s hard to imagine any single idea—or book—taking hold in the way Silent Spring did. There were really only two ways people thought about Silent Spring in 1962: they loved it or hated it. Since then we’ve done a good job of discrediting the media, arguing so thoroughly that they are biased in one direction or another that we don’t trust any of them. Nowadays, everybody is a consensus of one—we think what we think for our own reasons, and rarely because of what we see or hear or read. And here is what we think: Nothing is clear.

I recently moderated a panel discussion at a conference of environmental journalists, where two of the women who joined me—Florence Williams and Cynthia Barnett—made the case for a new approach to writing about environmental issues. Williams and Barnett argue that the angry tone taken in Silent Spring and its mountains of dismaying data are things that no longer work with readers. People shut down, they argue, when confronted with too much negative information—and feel helpless when faced with problems that are not accompanied by solutions.

Rachel Carson did offer ideas about alternatives to synthetic pesticides. But the problems we confront today—notably climate change—are more complex and harder to address. Williams and Barnett both feel that we need to shift arguments about environmental matters out of the “now” and extend them forward into the next and succeeding generations. If people can dismiss climate change as a problem that directly confronts them, they may be less willing to turn away if they can be persuaded it will affect their children and grandchildren.

Rachel Carson worried about future generations, too. But she went straight at her readers in real time. And they responded, both for and against her. As any environmental writer can tell you today, it’s hard now to get a reaction—period. The legacy of Silent Spring is with us still—but the age of the polemic would seem to be over.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Silent Spring: Rachel’s Work is Far from Done by Moderator Cristina Eisenberg

Discussion topic: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Silent Spring may well have ignited the environmental movement, as a recent New York Times Magazine article claims. However, in today’s world, Rachel’s work is far from done. Indeed, thanks to looming issues such as climate change, genetically modified crops, and yet-rampant non-renewable energy development and consumption, we still have our work cut out for us. And regardless of all the ground-breaking science that we have today, we still have far to go.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king punished by Zeus for his transgressions by being sentenced to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down. He was to repeat this process endlessly across the eons. Is conservation tantamount to a Sisyphean struggle, regardless of the work of persons such as Rachel Carson?

No single book has had the impact on the modern conservation ethos of Silent Spring, with the possible exception of A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. Yet, Silent Spring’s foundational conservation tenets continue to be challenged significantly by economic development rooted in the American dream of limitless growth. Such a dream may have made sense in the post-World War II boom era of the 50s, but it does not make sense in today’s world. Rachel Carson was quick to point out that even by the 1960s, scientists—and policy-makers—knew better than to think that limitless growth would have no consequences. She urged us to find a more moderate path to economic wellbeing.

We appeared to be listening, back in the 1960s. Indeed, Silent Spring opened the floodgates for environmental legislation the likes of which our nation had never seen before. She inspired, to name just few, The National Environmental Policy Act (1970); The Clean Water Act (1970); The Clean Air Act (1972); and The Endangered Species Act (1973). I doubt that laws with teeth, such as the ones listed above, would pass in today’s political world, even with all we know now about how all life forms are connected.

However, the Silent Spring phenomenon has a dark side. It unleashed a backlash from chemical manufacturing firms that continues to this day. And it caused battle lines to be drawn, indelibly, between environmentalists and the companies that develop our nation’s resources using chemicals. It spotlighted a breach of the trust Americans put in the companies that helped lead the way to economic prosperity. If anything, such a breach continues today, as we struggle to address our nation’s economic crisis.

So what would Rachel do, if she were alive today? How would she be addressing climate change, the extinction crisis, and the myriad wicked conservation problems that have no easy solutions? Would she take on specific issues, such as the toxic chemicals widely used in hydraulic fracturing (i.e., fracking), or would she go after broader issues? I suspect she should go after the problems that underlie issues such as fracking, such as breaches in trust, differences in values, and failure to consider the long haul of what we face as a species.

