The Next Page: Rachel Carson, 100 years young
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Today we celebrate the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, one of Allegheny County's most famous daughters.
Considered by many to be the founder of the modern environmental movement, she was called "The Gentle Subversive" in a new biography by Mark Hamilton Lytle. Even today, 45 years since the publication of the landmark "Silent Spring" and 43 years after her death from breast cancer, Rachel Carson continues to inspire young minds, encourage debate and ignite controversy.
Reading Rachel Carson's writings from the mid-20th century evoke different thoughts today in the 21st century, as we have witnessed a sea change in the environment around us. In "Silent Spring," she wrote of the bald eagle nearing extinction, but thanks to protection efforts it is no longer an endangered species. In "The Sea Around Us" she writes about the ocean as "the global thermostat" decades before the terms "global warming" and "climate change" were even coined. Today we have a better understanding of our environment. But, as in Rachel Carson's time, we still argue the degree of humanity's impact on it.
Regardless of what advocates of "junk science" may claim, Rachel Carson never advocated the banning of pesticides, but rather fought for their controlled use. In fact, it was banned by William D. Ruckelshaus, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, during the Nixon administration. In "Silent Spring," she noted that "it is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potential for harm."
Today at her alma mater, Chatham University (she graduated from the then-Pennsylvania College for Women in 1929), we remember a younger Rachel Carson. She was a girl from Springdale who entered PCW as a promising writer and who later, through the encouragement of Professor Mary Scott Skinker, would discover her love for biology. It was the marriage of those two seemingly disparate professions that would create within Rachel Carson the ability to present science, supported by exhaustive research, to laypeople through prose and storytelling.
We asked the art faculty at Chatham to conceive a way to recognize the work of Rachel Carson. The photograph -- by Robert J. Cooley, director of media resources and photo concentration in visual arts -- of lab equipment in our Science Complex could be of any science lab in the world. (The building itself, Buhl Hall, was completed the year Rachel graduated from PCW.) For us it represents in part the impact that Rachel Carson's work has had on generations of students and scientists alike -- especially women in science. It also represents how the Chatham University community still honors and cherishes the legacy of Rachel Carson.
Today there are many more women dedicated to science in fields more diverse than even Rachel Carson could have imagined. It is incumbent upon us -- educators, employers, researchers, scientists, writers and especially parents -- to engender future Rachel Carsons to explore their penchant for learning and their passionate curiosity to perhaps become the 21st century's "gentle subversive."
-- Nancy Gift, assistant professor of environmental studies and acting director of the Rachel Carson Institute, Chatham University (www.chatham.edu/rci)
"Rachel Carson was an evolutionist who found no inconsistency in celebrating a divine design. She was a spiritualist who needed no theological creed when there was the promise of immortality in the endless recycling of all life in the sea. Ultimately her protest was against existential meaninglessness, against the culture of destruction and annihilation. Her best writing, like her science, broadened the definitions of human responsibility and relationship and provided comfort and hope."
From 'Love, Fear and Witnessing' by Linda Lear, author of 'Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature'
Rachel Carson urged people to live in harmony with nature, rather than as antagonists to it. She urged that we preserve and learn from natural places. She pleaded that we consider the implications of human actions on the global web of life. She placed humans among the living creatures of the earth, subject to the laws of nature.
Rachel Carson put forward the conviction that people are part of the natural world, subject to the same natural laws as all other living things. Her message compelled action. She inspired a revolution that is only now reaching the intensity of a global groundswell for greening everything from buildings to diapers.
The response to Rachel Carson's initial message of caution has slowed the devastation of the environment to some extent. The Earth can heal; we can help. It is critical that we unite our efforts to live in harmony with nature. Our wasteful culture of instant gratification disregards the needs of other people, the needs of the future and the needs of the Earth."
-- Patricia M. DeMarco
Rachel Carson Homestead Association
First Published May 25, 2007 9:47 pm