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Science & Environmental Health Network - Precautionary Principle - Essays
Science, Ethics, And Changed Lives:
How Did Rachel Carson Do It?

Mary H. O'Brien

About ten years ago I was driving four people to Oregon's coast for an Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide meeting. While we traveled, I asked each of these people how they first became interested in working for the environment. A Japanese environmental lawyer indicated he had been planning on being a corporate lawyer, but after his high school teacher had his class read a translation of Silent Spring he decided to be an environmental lawyer. The second person, a Malaysian environmental lawyer, said that when she read Silent Spring as a youth, she decided to address toxics issues in Malaysia. The environmental lawyer from India indicated some other source for his decision. The fourth passenger was an American scientist. He decided he wanted to work on environmental issues when his high school biology teacher assigned Silent Spring for reading.

These answers were a profound testament to Rachel Carson's success at making readers feel they had important roles they could play in their societies and environments.

My tattered paperback copy of Silent Spring lists eight awards this best seller had received by 1964. They likewise attest to Carson's ability to speak of both science and ethics across cultures. The organizations that gave an award included an animal rights institute, two hunting and fishing organizations, a medical college, and two women's associations.

One afternoon in 1992, I took a walk in Montana with Kaiulani Lee, an actress who wrote and acts in a monologue play about Rachel Carson's last two years of life. She said that when she read Silent Spring, she wasn't interested in the technical details; instead, she was drawn by the emotion and values. This speaks to Carson's ability to reach into different realms of people.

I think it's worth looking at how, in this book about cell metabolism, cancer mechanisms, eradication, biological control, cumulative impacts, laboratory experiments, secondary poisoning, insect resistance, and alternatives assessment, Carson managed to resonate within high school youth around the world, hunters, fisherpeople, animal rights activists, women, physicians, and an actress.

Here are three lessons about conveying ethics that I take from Rachel Carson's writings. They have to do with relationship, respect, and reciprocity.

  1. Use of sympathy to evoke ethics
    Rachel wanted people to extend their human ethics to the entire world, and she sensed that ethics grow out of sympathy. But she didn't talk about having sympathy for insects, robins, sagebrush, or people. Instead, she outlined the lives of beings with such respect that readers are drawn into sympathy.

    Take sagebrush in the West. Listen to her description of sagebrush colonizing the harsh western plains of the West. In this passage, she transforms what might seem a plain, modestly colored plant into a struggling pioneer and faithful partner to the sage grouse, who in turn provides further elements to the landscape:

    As the landscape evolved, there must have been a long period of trial and error in which plants attempted the colonization of this high and windswept land. One after another must have failed. At last one group of plants evolved which combined all the qualities needed to survive. The sage - low-growing and shrubby - could hold its place on the mountain slopes and on the plains, and within its small gray leaves it could hold moisture enough to defy the thieving winds....

    Along with the plants, animal life, too, was evolving in harmony with the searching requirements of the land. In time there were two [sage grouse and pronghorn antelope] as perfectly adjusted to their habitat as the sage....

    The sage and the grouse seem made for each other....the sage is all things to these birds of the plains. The low sage of the foothill ranges shelters their nests and their young; the denser growths are loafing and roosting areas; at all times the sage provides the staple food of the grouse. Yet it is a two-way relationship. The spectacular courtship displays of the cocks help loosen the soil beneath and around the sage, aiding in invasion of grasses which grow in the shelter of sagebrush.

    Consider her introduction of the reader to insect predators:

    Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware alike of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us. Perhaps we may have noticed an oddly shaped insect of ferocious mien on a bush in the garden and been dimly aware that the praying mantis lives at the expense of other insects. But we see with understanding eye only if we have walked in the garden at night and here and there with a flashlight have glimpsed the mantis stealthily creeping upon her prey. Then we sense something of the drama of the hunter and the hunted. Then we begin to feel something of that relentlessly pressing force by which nature controls her own...

