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


Biography
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?