Clip: The Bravery of Rachel Carson

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Holding her controversial book "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson stands in her library in Silver Springs, Md. on March 14, 1963. (AP Photo)

Holding her controversial book, Rachel Carson stands in her library in Silver Springs, Maryland, on March 14, 1963. (AP Photo)

Environmentalist David Suzuki recently spoke with Bill about the lasting influence of the late biologist Rachel Carson. Although Suzuki never met Carson, her seminal 1962 book Silent Spring about the effects of pesticides on the environment, had a major impact on his work.

“Rachel Carson’s book was the first big document to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute guys, there are effects or costs that are associated with this huge technology. Guess what, it’s affecting fish and birds and human beings,'” Suzuki says.

By taking on industry and government for their polluting ways, she became one of the founders of the environmental movement. “When Rachel Carson’s book came out, it was a turning point.” Suzuki says.

In her book, Carson made the case that if humanity poisoned nature, nature in turn, would strike back and poison humanity. While studies had existed on the effects of pesticides, no one had pored over the data and connected the dots the way Carson did for Silent Spring, which she spent four years researching. She wrote:

The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. 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. — Rachel Carson

In Bill’s 2007 interview with the actress Kaiulani Lee, who portrays Rachel Carson in a play she wrote and performed throughout America, it is clear that Silent Spring was a book Carson never intended to write. Watch a clip:

Silent Spring was excerpted in The New Yorker before its 1962 publication. Furor over the book from the chemical industry came swiftly. Carson was accused of being a communist sympathizer and sexist statements dismissed her as a spinster who was “hysterical” and “over empathetic.” One major pesticide manufacturer threatened to sue her publisher, implying that she was some kind of agricultural propagandist working for the Soviet Union.

But that didn’t stop the Kennedy administration from ordering a study of the possible long-term effects of DDT and other pesticides, specifically citing Silent Spring as a catalyst. And a year after its publication, Carson herself testified before a Senate subcommittee on pesticides. She was 56 and dying from breast cancer, her body so weak that it was nearly impossible for her to walk to her seat before the panel.

Rachel Carson

Activist and author Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring led to a study of pesticides, testifies before a Senate Government Operations Subcommittee in Washington, DC, on June 4, 1963. (AP Photo)

“Every once in a while in the history of mankind, a book has appeared which has substantially altered the course of history,” Senator Ernest Gruen­ing, a Democrat from Alaska, told Carson at the time.

The Environmental Protection Agency sees Carson as a founding inspiration; its official history site states: “There is no question…that Silent Spring prompted the Federal Government to take action against water and air pollution — as well as against the misuse of pesticides — several years before it otherwise might have moved.” Organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth trace their origins directly to Carson’s book.

When the book came out it flew off the shelves and Suzuki, who read it after spending eight years studying in the US, was eager to return home to Canada to be “this hot shot geneticist.” Reading the book changed his life.

Suzuki says Silent Spring taught him that what happens in a laboratory is not a good representation of what happens in the real world. “You can do all kinds of experiments in a test tube or in a growth chamber. But in the real world the wind blows, sun sets, night falls, it rains, all kinds of things happen that you don’t get in a controlled chamber.”

David Suzuki on Rachel Carson

It also helped him to realize that in nature everything’s connected to everything else. “When we look at the world through science or even through the media, we isolate it and we look at little segments as if they’re not interconnected.”

Since everything in the world is connected, everything carries responsibilities, he says. “I wish that we could learn that,” Suzuki tells Moyers.

See Bill’s interviews with Kaiulani Lee and David Suzuki.

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  • Alpha Wolf

    Wonderful tribute!

  • NJHope

    I run the risk of sounding paranoid, but I’d truly like there to be a solid study reported that reflects the whole story on big corporations, legislation that causes them to share ANY responsibility for their toxic products or their pollution, and the deaths or disablement of PEOPLE who’ve held them accountable, whether legally, legislatively or just made the world more aware by speaking up.