Discussion questions:

1. What would Rachel do today?
2. Do you know of anyone who is following in Rachel Carson’s footsteps today, someone who is creating change in innovative, powerful ways? Please share these stories here.
3. How has Silent Spring created more divisiveness with regard to natural resources development and management—and how can we heal this divisiveness?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Legacy Of Rachel Carson- A Pathway to a Sustainable Future by Moderator Patricia DeMarco

Patricia Demarco
 Discussion Topic:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Read about Patricia DeMarco - Director, Rachel Carson Institute in the School of Sustainability and the Environment at Chatham University, Pittsburgh, PA

September 27, 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s powerful book Silent Spring.  Her position on the impact of synthetic pesticides and herbicides grew from her deep understanding of the systems of the living earth from her fifteen years of study of the oceans and estuaries for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Though the environment movement launched with Silent Spring accomplished tremendous strides in the early 1970’s in regulating the most blatant of pollution activities, the approach adopted addresses treatment of symptoms rather that curing the underlying causes.  Fifty years after Rachel Carson’s plea for caution in imposing
a barrage of “biocides” upon the earth, we see the impact of massive fossil fuel combustion reversing the global atmospheric conditions. We see evidence of synthetic chemical contamination even in the bodies of newborn infants, all around the world.  The industrial monoculture approach to agriculture has propagated a chemical dependence around the world with pesticides and herbicides and massive infusions of fertilizer replacing indigenous crop cycles in all quadrants of the globe. Fifty years after Silent Spring, the problems of our polluted environment may be less visible, but they are more urgent.

In January 1963, in a speech to the Garden Club of America, Rachel Carson gave “A New Chapter to Silent Spring in which she said: “The battle for a sane policy for controlling unwanted species will be a long and difficult one.  The publication of Silent Spring was neither the beginning nor the end of that struggle, and I would like to assess with you some of the progress that has been made and take a look at the nature of the struggle that lies before us.  We should be very clear about what our cause is.  What do we oppose? What do we stand for?”  In the 50 years since Silent Spring, environmentalists have come to be defined by what they oppose, from NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) to BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody) to NOPE (Not On Planet Earth.)  The extremes of the movement gave rise to the widely held supposition that environmental protection costs jobs, opposes progress, and is a marginal position of the far left.  What the environmental movement opposes has been clear and loud, and difficult to sustain in the face of industrial development entrenched in the structure of the economy that panders to instant gratification and increasing convenience for the consumer.  Progress as we measure it today depends on ever-increasing consumer spending on goods and services for which protecting the environment receives a passing mandatory intrusion into profits. 

We live on a planet in crisis facing the loss of our life support system – fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species.  As we look to the next fifty years, we must be more effective in the defense of what we stand for.  It is nothing less than the survival of our beautiful blue planet.  Rachel Carson’s writing and her life’s work give excellent guidance for a way forward.  Her environmental ethic provides guideposts for the challenges we face in the 21st century.  Her message distilled from all of her writing can be summarized in four basic principles:  First: live in harmony with nature.  We assume that nature is at our command, for our convenience.  Rachel Carson’s revolutionary premise that we are part of the natural world and subject to its laws needs to become the mainstream basis of our economic pursuits.  All living things require fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species as our life support system.  These are services of the living earth upon which our health, our economy, our very lives depend.

Second: Preserve and learn from natural places.  This is a critical need, as evident today in the changes worldwide to the fragile ecosystem of the oceans, the tropical and temperate forests, and grasslands. We can learn much from the functioning of natural ecosystems, and model human behavior from these abundant examples. The complex interconnections among parts of a food chain, a watershed, a community of animals follow natural laws for energy flow, resources and nutrients.  We understand too little of the intricacies of such systems.  We destroy them on a massive scale with impunity in the name of progress.

Third:  Minimize the effects of synthetic chemicals on the natural systems of the world.  A recent study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found over 79 known carcinogens and mutagens in the bodies of average Americans in statistically valid samples.  We all serve as living laboratories for the effluent of the chemical age.  Of about 100,000 synthetic chemicals in commercial use, fewer than 200 have been tested for health effects.  This problem Rachel Carson first expressed as a fear and a concern in Silent Spring has come full circle.  She urged caution in producing and releasing synthetic materials into the biosphere without fully understanding the consequences to humans and other living systems. It stands as a valid position today.

Fourth: Consider the implications of all human actions on the global web of life.  We do not live in isolation from the natural world.  The fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species are our life support system.  As human activities around the world compromise these elements, we all suffer a degraded state of being.  Precaution in preventing pollution must guide our decisions on all fronts.

