Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Assessing the Success of Silent Spring

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Post by Katie Ritson, posted in conjunction with the publication of the RCC Perspectives issue, “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: Encounters and Legacies”

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.

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3 thoughts on “Assessing the Success of Silent Spring

  1. This self-promotion is disgusting. Ritson repeats what she has learnt from editing the edition, but claims it to be her own “opinion”. Give people a platform who actually have someting to say and do not use environmental history for public relation!

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  2. Thank you for your comment. This post was written principally to highlight the most recent issue of RCC Perspectives, entitled “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.” To describe it as “self-promotion” is therefore mistaken: the post is promoting the work of others. Publicizing the scholarship undertaken at the Rachel Carson Center is one of the aims of this blog. Katie’s reflections have naturally been influenced by her work on the issue and we hope that many other people will feel similarly informed after reading the volume. Lastly, we are delighted to offer a platform to people with something to say – if you would be interested in writing about your work for our blog, please let us know!

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  3. To me, the key legacy of Rachel Carson is her attention to the role of sensory perception in democratic decision-making on environmental issues: if you, as a ‘public’, cannot use uncontested scientific proof that something detrimental is happening, your protest will automatically be devalued. This concept was developed by authors such as Barbara Adam and Ulrich Beck as ‘invisible risk’. ‘Invisible risk’ is growing as an issue with new technologies and climate change – with the added twist that now scientific opinion is being devalued, too, using lack of ‘sensory perception’ as a justification. I continue to be disappointed that Rachel Carson’s work is often missing in discussions of ‘invisible risk’, as Carson makes valuable/constructive observations of the connection between body-world relationships and politics that are missing in much recent risk theory.

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