    Everywhere, in field and hedgerow and garden and forest, the insect predators and parasites are at work. Here, above a pond, the dragonflies dart and the sun strikes fire from their wings. So their ancestors sped through swamps where huge reptiles lived. Now, as in those ancient times, the sharp-eyed dragonflies capture mosquitoes in the air, scooping them in with basket-shaped legs. In the waters below, their young, the dragonfly nymphs, or naiads, prey on the aquatic stages of mosquitoes and other insects.

    Carson is describing predatory insects with words that could be used of human hunters: intensity, stealth, sharp-eyed. She draws readers into respect for insect predators as natural controls of other insects.

    Thus, in Silent Spring, ethics of respect for and relationship with nature grow out of reading the world, not out of adopting what is in Carson's personal head.

  2. Respect for readers
    Rachel Carson shows profound respect for her readers. She assumes they will be able to follow scientific details, and to apply ethics that are already familiar to them in human society. Her underlying message to readers is, "You are capable of respect, relationship, and reciprocity."

    Here's how she introduces the technical concept of degradation of one toxic into another toxic, in this case, the derivation of dieldrin from the insecticide aldrin:

    Aldrin is a somewhat mysterious substance, for although it exists as a separate entity it bears the relation of alter ego to dieldrin. When carrots are taken from a bed treated with aldrin they are found to contain residues of dieldrin. This change occurs in living tissues and also in soil. Such alchemistic transformations have led to many erroneous reports, for if a chemist, knowing aldrin has been applied, tests for it he will be deceived into thinking all residues have been dissipated. The residues are there, but they are dieldrin and this requires a different test. Carson quotes some biologists' description of a ground squirrel dead from dieldrin, and then leads the reader to ethics by asking a question:

    [Dead ground squirrels] exhibited a characteristic attitude in death. The back was bowed, and the forelegs with the toes of the feet tightly clenched were drawn close to the thorax . . . The head and neck were outstretched and the mouth often contained dirt, suggesting that the dying animal had been biting at the ground.

    By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?

    Here Carson is trusting that the reader will engage in the ethic of sympathy. After describing with considerable detail the consequences of a long, destructive, and fruitless campaign to eradicate Japanese beetle in eastern Illinois by spraying dieldrin, Carson writes:

    Incidents like the eastern Illinois spraying raise a question that is not only scientific but moral. The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.

    It's interesting to note that instead of dogmatically pronouncing the intersection of science and ethics, she simply says the spraying raises a moral and scientific question. The reader gets to supply the answer.

    And later, she writes:

    The choice, after all, is ours to make. If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our 'right to know,' and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.

    Again, Carson is conveying to the reader, "You can do it. You can help."

  3. Visions of a reciprocal relationship with life
    In Silent Spring, Carson is introducing her readers to the complicated consequences of pesticide spraying, but she also describes what a world without spraying feels like. I remember once seeing a poster about Rachel Carson, which quoted her editor, Paul Brooks, saying, "In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson transformed a topic of death into a celebration of life." When I saw that poster, I thought, "Yes. In every way possible, I will offer in my speeches and writings and campaigns a sense of what is good, attractive, and moral about accommodating to, rather than working against, nature."

    Carson describes courageous scientists, sensible alternatives, intensely-focused insect predators, useful fungi, observant residents, helpful student classes. She describes healthy soil, mutually beneficial natural relationships, and a long-term view of the world. Thus, Carson doesn't only convey what we're doing wrong, she conveys what some of us are doing right; not only what is falling apart in the world, but what types of partnerships are honoring the world.

    In the end, we humans are just that - human. Psychologically, we won't be drawn into ethics of respect without being treated with respect, and we won't be drawn into the ethics of change without having a sense that things will feel better if we undertake change.

    Thus, among all the descriptions of loss, destruction, greed, short-sightedness and waste presented in Silent Spring, Carson includes a deep sense of how to relate wisely to the world, and how to be good, ethical people.

And people are still responding to this book by being good.

Presented at "Ethics and the Precautionary Principle," sponsored by Science and Environmental Health Network, 8-10 November 2000, Blue Mountain Center, New York.

Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. New York, NY: Houghton-Mifflin.

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