Pathway to a Sustainable Future:
The twenty-first century marks the transition point from a fossil-fueled economy to a renewable and sustainable economy.  This is the central challenge for our time because it is the surest way to abate the effects of fossil fuel combustion on climate changing gas emissions, and it will preserve the land from increasingly invasive and destructive methods of extraction.  The fossil age is due for replacement.  Our energy system wastes quantitatively more energy than we use for work.  Electricity generation uses only 35% of the fuel value to create salable electricity, the rest is rejected heat.  The transportation system converts 12% of the gasoline to forward motion; the rest is lost as friction and heat.  These two systems use technologies invented in the Victorian Age: The Rankin cycle for electricity invented in 1855, and the internal combustion engine in 1856.

We need to make renewable and sustainable energy sources part of the mainstream solution.  If we examine other transition times, such as the shift from horse and buggy to cars, we see public policies adopted to accelerate the change. We paved the roads; licensed drivers, wrote traffic laws, installed a system for fuel delivery, and replaced hostelries and blacksmiths with mechanics and garages.  We taxed the railroads and subsidized the car factories.  We need to address the institutional barriers that prevent widespread application of technologies based on fuels that fall on the Earth for free every day.  For example, taxpayers still provide tax incentives, legal and regulatory support for the oil, gas and coal industries to the tune of approximately four billion dollars per year!  Support for renewable systems is inconsistent, variable from state to state and uncertain over time.  Advancing sustainable technologies faces massive opposition from the fossil fuel interests.  Rachel Carson’s apprehension about the impact of the income tax act of 1962 allowing lobbying expenses as tax-deductible business expenses has proven prophetic.  The public hears only that the renewable resources are for “the future” and “too expensive.”  But technologies for zero net energy/zero net water buildings are available and useful now.  The technical issues of a distributed electricity system are within the grasp of current technology, but are impeded rather than expedited by the current utility structure.

The sustainable economic future is tangible, attractive and accessible.  We need to incorporate into the economy the value of our life support system services – the fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species that supports all life on earth.  The elements of a new economy meet the criteria of the 1985 Brundtland Commission definition of sustainability: to meet the needs of all people on Earth today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  The new sustainable economy runs on four economic engines:
1. Renewable energy systems that do not operate by combustion to control the carbon dioxide emissions and air and water contamination of fossil fuel use;
2. Green chemistry for production of goods and products by design to avoid forming toxic properties or by-products;
3. Closed loop manufacturing that conserves raw material and operates to re-purpose products at the end of their useful life; and
4. Organic agriculture to restore and retain the biodiversity of crops and rebuild the fertility of the land. 
We must empower people to stand for a better future.  Our grandchildren and their great-grandchildren deserve a living Earth, not an Earth devastated by exploitation.  A sustainable system promotes a condition of abundance within the laws of nature.  We must understand the unintended consequences of convenience, and find better ways to meet our needs, to waste less, to keep the Earth intact.   Rachel Carson’s environmental ethic provides guideposts on this quest.

(This article is part of my forthcoming book: A Vision Splendid: Building a Sustainable Economy for the 21st Century.  All rights reserved.)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Silent Spring: Beacon in the Darkness by Cristina Eisenberg

Discussion topic:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Cristina Eisenberg has a PhD in Forestry and Wildlife from Oregon State University. She is the author of  The Wolf’s Tooth: Trophic Cascades, Keystone Predators, and Biodiversity, and is at work on her second book for Island Press, about carnivore conservation. In her scientific research she focuses on the effects of carnivores, such as wolves, on whole food webs, termed trophic cascades. She lives in a remote part of Montana with her family.

Credit: Steve Hillebrand, USFWS
No single book heralded the beginning of the contemporary conservation era as did Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Its 1962 publication effectively dropped a bombshell on the complacent American public, which was still reveling in the afterglow of post-WWII seemingly unlimited economic growth. Such economic growth was supported by advances in science that had put powerful chemicals, such as the pesticide DDT, on the market.

I consider Silent Spring a classic in the genre of science and environmental literature, a book that has changed the world. In it, Carson, a marine ecologist, had the audacity to suggest that human-caused modification of nature, in the interest of progress, was having disastrous environmental consequences. With the precision of a surgeon and unflinching, lucid prose, she laid out her argument and presented incontrovertible evidence.
Carson alerted the public to the fact that for the first time in the history of humanity, every human being was being exposed to dangerous chemicals, specifically synthetic pesticides. She presented example after example of how in our arrogant attempt to control nature, we were naively unleashing potent toxic biological agents that could cause great harm to all life, including humans. From the silencing of songbirds to the elimination of pollinating insects, Carson’s heartbreaking case studies raised a clarion call to action that has reverberated through the decades since her book’s publication. She concluded her book by urging us to honor life on this earth in all its forms and to acknowledge that we are but one of many species that make up life as we know it.

