Sunday, September 16, 2018

Rachel Carson's Third Wave

Rachel Carson (1907 to 1964) birdwatching at Woods Hole, Massachusetts,
where she began her work as a biologist.
Image: Rachel Carson Council by way of The Wildlife Society.
SPOILER ALERT: I learned something so surprising from the radio segment below that I recommend listening to it (about 18 minutes) before reading my comment. It's OK. I'll wait.
OK. Welcome back.

Did you find Rachel Carson Dreams of the Sea as interesting as I did? I hope so. As is so often the case, I heard part of this New Yorker Radio Hour piece while I was doing some errands. The timing was perfect, because I am re-reading Silent Spring with my students, with whom I recently watched the American Experience documentary about the writing and publication of that book. It is a wonderful hour-long biographical treatment that I think compliments the book perfectly, putting it in context and making clear its historic significance.

I was drawn into this piece by its description of the first wave of Rachel Carson's work, which was her writing about the marine environment. I knew that her fame arose from her writings about the life of the oceans, but I never understood what had made her work so distinctive. She spent a great deal of time paying very close attention to the life around her through careful observation. As with Henry David Thoreau a century before, it was patient, repeated observation over time that allowed her to draw inferences that others might have missed.  What seems to have made the first wave of her work particularly effective, however, was her attention to the relationships among all of the lifeforms she studied. She was in this sense a pioneering ecologist, something a bit more expansive than a naturalist.

The second wave of Rachel Carson's work, of course, was Silent Spring, in which she made the science of biochemistry accessible to the general public while being the first effective critic of what had become a completely unbridled approach to the development and application of pesticides.

The third wave of her work -- the "spoiler" I mention above -- would have been the research she was beginning to do on global climate change. She died from breast cancer on April 18, 1964, just as she was beginning to understand a pattern of warming in her own observations of various coastal waters. She was born on May 27, 1907 (sharing a birthday with my favorite librarian), which means that had she not succumbed to cancer, she could have been part of James Hansen's team when it published the first paper on climate change in 1981. More likely, in fact, that work of atmospheric scientists would have been read by a public already familiar with the problem from her biologist's point of view. As historian Jill Lepore observes in the radio piece, it is actually sad to realize how much Rachel Carson understood about climate change, because we know she might very well have been able to do something about it.

Lagniappe: Today's Context

I chose to begin my class on environmental regulations with the study of Rachel Carson because I am offering the course during a political season in which both the President and the Congress of the United States have set about destroying environmental protections that previous occupants of their offices enacted, in large part as a result of her work.

While writing this very post, for example, I learned that the government is reducing oversight of its own nuclear-weapons production facilities. As I explained in my posts Calice and Secretary NIMBY, the reckless approach to nuclear weapons is part of a much broader assault on environmental protections of all kinds. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently posted a must-watch video about the dangers of an even broader pattern of deregulation that is reversing progress in every segment of our society.

When the U.S. is ready to repair the damage currently being done, my students will be in a position to help. Meanwhile they can join with others who are working to protect the environment through state, local, private, and international efforts.

Please see my previous posts related to Rachel Carson, mostly the "second wave" of her legacy:
Rachel Carson Experience (2012)
Ruby Exposed, about the need for ongoing vigilance regarding pesticides (2014)
A Good Read on a Vital Topic, about the work of Carl Safina, the closest thing we have to a living Rachel Carson (2015)
Monarch Highway, about one of Rachel Carson's favorite insects (2015)
Donde Voy, which is about my other hero, Tish Hinojosa (2017)
Beatriz at Dinner, featuring yet another hero, Salma Hayek (2017)
Cancer and the Environment, with a link to the organization working on Cape Cod in Rachel Carson's name (2010)


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