    Since so many have been harmed by “someone” for causing a stink against these bully, big corporations, it seems to me, we need to bring a study like this to completion, and report it widely. Karen Silkwood and others like her, continue to come to mind.

    Rachel Carlson is a heroin. If the US was as exceptional as it thinks it is, we would all have a week of environmental/biological study each month, dedicated to her memory, and our improvement. We’re a nation of egos, greed, and a lack of sincerity. Leaders like ours should be ashamed to think of themselves as leaders.

  • Anonymous

    you do mean heroine, i think. 😉

  • Vera Gottlieb

    Will they ever come up with some potion to fight man’s stupidity and carelessness?

  • Vera Gottlieb

    In order to have your wish fulfilled, corruption has to be eliminated first.

  • Anonymous

    before I saw the draft which was of $5004 , I did not
    believe that…my… sister had been truly receiving money part-time from there
    pretty old laptop. . there mums best friend has done this for under six months
    and resantly repayed the mortgage on their condo and got a brand new Aston
    Martin DB5 . read this post here F­i­s­c­a­l­p­o­s­t­.­C­O­M­

  • Tom Welsh

    Karen Camp: “…..poured over the data…” Poured. You actually wrote that. Poured.

  • Karin Kamp

    Yes, I actually did write that. I made a mistake. Thank you for pointing it out. It has been corrected. Karin Kamp (I assume the reference to “Karen Camp” is a message for me. )

  • NJHope

    yes, it does pay to re-read a post before hitting post. thanks.

  • Bent Lorentzen

    >>If the US was as exceptional as it thinks it is, we would all have a
    week of environmental/biological study each month, dedicated to her
    memory, and our improvement. We’re a nation of egos, greed, and a lack
    of sincerity. Leaders like ours should be ashamed to think of themselves
    as leaders.<<

    nicely stated, NJHope. Thank you.

  • michael james

    I remember being an ‘officer’ in the starting of an ecology club when I got to high school. Would have been in ’69. We did little films and other projects to show our fellow students about things like this — pesticides, overpopulation, and even some about how the future climate could be changed if we weren’t careful. We weren’t, of course. But it was educational for us as kids.

  • JB

    It is important to understand the concept that all things are connected…and when we understand we can study components of systems, keeping that in mind that it is but a portion of the bigger picture, we would be better able to make informed decisions.

  • JB

    By the way…Rachel Carson should be honored with an award for her courageous work…

  • Dee Walter Kruleski

    The Rachel Carson State Office building is fairly close to
    the community college where I work and houses the Pennsylvania Departments of
    Conservation and Resources and Environmental Protection. She has long been an great inspiration to me and helped to influence me to become a biologist.

    I have absolutely no doubt that Rachel Carson would be appalled at the degradation of our environment and the accelerating rate of biodiversity loss in the world today. We are indeed in the midst of a human-driven sixth extinction and I truly fear we are past the point of no return. I have been fighting for the environment since the first Earth Day and I no doubt will
    continue to do so as long as I am capable of doing so but I fear the battle is
    being lost to the biotech industry, corporate interest and plain old human greed.

  • NJHope


  • keener99

    What I’ve learned from David Zuzuki is the earth repels the actions, at least the majority of actions, carried out by humans. However, unfortunately, humans are fooled to see we are ‘winning’.

  • Diana Berreth Moos

    I think we have passed the point of no return for Mother Earth. Sad that it has taken so long for us to be truly aware but there doesn’t seem to be change coming. Rather it gets worse with corporate greed and people who feel their actions don’t effect things.

  • Anonymous

    If “they” came up with a potion for thatit would probably increase the problem.

  • ValPas

    Karin, I, too, thought it was “poured” until about two years ago. Maybe I imagined it was like pouring your attention over something. I even tried to “correct” someone who actually had the right spelling, and then I looked it up. Deep red face. I was a professor of anatomy, and my mother was an English teacher, and I still learn something new every day, even at my age (over seven decades). English is such a quirky language! I sure do understand when someone misspells one of its many homophones.