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Rachel Carson: Ultimate EcoWoman

By DC EcoWomen Board Member Stephanie Madden

On May 29, 2013, 13 DC EcoWomen gathered to celebrate the birthday of ultimate EcoWoman Rachel Carson, who was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania on May 27, 1907. With plates of birthday cake in hand, our May book club discussion focused on Rachel Carson’s most famous work, Silent Spring.

Many people trace the start of the American environmental movement to June 16, 1962, when the first of three excerpts from Silent Spring was published in the New Yorker magazine. Carson’s central thesis was that uncontrolled and unexamined use of pesticides harmed not only animals and birds, but also humans. Silent Spring forced the banning of DDT and spurred many changes in the laws affecting the environment. Although revered by many in the environmental sector, Silent Spring remains a controversial book more than 50 years after its original publication. Both now and then, people seek to discredit the book and the author as ignorant, hysterical, misleading, and, coming out of the Cold War era, as a communist.

Our book club discussion focused on how eerily contemporary Silent Spring feels, despite being written more than 50 years ago. Many of the issues of the lack of knowledge and lack of regulation surrounding the chemicals in our lives is as relevant today as it was when Carson wrote her impassioned plea for the environment because powerful industries have an interest in keeping it that way. One of the common themes that emerged from the book club discussion was how to overcome the partisan divide that accompanies many environmental issues.

Both a gifted writer and scientist, Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring based on extensive scientific research. However, one of the constant challenges faced when communicating scientific information to people is the degree of uncertainty inherent in science. Rarely, if ever, is anything 100% certain or 100% proof positive of something. However, the opposition often uses this inherent uncertainty to create doubt about the scientific credibility or certainty. We see this today with many environmental issues, including climate change. One of our past book club selections, Merchants of Doubt, delves into this issue more fully.

For many of the DC EcoWomen present at book club, knowing that Rachel Carson died of breast cancer shortly after the publication of Silent Spring made the book all the more powerful. To what extent did the toxic chemicals she passionately and persuasively discussed in her writing play into this illness? Additionally, although she writes with the objectivity of a scientist, to what extent did her health issues affect her writing and the urgency she felt in communicating these issues?

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, A Book That Changed the World is a virtual exhibition that presents the global reception and impact of Silent Spring as well as the book’s legacy in popular culture, music, literature, and the arts. Unyielding in her passionate and brave defense of the environment, Rachel Carson is the ultimate EcoWoman. So, who do you think the Rachel Carson of today is? Comment below and keep the conversation going!


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