Additionally, in an era when women often did not have equal stature with men in the sciences, Carson boldly stepped to the forefront of the science of ecology. Considered a rebel and even a pariah in her field when this book was published, today she is widely regarded as one of our most esteemed ecologists. I recall reading her book with a mix of horror and fascination when I was in high school. I read it in one sitting, because I couldn’t stop turning the pages. And by the time I had read the last page, I had decided to become a scientist. Carson inspired me to help find ways to create a more sustainable future.

The world has changed tremendously since Carson wrote her classic. We now know that all things are connected in nature, and that all life is precious. Our government agencies have acknowledged the problems Carson identified. Congress has created powerful laws, including the Endangered Species Act, that have helped recover many species, such as the bald eagle, which almost became extinct due to DDT. And Carson’s work continues to be a beacon in the darkness as we grapple with problems that have no easy solution, like climate change.

Discussion Questions:
What effects do think Silent Spring has on American sensibility about the environment?

What effects do you think Silent Spring has had on our environmental laws?

What about Silent Spring has made it such an effective vehicle of change?

If Rachel Carson were alive today, what conservation topic do you think she would focus on?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Things You Might Not Know About Rachel Carson. . .

Because Rachel Carson is so famous I think we instinctively think we know a great deal about her.  In many ways her biography has been lost within her iconic status as an environmental hero.  Yet historians like to focus in on the small details and here are some facts you might not have known about Rachel Carson:

1.  Rachel Carson was the subject of several Peanut's cartoons.  While Charlie Brown is not usually considered political satire, Charles Schulz used Carson as a counterpart to Lucy's uncontrolled temperment.

2.  Carson's first full-time job was as a Junior Aquatic Biologist in the Bureau of Fisheries at the princely sum of $38.48 a week.

3.  Carson's books have been adapted at least twice rather unsuccessfully.  In 1953 Irwin Allen won an academy award for documentary  "The Sea Around Us"--a very loose adaptation of her book of the same name.  Allen went on to fame as the "master of disaster" for films like "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno."  Later ABC made a film of "A Sense of Wonder" that is barely watchable today. The world still awaits (with trepidation) the film adaptation of "Silent Spring."

4.  Carson first became acquainted with the effects of DDT through her editing of scientific papers from Patuxent Research Refuge and early press releases she authored beginning in 1945.

5.  During World War 2 Carson penned many recipes for increasing the nation's consumption of seafood as "fish was a fighting food" in wartime.

If you want more details on Carson's life you can look to Linda Lear's biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Happy 50th Birthday "Silent Spring" by FWS Historian Mark Madison

Welcome to the WILD READ book discussion on Silent Spring perhaps the most important book written in the history of the environmental movement.  I sincerely thank you for taking the time to read this.

I am excited to be the first moderator for this book as those of us in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) consider Rachel Carson one of our own.  Carson worked for the agency for 16 years (from 1936-1952), longer than she did anything else in her life.  Much of her work for the agency helped inform Silent Spring.  The new miracle pesticide DDT had first been used in World War II and was heralded as scientific panacea—both crops and picnics could now be pest free.  Yet almost immediately after its introduction, scientists at the FWS began to notice the troubling effects of DDT on birds and fish.  Carson wrote her first press release on the dangers of DDT in 1945 and for the next 17 years she collected damning evidence as to its detrimental effects.  The result of her research and passion is Silent Spring (1962). 

When I was in Middle School (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) we were assigned Silent Spring and I remember my classmates being horrified and energized by Carson’s prose.  I am afraid the book is not much read today, which is a pity as Carson offers advice on many environmental maladies of today. 

As we read (or re-read) this book together I would like to hear your answers to a few questions:

Do you think this book still has relevance today?

Who is the best audience for this book?

Is this primarily a science book or a philosophical book?

I look forward to reading your observations and hearing your opinion of this groundbreaking environmental book!

For more information about Rachel Carson and Silent Spring:  Linda Lear and  her biography: Rachel Carson: Witness to Nature (1998) and William Souder's On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (2012).

