Working for a center named after Rachel Carson and in the fiftieth anniversary year of her book Silent Spring, it’s easy to wax fulsome on the great woman and the role she played in creating an environmental awareness for our modern age. Certainly, the influence of Silent Spring and Carson’s continuing, albeit posthumous, ability to inspire legions to take up the green banner is undeniable and wonderful.
But the danger of the closed narrative that this kind of hagiography inspires is that it ties up the story too neatly. There seems to be a deep human need to seek out reductive and causal fables to underpin our understanding of the world, and Carson’s success is too easily readable as a turning point in human history: the moment when the world’s population, with Rachel at its head, started to see sense, and moved to stem the tide of pollution and anthropogenic damage.
The problem with this story is clear: Carson achieved a great deal, with pesticide regulation and an appreciation of the interconnectedness of ecosystems being amongst her most notable successes. And yet, here we all are, breathing in traffic fumes while we watch the ice caps melt, with our prized environmental awareness a mere drop in the rising ocean levels.
Carson was a great woman, but no superhuman—for all her marvellous and powerful prose, and for all the hubris attached to her as the Cassandra of the twentieth century, we are still doing quite a job of exploiting natural resources with breathtaking recklessness. One might surmise that we are holding fast to the comforting fable of Carson, without having absorbed the urgency of her message.
What has gone wrong? There is the obvious fallacy of canonizing Carson to sate our own deep need for security and happy endings. That aside, what can we distil from her writing that can still serve us in this age of cataclysm? And where else do we need to turn to find guidance and moral authority?
The newest issue of RCC Perspectives, the Rachel Carson Center’s online journal, commemorates the center’s namesake and reflects on her legacies, but very much in the tradition of the troublemaking author herself. It seeks not to further the legend of Carson the poet-prophet, but instead to apply her own critical eye to the world we live in fifty years after her Silent Spring and to the ways her words are interpreted and utilized today. Rather than close the circle of her narrative with a smug retrospective of the past half-century of progress—that progress has been made in many areas is undeniable—this volume tries to stir up the discussion, reanimate both self-defining green and agnostic readers alike, and provoke new questions and new answers about human society and its environment.
Carson’s bleakest prophecy has not come to pass; the birds have not yet stopped singing, although in many places they are diminished in number and diversity. But nor has Carson’s clarion call for a rethinking of our attitude to the environment been fully heeded and acted upon. And thus the story continues, with any satisfying closure firmly out of our grasp.
Katie Ritson is the managing editor of RCC Perspectives, the Rachel Carson Center’s online journal.