As Silent Spring Turns 50, Who among Us Will Make the Next Rachel Carson Possible

Article excerpt


To some, she was a saint. The "fountainhead" of the modern environmental movement, deified almost a half-century after her death.

To her memory are dedicated wildlife refuges and elementary schools, bridges in Pittsburgh and office edifices in Harrisburg ... and a training center dormitory in the Federal agency she had to quit in order to write what she truly wanted to write.

To contemporary revisionists who pine for DDT as a regenerated weapon against malaria, she remains a demon, vilified as killer of more human beings across the globe than Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

In fact, Rachel Carson was neither. And 2012, the 50th anniversary of the publication Silent Spring, affords us the opportunity for a critical reexamination of both the woman and her groundbreaking bestseller, written by Carson amid the supercharged Cold War atmosphere of John Kennedy's "New Frontier."

It appeared to instant national acclaim and controversy that September, several weeks before the Cuban missile crisis and many years before "Earth Day" launched the modern environmental movement.

The semi-centennial anniversary of Silent Spring now provides the change for a deeper, and more-reasoned, national debate. Starting points for any sort of dispassionate discussion of the publication and its resonance, five decades after the firing of its opening salvo, begin with two other books--Priscilla Coit Murphy's What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring and William Souder's soon-to-be-released On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.

Both place the bestseller in the context of its times, divorcing it from today's polarized rhetoric of left and right, yielding a more reasoned analysis than current political discourse permits.

"... the fact that Silent Spring has never gone out of print implies, first, that the work had some exceptional quality rising it above the status of a sensational but passing phenomenon," Murphy writes. "Had Carson's warnings been mere hallucination and easily debunked, the media might have been able to generate a flashy public maelstrom, but the squall would have passed quickly. So it is important to acknowledge that in the esteem of many, her book is a classic of environmentalist writing--at once accessible and intellectually defensible.

"Further, though some of the science may be out-of-date, in the view of many people, the issues she identified are still very much with us, more demanding of resolution than ever."

These larger questions aside, what does 2012 mean to the employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, from whose ranks Carson rose ... against whose legacy we now are judged? …