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Silent Spring Discussion Starts Tomorrow with Mark Madison as WILD READ Moderator

Silent Spring WILD READ discussions begin tomorrow with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service historian Mark Madison as moderator.  WILD READ will feature Rachel Carson's Silent Spring for eight weeks in celebration of the 50th anniversary of this groundbreaking book. See schedule of moderators.

Here is a little bit about Mark so stay tuned to Mark's narrative and get ready for a lively conversation!

Mark Madison has degrees in biology and history and received a Ph.D. in 1995 from Harvard University in the history of science. He has taught environmental history, American history, environmental ethics, and conservation biology at Harvard University, the University of Melbourne, and Shepherd University. He is currently the national historian for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lecturing on conservation issues around the country and helping run a conservation archives at the National Conservation Training Center. He has two books in progress on wolf restoration and the California condor. The NCTC Archives/Museum has records from Rachel Carson’s 16 years career as an employee of the Fish and Wildlife Service and its predecessors.
For more information about Rachel Carson and Silent Spring:  Linda Lear and  her biography: Rachel Carson: Witness to Nature (1998) and William Souder's On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (2012).

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Gathering Moss Wrap-Up by Moderator Roxanne Bogart

Discussion topic:  Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer

It seemed fitting to end with a beautiful wrap-up quote from the book:

 "The patterns of reciprocity by which mosses bind together a forest community offer us a vision of what could be. They take only the little they need and give back in abundance. Their presence supports the lives of rivers and clouds, trees, birds, algae, and salamanders, while ours puts them at risk. Human-designed systems are a far cry from this ongoing creation of ecosystem health, taking without giving back. Clearcuts may meet short-term desires of one species, but at the sacrifice of the equally legitimate needs of mosses and murrelets, salmon and spruce. I hold tight to the vision that someday soon we will find the courage of self-restraint, the humility to live like mosses. On that day, when we rise to give thanks to the forest, we may hear the echo in return, the forest giving thanks to the people."

Credit: Jon Sullivan
I hope that all the WILD READERs out there enjoyed Gathering Moss and were moved by Dr. Kimmerer's inspiring prose and insights into all that mosses have to teach us.

Thanks to the WILD READ Team - Anne Post at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) and Nancy Pollot from the FWS Pacific Northwest regional office -  for this opportunity to take part in WILD READ.

Best regards,

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Eloquent Analogies by Moderator Roxanne Bogart

Discussion topic: Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Roanne Bogart, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist
Dr. Kimmerer is a master of analogy, which she uses so skillfully in her story-telling of the reproductive strategies of mosses. Two of my favorite chapters in Gathering Moss are those entitled "Choice" and "A Landscape of Chance," where she shares her process of discovering the varying tactics of moss reproduction, and compares them so eloquently to the large-scale forest ecosystem processes of disturbance, colonization, competition, dispersal, and succession happening around them -- and even to human decision-making and the life choices of her neighbor, Paulie.

Tetraphis pellucida or Pellucid Four-Tooth Moss - Credit: National Park Service

"Paradoxically, those species adapted to a specialized lifestyle come and go, but Tetraphis persists by keeping its options open and maintaining its freedom of choice...Maybe it's the same with our old farm, persisting now for almost two centuries. The old bull has been replaced by the AI man, and the cistern by a well. But the world is still unpredictable and still we survive by the grace of chance and the strength of our choices."

Before delving into the investigation of the difference between the two moss species, Tetraphis pellucida and Dicranum flagellare, she writes,
"This decaying log is a stage, and the scenes take place in the gaps, where the colonists act out their dramas."
She is both amazed and reassured when, in the end, she discovers the same ecological processes happening for these two mosses as for the aspen and yellow birch that rise above them. She writes,
"There is a home for everything, the puzzle piece slips into place, each part essential to the whole. The same cycle of disturbance and regeneration, the same story of resilience, is played out at a minute scale, a tale of the interwoven fates of mosses, fungi, and the footfalls of chipmunks."
Dicranum flagellare or Whip Fork Moss - Credit:Coastal Maine Botanical Garden
I was thrilled to learn of the similarities of forest and moss dynamics. How fascinating!

Please share some of your favorite topics and passages from Gathering Moss .

