Detail of Robert Shetterly’s portrait of Rachel Carson. (Credit: AmericansWhoTelltheTruth.org)
This is what you shall do: love the earth and the sun and the animals… — Walt Whitman
Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, but I suspect for most people reading it today the information would be fresh, enlightening, and alarming. I can say that with some confidence because though I had read the book many years ago, have been an activist on many environmental causes that build on Carson’s work, keep up to date on ecological issues, and painted her portrait, I was shocked when I read her book. Don’t take my word for it. Go to your library and get a copy, read it on some electronic device, buy it used, but read it!
The shock arises form a number of factors. By 1962 she knew an enormous amount about the workings of chemicals and pesticides at micro and macro levels; she could describe the potent mechanisms that made them into carcinogens; it was already clear to her—to science—that most pesticides were counter-productive: Insects adapted to them and became resistant very quickly. More and stronger pesticides were always needed, and the poisons persisted in the environment, useless to kill pests, but incredibly potent in destroying the health and fate of many other species—including humans. In fact, nature did a better job of handling insect predation than chemicals. Carson accepted that pesticides were occasionally necessary but only with extreme care.
However, at the core of my response to Silent Spring are a profound sense of an opportunity missed and a profound failure of education. Think for a moment about the term "common core" that is used to describe the basic goal of education today. What is the core that all living things share in common? It’s the reality of nature, this Earth, the laws of nature, our connections in the biological web to all living species, our common evolution and destiny, our sacred duty to pass on a healthy environment. Any system of education for all children must teach that common core—from nursery school on. If we fail to teach that reality, we have failed as educators. Period. Our common core is not math and reading and critical thinking. Those are important skills. I’m sure the CEOs of Monsanto, Dow, and Exxon are critical thinkers. Our common core is our integral relationship to nature. First teach reality, then the skills needed to live in harmony with it. Then find a unique passion for learning and living in every child. Then teach that all economies must adhere to nature’s laws—not the other way around.
I wish that after 1962, every school in this country had started teaching the science and values of Rachel Carson’s book. Rachel Carson would have agreed with Russell Libby, a great advocate of local and organic farming from Maine who said, "If contamination is the price of modern society, then modern society has failed us." She put it this way: "Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides’, but ‘biocides.’”
By the third grade every kid in this country should know what Rachel Carson meant by: "The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and the convenience of man." We should all know what she meant when she said, "…we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look around and see what other course is open to us." And everyone should understand that cancer is an environmental disease. It’s epidemic because of the pollutants and poisons we have put in the environment. To continue to treat the symptoms —trying to find cures—rather than confronting the causes, serves the profits of the medical and drug and chemical industries. By the 5th grade, we should understand the function of the liver and what happens to it when overtaxed by chemical pollutants. We should know that the leading cause of death in children is cancer.
Why don’t we teach our kids these things? Aren’t they supposed to learn facts that will make their lives better and healthier? And the values to implement them? Is Rachel Carson’s work not taught because she is too political? Why are facts about the essentials of biology and ecology political? Should Rachel Carson be taught as evolution and climate change are taught in many schools — one of several possible ways to think about "facts?"
Listen up students, it just could be that God put elements in nature so we could recombine them into malathion and dieldrin. Praise God. He put mountains over coal so we could have fun blowing them up to get it. Hallelujah! He created all living species in 6 days. Awesome! And He promised, if we would burn enough fossil fuel, a nice warm blanket of carbon dioxide to tuck us under at night. Thank You, God.
What a gift Rachel Carson gave us! What a tour de force to have done all that research. She collected scientific data from all over the world and had the temerity to write it all down when the US was in thrall to the chemical companies. With great clarity that anyone can understand—unusual for a scientist—she explains the biological mechanism of chemically induced mutations. She explains how poisons kill, how toxins interrupt the reproductive process of many species and why cancers have different gestation periods. And her science is woven into an ecologically moral philosophy.
And after discussing the atomic structure of chlorinated hydrocarbons (DDT is one), she describes the death throes of robins and squirrels as their collateral damage. The deaths she witnessed happened in the 1950s, but her writing is so vivid, so present, that I found myself outraged and grieving for each one. What she did not know yet, but was implicitly predicting, was the mass extinction of species that is taking place now.
People often date the beginning of the modern environmental movement from the publication of Silent Spring. The reaction to the book is credited with the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. And Earth Day. But those outcomes have done little to stem the flood of over 80,000 chemicals in our environment now, 98% of them untested for human and ecological health. Rachel Carson is our common core. Our survival. Our kids need to be growing up with a firm ethic that would stem this flood of chemicals no matter how much money is involved.
Rachel Carson said, “The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to call itself civilized.”
Do we have the right to call ourselves civilized because of our wealth and power and ingenuity, or only when we act with the wisdom our children and grandchildren can emulate for generations, treating the environment and their bodies with the care they deserve?