Monday, July 30, 2012

Theodore Roethke Poem: Illuminations with FWS Biologist Roxanne Bogart as Moderator

Roxanne Bogart
Every chapter in Dr. Kimmerer's book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, gives us greater insight into and appreciation for the lives of mosses -- their role in ecological succession, and as miniature forests that set the stage for and support entire communities of life. Her stories make you think more than twice about stepping on or pulling up these amazing microcosms that have mastered dessication and immortality.

Theodore Roethke
 I want to share a poem:

Moss-Gathering by Theodore Roethke

To loosen with all ten fingers held wide and limber
And lift up a patch, dark-green, the kind for lining cemetery baskets,
Thick and cushiony, like an old-fashioned doormat,
The crumbling small hollow sticks on the underside mixed with roots,
And wintergreen berries and leaves still stuck to the top, --
That was moss-gathering.
But something always went out of me when I dug loose those carpets
Of green, or plunged to my elbows in the spongy yellowish moss of the marshes:
And afterwards I always felt mean, jogging back over the logging road,
As if I had broken the natural order of things in that swampland;
Disturbed some rhythm, old and of vast importance,
By pulling off flesh from the living planet;
As if I had commited, against the whole scheme of life, a desecration.

[Editor's Note:  Always hopeful for comments and conversation...what are you thoughts about mosses, the microcosm, metaphors?]

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Gathering Moss" Discussion with Moderator Roxanne Bogart, Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist

Roxanne Bogart
Greetings WILD READERs! I appreciate the chance to moderate your conversation about this award-winning piece of nature writing by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

In Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of MossesRobin Wall Kimmerer has woven together personal narrative and scientific knowledge into a gift for the world, as she was called to do.  Her recounting of the natural history of mosses is deepened and brought to life by memoir, her Potawatomi ancestry, and even through mystery—all of which enhance scientific understanding.

Gathering Moss is a call not only to know mosses, but to see differently in the natural world. She calls us to a higher plane of understanding mosses, or any species of interest, but especially the small and minute. In the chapter “Learning to See” she remarks on how attentiveness over time can result in intimacy that accompanies a deeper knowing than mere visual acuity. She writes,

“Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful lens.”

“Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.”
Moss Garden, Bloedel Reserve, Washington State, USA

The opening chapter presents her story of coming upon a mysterious circle of immense glacial boulders she had never seen before, along a path leading home from her Bio Station—a path she has walked for nearly two decades. At the confluence of two stones is a cave leading to a tunnel that brings her to a meadow within the immense moss-covered stones. Here she experiences a timelessness that brings with it a gift—a message of responsibility to carry the names and stories of mosses to the world. To share the truth, mystery, and intimacy of these species. She writes,

“I think the task given to me is to carry out the message that mosses have their own names. Their way of being in the world cannot be told  by data alone. They remind me that there are mysteries for which a measuring tape has no meaning, questions and answers that have no place in the truth about rocks and mosses.”

I am curious about how readers interpreted and reacted to this chapter.

In chapters three, four, five and six, through insightful, sometimes amusing analogy, she conveys the intricacies of moss reproduction, the diversity of their tactics, and their structure, form, and movements, all based on an intense affinity for water. Her stories take us into deep connection, enriching our experience of this “primitive, simple” plant. When I see mosses now, I experience them in a whole new way and her graceful prose comes to mind.

Sphagnum moss/Credit: USFWS/Gary Peeples
“Animated, released from stillness by the rain, Dendroalsia begins to move, branch by delicate branch unfolding to create the symmetry of overlapping fronds. As each stem uncurls, its tender center is exposed and all along the midline are tiny capsules, bursting with spores. Ready for rain, they release their daughters upon the updrafts of rising mist. The oaks once more are lush and green and the air smells rich with the breath of mosses.”

She writes not only to teach about the biology of mosses, but to share what lessons mosses have illuminated for her, what lessons they hold for us all. She thus creates a closeness with and appreciation for these species in ways that physical descriptions alone cannot do.

For example, in “An Affinity for Water,” mosses teach us about the strengths of simplicity and letting go, and she relates these traits so elegantly to human love that fills us and to our mortal lives that ultimately require us to let go of loved ones. The lesson is one of not resisting change, but living in total acceptance as the mosses do. And she writes,

“Mosses have a covenant with change, their destiny is linked to the vagaries of rain. They shrink and shrivel while carefully laying the groundwork of their own renewal. They give me faith.”

Please send your thoughts and reactions!